Neel Shelat expands on his previous piece to examine why teams utilise goalkeepers in build-up and what that can tell us about team styles
If you have read the previous goalkeeper-focused piece on the site, you will know all there is to know about goalkeeper chains as far as their genesis and basic-level spread are concerned. Now, then, it is time to delve into the how and the why – how teams create them and what types of roles such goalkeepers play.
As is the case with almost anything in the field of football tactics (and, indeed, life), there is no right or wrong way to go about creating and using goalkeeper chains. There are a couple of factors involved that can help inform this decision-making, most prominently team style and the preferred formation. So, there is quite a bit of variation in goalkeeper chains around the world.
There are a fair few ways to go about creating a goalkeeper chain, but at the base level, there are two types of setups decided by the starting formation. The most pertinent aspect of the formation for a goalkeeper chain is the back line, so the difference lies in whether a team uses a back-four or a back-three/back-five.
It is much easier to go about creating goalkeeper chains when using a back-four as the keeper can seamlessly slot into the very middle of the back line without disrupting its symmetry. So, such setups are far more popular and prevalent.
Hamburg have been the flag-bearers in terms of implementing goalkeeper chains, having done so since the days of Christian Titz in 2018. Current head coach Tim Walter is continuing the tradition with goalkeeper Daniel Heuer Fernandes, who spends the majority of many matches around the edge of his side’s defensive third. As a result, Hamburg’s shape in possession may more accurately be described as a 3-3-2-3 as opposed to a 2-3-2-3.
In this manner, teams using a back-four formation find it very easy to incorporate goalkeeper chains because all they have to do is add an extra member right in the middle of their back line. The bit where it gets interesting is when teams using three centre-backs get in on the act.
You might have noticed that some such teams who like to play out short from goal kicks start with their central centre-back right in front of the goalkeeper on the edge of the box. One option is to simply transpose that idea slightly higher up the pitch. Here’s an example from Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo:
To be more specific, Sapporo usually start in a 3-4-2-1 formation and then push both midfielders forward in possession to make way for the centre-back. Of course, some teams may want to have two central players ahead of the back line, so in such cases the central centre-back can go up alongside the holding midfielder. Now managed by Christian Titz, Magdeburg often do so in the 2. Bundesliga.
While pushing the central centre-back into midfield is the simplest way to create a symmetric goalkeeper chain for teams that use a back-three, there are other ways to go about it as well. Marseille used an interesting structure in certain matches last season, creating a 4-2-5 in possession by having the goalkeeper pop up on either side of the central defender and adjusting their positions accordingly.
While it is interesting to look at the varied structures and rotations used to implement goalkeeper chains, this does not tell us much about their actual importance.
Why use a goalkeeper chain?
Therefore, the more pertinent question is why teams use goalkeeper chains. Again, there are various reasons, but obviously the common theme is to effectively have an extra outfield player for multiple phases in possession. This proves particularly handy against teams that set up in mid or low blocks out of possession, as we discussed in the previous piece.
Goalkeeper chains enable the team in possession to maintain their numerical advantage higher up the pitch. Against teams that do not press high, the goalkeeper can simply step out of the box and keep going on until an opponent eventually steps out of the block to stop him.
In this instance, Marseille’s Pau López noticed that none of the opposition forwards were going to close him down, so he simply carried the ball forward. He was able to get quite close to the centre circle before eventually drawing an opponent out, thereby opening up a gap in the opposition’s block before releasing his pass.
Besides opening up such small gaps in opposition blocks, goalkeeper chains can also be used to bait opponents to press more collectively. FC Andorra often did so to good effect in the Spanish second tier last season. They would start by having a centre-back pass the ball slightly backwards to the goalkeeper (out of frame), who would be far enough outside his box to get the opponents a little interested.
Then, after a few passes to properly draw the opposition team forward, there quite often would be a free attacker who could be found with an aerial ball.
At this point, it is worth pausing and considering how the exact position of the goalkeeper relative to the centre-backs can affect how the team progresses the ball. In the Marseille example, the keeper is almost in line with the defenders as they attempt to probe the opposition block for gaps with sideways passes. In the case of Andorra, though, the keeper is well behind the centre-backs. So, he is only an extra passing option rather than a key component of their ball progression, but can also be used to bait the opposition press as we saw.
Such small details can make a big difference, so there is much to consider for teams in terms of how they set their goalkeeper chain and its impact on how they play.
Let us now focus on that last point – playing styles. As we mentioned at the very start of the piece, goalkeeper chains are not just for teams that want to play out with intricate short passes but can be used to implement a lot of different styles. The only major common theme between teams that use goalkeeper chains is that they are happy to circulate the ball around the back a fair bit, which is of course the only way a keeper can play significant role in possession. Although not directly relevant to their possession-play, most sides that use goalkeeper chains will also counterpress quite a bit for reasons we touched on in the previous piece.
Let us start by looking at Tim Walter’s Hamburg, who absolutely love their deep circulation, and counterpress quite a bit too (we are defining deep circulation here, perhaps obviously, as the volume and duration of play in the build-up phase).
Looking at Daniel Heuer Fernandes’ passmap, we see that he spends most of his time in possession around the edge of the defensive third. Clearly, his responsibility in Hamburg’s system to circulate the ball around the back line so the majority of his passes go sideways, but he can go long if the opportunity to get in behind presents itself.
Christian Titz’s current implementation of goalkeeper chains with Magdeburg (who are usually expected to be much lower in the table than Hamburg) is only slightly different. They too are heavily built around deep circulation but tend to counterpress a little bit less.
The clearest difference is in the goalkeeper’s passing patterns. Dominik Reimann also circulates the ball around the back a fair bit, but is also encouraged to play incisive forward passes when possible as well as more long balls.
As far as deep circulation with goalkeeper chains goes, no one does it better or more often than Mamelodi Sundowns. Technically and tactically, Rulani Mokwena’s side are a class above the competition in South Africa and indeed most of the continent, so they can play around the back as much as they wish.
Sundowns’ build-up structure often does not have a lot of width as the full-backs/wing-backs tuck in close to the half-spaces because they almost always look to play through defensive blocks rather than around them. So, he plays fewer lateral passes and more diagonal or forward balls.
FC Andorra are probably the club that pushes the limits of Coach ID’s deep circulation metric the most, thanks to Eder Sarabia’s possession-obsessed style of play. Watching his team, one might be able to tell that he spent a good few years in Quique Setién’s coaching staff.
As we analysed previously, one of their favourite tricks is to use a slightly deeper keeper to bait the opposition into pressing. Therefore, Raúl Lizoain’s pass starting location are a bit closer to his box than the rest of the ones we have seen so far, and he also has a higher proportion of forward passes, while clipped wider passes are also common to get the full back arriving on the ball in space or to find a wide forward dropping off, as in the earlier image.
A very good case study in different types and uses of goalkeeper chains is Marseille over the last two seasons. In 2021/22, Jorge Sampaoli used Pau López in the centre of three-player back line where his primary role was to keep the ball moving from side to side quite a bit.
Sampaoli’s successor for 2022/23 was Igor Tudor, who mostly used the Spanish goalkeeper on the left of a four-player back line where he operated in a generally deeper position and was encouraged to play more longer passes, especially towards the wider areas.
The teams we have looked at so far were all built around deep circulation wherein goalkeeper passing patterns varied, but there is another subgroup more focused on using the goalkeeper to be more direct. Torino are the best example of such teams, as the incorporation of Vanja Milinkovi?-Savi? in their possession-play enables them to adopt a very top-heavy 3-1-4-3 structure even while building up.
To be very simplistic, their tactics involve drawing their opponents out ever so slightly with a couple of passes around the back before quickly going long towards the forwards. Their goalkeeper’s passmap depicts this very clearly, with a good few sideways passes on the edge of and outside box followed by scores of long balls into the opposition half without anything in between.
And on the other end of the spectrum, we have Wayne Rooney (yes, you read that right) and DC United. They are not always overly fussed about a lot of deep circulation and mould their playing style based on opponents, so Tyler Miller’s involvement outside his box is mostly focused on going out wide or going long.
These were just a few examples of teams that use goalkeeper chains around the world, how they do it and how they incorporate it into their playing style. Of course, each team has some unique features and patterns, but hopefully these examples covered the breadth of the topic and highlighted just how varied it is.
One thing is certain: the implementation of goalkeeper chains is quickly spreading across countries and leagues, so they look on course to be a common feature in many matches in most places. Clearly, there is room for almost any type of team to use them, so everyone ought to consider using them.
Header image copyright IMAGO / Laurent Sanson / Panoramic