Identifying new goalkeeping talent starts young, and the role of the specialist goalkeeper scout is only becoming more important…
In modern football, the needs of top-level clubs have broadened. The focus on newer, more demanding styles of play and increasing fitness levels mean in-depth scouting at all levels is more important than ever.
Analytics and data have become an essential part of the scouting process for any forward thinking club at the top level, with financial outlays needing to be justified by quantifiable data. Especially in goalkeeping - where the margins are so fine - the role of experts like Goalkeeper-xG has become ever more important.
As a result, the goalkeeper scout role has also become a specialist position within the general goalkeeping team at several professional clubs. At Chelsea, for example, former goalkeeper Ross Turnbull was employed as an academy goalkeeper scout.
Moreover, finding a world-class goalkeeper can truly be the transformative part between a good and great team. Alisson's arrival at Liverpool revolutionised the Reds' defensive set up. Spotting a top-quality goalkeeper can also be a financial asset for lower-league clubs. This competitiveness means the talent identification of goalkeepers has become more intricate.
Ged Searson, former scout at West Ham, Chief Scout at Grimsby Town, and now head of S4 Scouting, explained how initial judgements are often shared with the wider recruitment team. The club will then closely watch a player under different conditions before drawing conclusions.
Searson said: “You never watch just one performance. A goalkeeper will be watched multiple times, not just by one scout, but by multiple scouts to get a different opinion of the player and to see what they're like against top of the league, bottom of the league, what’s they're like playing at home, playing away, how do they perform in different weather environments and more.”
This all-round player profile gives scouts a complete understanding of what the goalkeeper can achieve. Eventually, these assessments can lead to interest from a club.
When working with Grimsby, Searson described how one goalkeeper caught his eye immediately.
“We had Dean Henderson who came in and he started his Football League career with us on loan. I went and watched him at Tottenham for Manchester United in the under-23s and straight away I thought, wow, this is a good lad; a great communicator, organiser, lots of confidence there, steady hands…he just looked the part and I thought, there’s something there.
“He played his first 10 games in the Football League and was superb. He had nine games where he was fantastic, but in the last game made a few errors and then he was recalled by United after that.”
While a top-class goalkeeper with all the right attributes might draw the interest of an onlooking scout, it sometimes isn’t quite enough to convince a club as a whole.
At West Ham and Grimsby, Searson worked closely with experienced goalkeeper coach Lee Harrison, who has coached across the English game and currently heads up Colchester United's goalkeeper department. Searson reflected on some key advice that Harrison passed on for recognising a solid, reliable goalkeeper that can also give teams an edge.
“A goalkeeper needs to be decent in all areas but has to be especially strong in one area. They could be a great communicator, shot stopper, or great at dealing with crosses, or great at playing the ball out.
“But they have to have that X-factor in one area to progress because there are plenty of goalkeepers that 'aren’t bad' in all areas. If you don't have that X-factor, you just might not really stand out [even if you are a good goalkeeper]".
In some cases, the recruitment analysis extends into specific areas that are out of the player’s control. At the youth level, goalkeepers in particular are judged on their future physicality, which brings biological and genetic inspection into consideration.
Steve Scutchings, former Wolverhampton Wanderers scout, highlighted some of the details that clubs review when identifying young goalkeepers.
Scutchings said: “When we speak specifically about goalkeepers, there is an obvious need for height and due to a child's maturation it is a difficult science to predict. Many clubs will look at the size of parents and grandparents to try and predict the height a child might grow to.
“There is a school of thought that height is not essential, but the average height of a Premier League GK is 6 foot 3 so for me height is a key factor at the elite level.”
True, the question of height is one that currently sits in no man's land. However, it's difficult to say that - despite varying opinions on goalkeepers and height - that there is a rapid practical change occurring at the top level. Goalkeepers are, rightly or wrongly, still rather heavily judged on their physique.
For example, sources close to Goalkeeper.com have commented in the past that, from the experience of a youth goalkeeper trialling at a Premier League club, the height requirements for a goalkeeper at a mid-teens age group was actually taller than the club's first choice goalkeeper at the time.
Finding a goalkeeper that ticks all the right physical boxes is now just one pre-requirement in the recruitment process. There is also the need to determine how well a goalkeeper will fit into the tactical philosophy of a football team - something Goalkeeper-xG specialises in when working with clubs at the top level.
Identifying suitability for a particular playing styles is part of a scout's duty. Even from the semi-professional level, having a goalkeeper who can create chances is a quality in demand.
Scutchings pinpoints this development to Pep Guardiola’s influence on encouraging teams to build passing patterns that start with the goalkeeper.
“He (Guardiola) soon decided that Joe Hart would not be the right goalkeeper for his style of play and he was replaced.
“We need to remember that, at this time, Hart was England’s number one. Since then, a lot of clubs at all levels from Premier League to non-league try, to differing standards and results, to play out from the back, putting extra pressure on a goalkeeper learning their trade.”
Inevitably, this fine tactical detail has shaped the future of goalkeeper scouting. Whole departments in clubs are now dedicated to finding the right goalkeeper, not necessarily the best goalkeeper.
This is a more common approach, and one that Searson has recognised in his 13 years working in football recruitment.
“Some clubs are now starting to look for goalkeeper specialist scouts. It’s starting to become a special area whereas before it always used to be a bit hit-and-miss looking at someone who made some good saves, and thinking maybe he’ll do a job.
“The game’s developed. In previous days it was just a guy who was a great shot-stopper who is an organiser. With their feet, they weren’t great, but that’s ok. But those days are gone now and goalkeepers have to have that ability and they are trained from a young age.
“It’s not just footwork, it’s also making those angles, being able to build out from the back, seeing those pictures, creating opportunities - is there a rhyme or reason to what they are doing?”
“But no matter how good a goalkeeper is with their feet, if they can’t do their basic tasks, deal with crosses, shot stopping, isn’t a talker, they’re not going to make it.”
Clubs are recognising the value of scouting goalkeepers in football. Like Ross Turnbull at Chelsea, it is likely that more clubs will approach ex-goalkeepers to take up leading recruitment and coaching roles at the top clubs in the future.
While many experienced scouts will notice the fundamentals that make a good goalkeeper, the edge of identifying true, top-quality to suit the demands of a club is a niche operation. Like the improving quality of goalkeeper coaching at the top level, it appears that resources for talent identification are also shifting towards goalkeeping.
Goalkeeping is changing, and a finer eye for detail can be achieved using data. From properly informing transfer spend on goalkeepers to optimising performance across academy and first team settings, Goalkeeper-xG data allows goalkeeper coaches, scouts, and clubs to improve their talent identification and development.