Ben Foster has said that intelligence or ‘nous’ will always define the very best goalkeepers in the world, whether today, 20 years ago or 20 years in the future, as those who understand the position better than others can use it to find extra levels.
Styles of goalkeeping are constantly evolving, with goalkeepers in 2022 possessing a very different set of skills than those who were world class in the 1960s might have done. There is also no telling what specific skills perhaps yet to be developed will make up a top goalkeeper decades into the future, but positional intelligence will never not be crucial to being world class between the sticks.
“For me, the reason why the best goalies in the world are what they are – the likes of Manuel Neuer, Jan Oblak, Alisson and Ederson – is the nous or the intelligence of being able to read a situation,” Foster explained to 90min.
“Every time you see a goalkeeper make an absolutely world class save, a massive part of that is because they’ve used their nous,” the former England stopper added.
“They have pre-empted something happening. They’ve looked at the body shape of somebody, might have looked at their eyes and seen them look at a certain corner, just a split second before they’ve actually kicked the ball. But that’s all they need to read them.
“They’ve read the situation, which has enabled them to go a second earlier or half a second earlier and that’s the difference between making that world class save and not making it. That is the bit that separates the best from the rest – the nous and game intelligence.”
Foster has been playing at the highest level for 15 years, making his Premier League debut in 2006 while on loan at Watford from Manchester United. He played top flight football for four different clubs, has won domestic cup finals, kept goal the Champions League and was often called up by England during a seven-year international career between 2007 and 2014.
The 38-year-old has seen the position undergo massive changes, with a focus now much more on technical ability than ever before – some goalkeepers are expected to be an 11th outfield player.
“It’s changed an awful lot. We’re seeing the evolution of goalkeeping right now,” Foster said.
“My goalkeeping idol is Peter Schmeichel, who was basically a dominating absolute beast. He would come and claim [the ball], he was vocal, people were scared of him. He definitely wasn’t renowned for his playing out from the back, or kicking it to the wingers.
“What he was about was stopping the ball going in the back of the net. I wouldn’t say it’s been lost, but the focus isn’t necessarily on that anymore.
“The focus is to be a footballer first and foremost. You have to be comfortable with the ball at your feet, you’ve got to be able to pick passes, you have to fire it into midfield, the left-back or right-back, clip it into the winger. That is the first thing they try and teach you at academy level now and then they’ll try and build the goalkeeper around it.”
As well as ever-evolving and changing styles of play, modern technology is increasingly also shaping the future of goalkeeping.
Foster himself famously watched penalty footage on an iPod before playing a decisive role in Manchester United’s Carling Cup final shootout win over Tottenham back in 2009. It was seen as revolutionary at the time, but he insists it was already common even then.
“Literally every football club was doing that, it’s just that it was caught on camera in a cup final and that’s why it made such big news,” he admitted.
“Technology is huge now,” Foster continued. “The analysis of games, the analysis of opposition. Outfield players, for example, cannot get away with anything nowadays because everything is tracked. They’ve all got heart rate monitors on, they’ve all got distance markers and that kind of stuff, so they know exactly what they have and haven’t done in a game.
“It’s the same for goalkeepers and is a good thing, I suppose, because you can use it as a real aid.
“For example, on a Friday night [before a game] I’ll be looking at the opposition players, what they do at free-kicks, corners, penalties, who takes the penalties, percentage of penalties that go to the left, the right, down the middle, what the run up looks like, do they give any tells or giveaways that you can pick up. The analysis and the detail now is incredible.”
From those days watching back videos on a tiny iPod screen – the first iPad was still more than a year away from being released, Foster has continued to be a proponent of technology. His GoPro camera positioned in the goal became a popular part of his The Cycling GK matchday vlogs on YouTube. But aside from providing fans with fresh insight, he too has found it helpful to review the game footage to sharpen his game, particularly with specific communication.
“One of my biggest strengths is my communication and being able to tell players in certain situations, offer help to them and let them know what’s going on so that they haven’t necessarily got to get their head up and look – I’ve already told them,” he explained.
“Sometimes, I’ve picked up [from the footage] the way or the tone of how I’ve said things to certain players. I’m thinking, ‘That sounds a little bit arsy’, and it doesn’t appeal to some players. If you say it in a certain way, they almost think like, ‘Oh, sod off, you’re being a d*ckhead’. If you can frame it and say it in a different way, it might appeal to them better, which might help them more.”