How to organize the defensive line as a goalkeeper

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As part of this site, I allow for questions to be thrown my way pertaining to performance problems on the pitch, and how players can solve complex issues. I received a great question a few days ago from a goalkeeper, looking to understand how they can organize the defensive line.

With a wonderful view of the action, goalkeepers must be more than just shot stoppers, and participate actively and vocally in communicating with their mates. They should not be solely responsible for organizing the entire team, but have the ability to do so through the vantage point they have on the field, and often the fearless nature they behold. I’ve often found that some of the best communicators that I coach are in fact goalkeepers. But before answering the question, let’s first discuss whether or not it is actually necessary for the goalkeeper to organize the defensive line.


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The short answer is no. While the keeper has a great view of the field, they don’t have the best view of every situation. It would be more beneficial for a vocal player in the back-line to do the bulk of communicating and coordinating. Not only can they see the play around them up and close, but they also have an easier way of communicating to their fellow defenders simply by remaining closer to them.

However, this does not mean that the goalkeeper should not be a vocal presence. They may notice something that the defensive line is unaware of within their line of sight, and should not be afraid to shout out instructions when necessary.

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By staying engaged in the evolution of the match, they will simultaneously be more in-tune to stopping shots that come their way. But the entire organization of the defensive line should not be the role of the keeper alone; nor would it be overly advantageous for a coach or manager to task the player with this mission.

The one caveat would be at the youth level, if no other defenders are willing and ready to take on that responsibility. Youth players can often be quite quiet on the field and just go about their business without considering the greater picture. The goalkeeper is the one position where you are constantly tasked with thinking about how your role relates to the role of others, as in most cases, you spend the most time off the ball.

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In this case, the field is also considerably smaller depending on the level, meaning the proximity issue is reduced on a greater scale. Now the goalkeeper is closer to the action. While they may not have the most advantageous view, they can often assess whether or not an opposition player is offside, in a dangerous position, etc. from that close range. In that case, I would see no problem with a coach emphasizing the important role of a keeper to not only communicate, but coordinate and lead the defensive line through the process of staying organized.


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So now going back to the question, how do goalkeepers actually accomplish that goal? My advice to players at any level would be to establish key phrases that always remain consistent. This could be short terms like “up” or “down” to “forward” and “back”. The two that I like to use for organizers of a defensive line include “up” and “drop”. When the players in that line hear the phrase uttered, they know that they should quickly assess the situation, and follow the instruction. Think about how you would want to be communicated to if you were part of that defensive line, and work around those ideas in establishing your communication style.

Moving up or down as a unit is crucial to keeping players offside, which is particularly imperative in those beginning years of 11v11 at the youth level, where the pitch is far greater than the players are physically ready to handle. Spaces in between the keeper and the defensive line can come close to the entire half of the field without the right tactics in place. But beyond tactics, without the right communication, tactical plans (good or bad) will fail. A goalkeeper should therefore be interested in constantly reducing that gap between themselves and the players ahead of them.

If the defensive line has moved all the way up to the opposition’s half, I would personally be looking for the keeper to reduce that gap to about halfway through the half. This will not only give them a better idea of how they can organize and communicate with the defensive line, but ensure they remain ready to handle long passes over the top.

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In assessing the distance that a goalkeeper can maintain away from their defensive line across the phases, I would always advise players to watch the best of the art: from Ederson to Alisson to Neuer. These ‘Sweeper Keepers’ excellently assess the distance they should maintain at all times, ensuring all the other goalkeeping aspects (from sweeping to saving) remain to the highest level. Working with a performance analyst or assessing video through Wyscout would both be useful for helping the player take their game to the next level.

But one problem still remains! The goalkeeper does not have the best line of vision in the endeavour to actually keep players offside or cover a dangerous player. That is why it should be an open line of communication between the defensive line and the keeper. Phrases like “watch the line” or simply shouting a player’s name can help the defensive line to switch on and remain aware of their surroundings, without the keeper having to do much in the way of actual ‘organizing’.

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The other important consideration that all players should remember out of possession is the notion of compactness. Line height won’t matter if the players within that line are too far apart to properly handle the situation. Key phrases like “close” or “squeeze” can then be used to ensure the defensive line are narrowing at the right moments and closing the gaps between themselves. Generally, this should be happening at the first sight of a loss of possession. Teams will often counter-attack through the centre of the pitch, so closing down those spaces will be imperative to limiting the opposition’s ability to break quickly.

So while a goalkeeper should not be the only player tasked with organizing the defensive line, they can play a pivotal role in helping the defenders through that process, particularly at the youth level. It’s all about establishing key terms and phrases that remain consistent throughout the process, and developing a greater understanding of the tactical elements surrounding notions of ball, opposition, teammates and space.

Be sure to check out more of our Coaching Education, and follow on social media @desmondrhys. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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3 thoughts on “How to organize the defensive line as a goalkeeper

  1. Nice and clear article. I would often be coaching my defenders in front of me to stay engaged throughout the match myself. The phrases I use most regularly are about compactness indeed and about unmarked opponents. This keeps the defenders aware of the situation and about all possible dangers from the opponent while being out of possession. In possession I would often tell players to move in order to keep our rest-defence as it should be. On the ball the only thing I’m coaching are the possibilities for players to progress and about free spaces on the pitch, but this is far less common, as I mostly only coach defensively.


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