Will the “sweeper” be the next evolutionary step for hockey goalkeepers?

With hockey one of the leading lights in sport in terms of continuous innovation and progression, it’s surprising that the goalkeeper playing as an extra defender doesn’t feature as much in hockey, a game similar in formation and triangular movements of the ball across the pitch. Playing a similar line of attack, the sweeper is therefore more important in a team that is constantly pushing up the field and playing a high press to box in their opponents, holding up play and retaining position strongly in order to stop the other team taking the play to them and instead dominating it themselves. With the back line far up the pitch, this means the goalkeeper can be left vulnerable without much help running back against the play if the team is caught out, and thus needs to become a “sweeper” as a result, in order to remove the vulnerability to open attacks.


The “sweeper keeper” has been around in football since perhaps the 1930s when goalkeepers started to roam around outside their area to the behest of their coaches, even at international level. The South American goalkeepers who wound up their coaches, famed for their seemingly reckless attitude to coming out of their area to disrupt scoring chances, much to the chagrin of their opponents. But whilst hockey plays in a similar team shape to its other ball sport cousin, it could be argued that the hockey goalkeeper hasn’t really caught on totally to the need to step off their line to challenge, or for the need to come out and attack crosses and intercept properly to eliminate scoring chances. And unlike football, with the feet obviously unusable outside the D, this requires more dexterity and skill with the stick and reading the play for hockey, an elite skill that only a few seem to have.


In the traditional approach to goalkeeping, the goalkeeper stands near their goal line even when the play is nowhere near them. In the sense that they do not come out to attack a loose ball, instead expecting the defence to perform that task for their, which is risky and dangerous with regards to easy goals conceded.  A more reserved approach, this atypical way of doing things sees the goalkeeper far back, also limiting their view of the game ahead of them and the distance their voice can carry when dictating commands to their team mates. But this equates to a style of goalkeeping that is purely based around the idea of shot stopping which , and the modern game requires a goalkeeper to be more commanding and .


Beeston and England’s goalkeeper George Pinner taking a passive position within the D, with the team outside their half.


The goalkeeper playing as a sweeper with have a higher “line” than the goalkeeper who plays on a low line where they are almost on the goal line, the “line” itself the term used to refer to where the goalkeeper stands inside their D (or box in football, crease in ice hockey and so on and so forth!). By having a low line, it makes them more susceptible to breakaways or aerials into the D. And with goalkeepers now unable to step outside the 25, their time and space is limited for dealing with breakaway threats, if rushing off the line to attack the, rather than setting up high to make life easier. Even then, if playing a high line, the goalkeeper still needs to be assertive and attack any threats that appear.



Cheltenham’s goalkeeper in the English national league taking a position illustrative of the “sweeper’s” “line”.


There have been a few goalkeepers recently that have experimented with the style and adapting it to suit the hockey arena. I personally think so and with this in mind, I can’t see why there aren’t more hockey goalkeepers doing so. Stuart Hendy in the national league in England with Old Loughtonians was doing so for quite some time, followed by  Andrew Isaacs (previously at Havant) who plays a more rounded game where he plays more like indoor, challenging 2 on 1s and such. And yet, the goalkeeper’s role as a sweeper was advocated in the 80s, but has seemingly been forgotten. To quote , “”. In this scenario, the defenders are channelling the attacker and it is the goalkeeper that is diving in to “smother” and attack to take the ball off the player and eliminate the scoring threat, rather than looking for the defender to make the tackle/interception.



Stuart Hendy in his playing career stepping out to attack a free opposition player.


You can see these junior Dutch goalkeepers applying the methodology, often effectively, acting as another defender, outside what is seen as the goalkeeper’s main role of shot stopper :






If attack is the best form of defence, then why can’t the goalkeeper also be used to set up attacks, through controlled redirects on the save to pass out to defender etc.? The goalkeeper as an outlet passing option is good for a team always looking to attack. But a goalkeeper can also be of use to their defence. If a defender messes up a horizontal pass to another defender, then the goalkeeper might need to be called upon to get rid of the ball, or get it back to a defender, to prevent the opposition gaining possession. Andrew Isaacs (now at Bromley in the English national league) has even started punting the ball up field via the self pass from the sixteen restart, whilst ex-GB Olympian Simon Mason can also be seen doing so occasionally, seeing the goalkeeper kick the ball skyward like a football goalkeeper, freeing up a defender and also quickly setting up a fast counter-attack deep into the opposition’s half.


Here you can see the goalkeeper also making use of the attacking depth to make a strong save-clearance with the ball getting outside the D and away, ridding the immediate second chance rebound opportunity for the opposition:




And you can see Isaac’s technique here:




Standing outside the D sees the goalkeeper take things one step further. A lot like the South American goalkeeping style in football, the hockey goalkeeper dares to step out the D and stay very high against the chance of an opposition player breaking free as their team plays a high press in front of them.  This also helps them get a better view of the team, in order to issue better commands to their team mates as they look to ensure the shape is kept and high press maintained, with their voice able to go further than if standing in the goal.



Bromley’s goalkeeper David Taylor observing the game from outside his area.




It’s the opposite of the inside-out approach of other goalkeepers and defence structures, an outside-in approach, where the goalkeeper retreats after the play breaks and moves forward against their team, instead of moving forward on the break. And with the self-pass and ability to chuck aerials in and over the defence, into the D, the goalkeeper is more at risk to open play breakdowns. And therefore with a high line, there is more need to be more pro-active in how they deal with attacks, taking responsibility for their defence.


But if the goalkeeper is going to commit to looking to take the ball off the attacker or challenge out so far, then they need to go in aggressively to take the ball away otherwise they will probably give away a cheap goal. Conceding in this way is almost giving goals away. So the goalkeeper has to go all out and “in for the kill” if they want to eliminate the scoring threat. It is all or nothing because if the goalkeeper otherwise hesitates, they are making life easier for the ball carrier and shooter. See here how the Scottish goalkeeper (in the yellow jersey and blue pads) commits but then fails to properly take the ball off the attacker, scoring through, and around them, as they slide out to challenge.




All in all, I feel hockey could learn more about the goalkeeping position and sweeper role, from contemporary football goalkeepers like Valdes and Lloris who are revolutionising and innovating the position with their passing and attacking, fifth defender styles. It is something that could come back into the game, especially in the new indoor format. Andrew Charter of the Kookaburras has already tried doing so, after the Australian indoor style of the 80s. If the powers that be try to push the game to a smaller sized team format like the super sixes to try and encourage more crowd attendance, then the sweeper would be an integral role for a goalkeeper as a result of speed of play and open space due to reduced team size. The Olympic committee has already threatened to do so, so I can only see it being a matter of time before it becomes a necessary part of goalkeeping for the hockey goalie.

Daniel Grim




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