There’s nothing new about a sweeper-keeper. A goalkeeper who plays as a sweeper and supports the team in possession is quite common in modern football. Most teams demand technical profiles while recruiting keepers who are calm in possession right from the moment the ball is rolled into play and the opponents press them well into the team’s own defensive third. But Tim Walter takes it a step further and uses his keeper in a role similar to the powerplay phase in futsal. I take the case of Daniel Heuer Fernandes, the goalkeeper at Hamburg, to explore this positional innovation deeper.
A look at Fernandes’ involvement depicts how far he drifts outside his penalty area leaving his goal open to participate in possession. The players’ average positions during the game shows the goalkeeper’s average position well outside the box.
Meanwhile from his passmap, we see the number of passes he plays at the base of his defensive structure, often slotting in as an extra defender during build up. The passes are played from almost all areas outside the box in the defensive third, and occasionally, even the middle third.
An extreme moment was against Bremen with Hamburg under pressure to equalise, had their GK play key passes in the opponent’s half in the final minutes.
FUNDAMENTALS ROOTED IN ROTATIONS
The principles of play involving the keeper is based on the rotations that are trademark of Walter’s teams. Both at Kiel and Stuttgart, his teams build up from the back using dynamic rotations that constantly create positional superiority in the midfield and create a free man to play out of. Understanding the movement these rotations create along with its underlying principle sheds more light on the specific demands of the GK as a libero in certain moments.
Let’s take a situation where the CB on the right side is in possession of the ball building out of a 4-2-3-1 and the opponents have picked a moment to press them in a ball-oriented manner closing all near options and denying them an opportunity to switch sides.
The opponent CF closes down the ball carrier, the LM the RB and the CM the pivot. The CB could play the ball to the other CB in the adjacent channel, but the AM is not far off to close him down either. In most situations, the CB would either look to play the ball long to the forwards or play back to the GK to regain superiority at the cost of moving backwards.
However, in Walter’s rotations, the CB plays the ball sideways and then pushes up. By doing so the CB immediately creates positional superiority behind the first line of press. Simultaneously, a player from the midfield, the CM or a fullback who had previously pushed up, drops lower to become the free man. These rotations are quite similar to the 4-0 or 3-1 rotations in futsal where positional superiority outweighs numerical superiority since the area is smaller and it’s always 4v4.
Notice how in this movement, the GK slides over to the right to create a better angle in possession. GKs by instinct try to always protect their goal and hence position themselves always along a line connecting the nearest threat and the centre of their goal, the shortest route back to safety in case of an error in possession. But in this game model, the GK has a more sophisticated role to facilitate possession by creating the right passing angles. By sliding to the right, the GK slowly shifts up into c3 providing numerical superiority.
Following this rotation, the opponents have two choices – either to continue pressing high or to hold and protect the centre. If the opponents press high as in this case depicted below, the space in the middle between the lines opens up. Here, the AM positioned in c4 is free to receive a line-breaking pass and turn towards goal to attack. Numerical superiority is held in c3 with a 3v1 against the opponent CF.
If the opponents fall back with the aim of protecting the spaces in the centre and denying room to receive between the lines, the build up continues through the free man in the rotation and Hamburg are able to push higher up using their GK. Numerical superiority is still maintained and the CM can always pass it back to the GK for safety.
The objective is to win superiority in each zone – be it numerical, positional or qualitative. Had the GK been positioned deeper in his area, the opponents would have been more encouraged to press the players in c3 despite the movements to generate the free man, forcing the play back to the GK. However, since the GK is higher up in c3, he immediately provides that superiority won through short passes. Instead of having the players protect the goal and maintain possession, in this philosophy, it’s the superiority generated that does the job. Therefore, it doesn’t matter where the GK is positioned as long as the team wins superiority.
MORE THAN A SWEEPER-KEEPER
The keeper often supports the central defenders by acting as a sweeper between them. This libero role, seen in the game model of many other teams, enables the CBs to split wider apart and push higher up in search for a progressive pass without the risk of being outnumbered by the opponent forwards who press. Hamburg also create a back-three while building up with Fernandes playing libero between his CBs.
The distinctive attribute though, of Fernandes’ role as a sweeper-keeper, is how high he pushes out of his box, almost into the middle third as we see below, leaving his goal wide open. This allows forward players to occupy strategic spaces giving positional superiority.
The build up is maintained using rotation of players at the back creating constant triangles or diamond structures to outnumber the opponent forwards who press.
Even though the keeper leaves his goal unattended, the belief of the team is that there isn’t a threat as long as they have possession of the ball. With this belief, every time Hamburg is in position, the goalkeeper quickly transforms into an outfield player and plays with his feet outside the box.
11 VS 10 – THE EXTRA PLAYER ADVANTAGE
A known fact is that the team in possession has the possibility of using their keeper as a passing option, but the team out of possession cannot use their keeper as a pressing option. Hence the team in possession always holds overall numerical superiority. This logic has been used in building out of the back with the keeper to ensure a clean ‘exit’ out of the opponent’s high press. Tim Walter takes this a step further and involves the keeper not only in the build up phase but also the construction phase in the centre of the field. This effectively results in an overall numerical superiority for Hamburg in the most important part of the pitch.
Involving the keeper in the build up in pivotal role almost as an extra CB means one player can push further up to occupy a positional role. This is a huge advantage as the extra player has the liberty to position between the lines or allow one of the forwards to pin back the defensive line instead of dropping back to help out in the build up. The fluid rotations allow the players to exchange roles dynamically through their movement.
In this example above, the GK helps win 3v2 superiority in zone b3 while the players in c3 are engaging in rotations during build up. Further up Hamburg have three players pinning back the defensive line, two offering width in the wide channels and two players positioned at different heights between the lines. Having the extra player really helps the team to hold positional superiority further up giving them a big advantage in possession.
It definitely carries the risk of inviting a moment of high man-oriented press where a loss of possession almost certainly results in giving away a cheap goal. However, the positional advantage is quite big for Hamburg, and if built up well, the opponents struggle to press one player short and are constantly pinned back having to defend all the spaces in the middle.
GK POSITIONING AND PASSING ANGLES
The need for goalkeeper to occupy the right spaces in possession to facilitate better passing angles is usually limited to the penalty area when they are attempting to play out of a high press. Once the team is further up, the GK usually plays as a sweeper to collect loose balls played out. In Hamburg’s system the positioning of the goalkeeper is even more crucial to be involved so actively in keeping possession outside the penalty area. We’ve seen evidence of this in his passmap earlier as well.
Take this case below, as his CB picks up the ball in the outside channel, the GK needs to occupy the adjacent channel by drifting further wide and high rather than deeper as a GK would conventionally do.
This positional behaviour, similar to what a CB would do, is important to facilitate the right passing angle to build out. It also allows the outfield players like the RB to stay higher up and wider in the outside channel. Had the GK sat deeper, it would have encouraged the opponent to jump right away.
Positioning also allows to create more advantageous situations of numerical superiority in general. It’s intuitive to understand that a 3v2 superiority holds more advantage if the players are positioned in a triangle rather than a straight line, or a 2v1 if the players are at a good distance and not directly behind each other. The same logic applies if the keeper is one of the players creating the superiority.
In the example above, since the CB is in one of the inside channels, the GK creates more advantage by occupying the other vertical channel rather than if both are positioned in the same channel. Thus the GK has to move wider like another CB to make a better passing angle to surrounding teammates.
We see a similar case in the game against Bremen as well, where in a very unorthodox manner, the GK leaves his spot in front of goal to offer the right passing lane in the adjacent channel and help build up with a 2v1 superiority.
OPPONENTS’ RELUCTANCE TO JUMP
Opponents hesitate to accept the invitation to press with an open goal ahead because the extra player positioned somewhere deeper can immediately create a threat in transition with one vertical line breaking pass.
Look at this situation below where the opponents have a potential 2v2 pressing situation in b3. The two forwards can jump and press the GK and the CB with an open goal in behind.
But if you notice in the second frame, the CF still scans to check the space he leaves behind if he presses because when playing against a team having that extra player somewhere, you simply can’t allow passes through the middle as the entire back line is pinned back by forwards.
We see the consequences of leaving spaces in the centre to jump in the next example. Here the opponents decide to engage in a high man-oriented press with the GK outside his area.
Hamburg manage to play out of the press and a few seconds later engage in a an attacking transition with the opponents’ back line pinned 4v4. The costs of being unsuccessful in the press is conceding crucial spaces in the centre with Hamburg’s forwards in position to transition with numerical and positional advantage.
Walter’s system is a fresh innovation that redefines the role in which goalkeepers have been used in the game. Although teams that like to dominate with the ball are already familiar with the ball-playing keeper who is comfortable with the ball at his/her feet, Hamburg’s employment of the keeper in the attacking phase opens up a Pandora’s box in how spaces can be exploited when they have the ball. They tend to dominate most of the possession, and having the extra player further up immensely helps in pinning back the opponents, who are reluctant to jump out of their structure to press.
In Hamburg’s case, the results do not correspond to the game model they like to play with because of lack of finishing when in front of goal or getting caught out of organisation defensively. Regardless of this, Walter’s model at Hamburg offers plenty of ideas for teams looking to dominate possession in the same way, especially during build up and construction and are worthy of greater attention in tactical circles.