The art of goalkeeping: what makes a shot stopper great

FEATURE: Swedish duo Andreas Palicka and Mikael Appelgren have been playing together for what feels like an eternity. The statistics say that they are the best goalkeeping duo at the EHF EURO 2020, but what makes them so good?

© Nebojsa Tejic / kolektiff

As the speed of the game is growing faster, with many teams taking calculated risks by substituting the goalkeeper with an outfield player, defences are facing tough times.

The work put in by players is difficult to quantify, but no defence can put up amazing numbers without the help of an in-form goalkeeper.

Goalkeepers have always been one of the focal points of attention and are key players in successful squads. Nothing beats an astonishing one-on-one save or an acrobatic shot-stopper who frustrates even the best players on the court.

This has also been true at the EHF EURO 2020, as teams successfully built their winning runs with key contributions from the goalkeepers and the defence in front of them.

Close battle between the posts

Saving efficiency is one of the key metrics to analyse a goalkeeper’s game and there have been plenty of shot stoppers who have lifted their teams to win at the EHF EURO 2020 so far. After the 36 preliminary and three main round matches, there have been 15 instances when the Grundfos Player of the Match was a goalkeeper.

Slovenian goalkeeper Klemen Ferlin, Hungary’s Roland Mikler and Spain’s Gonzalo Perez de Vargas have all picked up two nominations, closely followed by the likes of Sweden’s Andreas Palicka, Spain’s Rodrigo Corrales and Portugal’s Alfredo Quintana.

But who is the top pair of goalkeepers in this tournament?

After the preliminary round, Sweden had the best save efficiency for their pair of goalkeepers, 40 per cent, with 46 saves from 114 shots. Spain were close behind on 39 per cent, with 46 saves from 119 shots in the preliminary round. The top three was rounded off by Slovenia, with 38 saves from 105 shots for a 36 per cent save efficiency.

Two years ago, in Croatia, Palicka and teammate Mikael Appelgren also led the way with the largest number of saves, 120, for a 36 per cent save efficiency, as they helped Sweden win silver.

Palicka, 34, and Appelgren, 30, have a tremendous relationship on the court, as they have been playing together in the national team since 2011. The two are also teammates at club level, plying their trade for German powerhouses Rhein-Neckar Löwen for the past four seasons.

“We already played a lot together for Sweden and it was there to be seen that if me and Andreas save a lot of balls, with the defence we have in front of us, it is a key to our game. We like to play fast handball and scoring through fast breaks and having easy goals to score is very important and usually those goals start from us,” says Appelgren.

“It is very important that me and Andreas have been playing together for many years in Löwen. There are differences between playing for the club and for the national team, because the defence is changes, there are also other players. But it is a good thing that we know each other very well,” adds the goalkeeper.

A good relationship is crucial for a pair of goalkeepers, as only one of them can play at a time, while the other must stay on the bench.

Like a married couple

However, this is not a problem for Corrales and Perez de Vargas, two of the best goalkeepers in the EHF EURO 2020.

“The pair of goalkeepers is like a married couple, the marriage goes to every situation, it is difficult to play at the games at the highest level. What you want is that both goalkeepers perform at the best level. I would never be angry because I do not play,” Corrales told the (Un)informed Handball Hour during one of the official EHF EURO 2020 podcasts.

Corrales and Perez de Vargas normally share a room on national team duty, but for the preliminary round in Trondheim, they were separated.

“We are not sharing the room together now in Trondheim, and we kind of miss each other, but probably in Vienna we will be together,” joked Perez de Vargas.

Communication is also key between goalkeepers, as only them and the goalkeeping coach see things that can be missed by an untrained eye.

“Us in the goal, we are alone and it is important to have somebody near you, the one who is on the bench can see a lot of things, which the one who is playing cannot,” said Corrales, who was ranked second behind Palicka on individual save efficiency after the preliminary round on 41 per cent.

Sweden are lucky to have Mats Olsson as a goalkeeping coach; the former “Bengan Boy”, who won both the EHF EURO and the World Championship as a player, joined the side three years ago.

“Our goalkeeper coach has been with us for the last three years and is crucial. Well, he is not on the court and saving shots, but he is a big part of the preparation and how to react in different situations on the court, both mentally and physically. Every team should have a goalkeeper coach, because, in my opinion, goalkeeper is the most important position on the court,” says Appelgren.

Communication between goalkeepers and their coach is also important, as in every attack, top goalkeepers approach the bench and talk to each other.

Who are the best?

Palicka (42 per cent), Corrales (41 per cent) and Bosnian shot stopper Nebojsa Grahovac (40 per cent) top the standings for the top goalkeeper of the tournament up until this point, but crunch games are on the schedule.

Who does Appelgren think are the goalkeepers most likely to perform at the business end of the tournament?

“I would like to say that me and Andreas are the best goalkeepers, but I have to be a bit humble,” he says. “If I were to choose three goalkeepers? Difficult question. Probably Niclas Landin, Gonzalo Perez de Vargas and… probably Klemen Ferlin, because I saw what he can do in the preliminary round,” concludes the Swedish goalkeeper.

Landin’s Denmark is out, but Perez de Vargas and Ferlin will play key roles in the main round for Spain and Slovenia in the main round. If Appelgren is right, then Sweden will have a tough ask if they are to win a medal on their home court.

But if he and Palicka shine, then it is open season and Sweden can still hunt for a medal.

written by Adrian Costeiu / jh