Maarten Stekelenburg on the art of being a sweeper-keeper: ‘Goalkeeping has totally changed’

The Everton keeper and former Netherlands international who played in the 2010 World Cup final reveals the influence of Edwin van der Sar and the Ajax academy on how he became more than just a shot-stopper

Ryan Baldi
Tuesday 11 February 2020 14:05
Maarten Stekelenburg: 'It’s all about decision-making, making the right choices'
Maarten Stekelenburg: 'It’s all about decision-making, making the right choices'

No position in football has undergone as stark an evolution as the goalkeeper over the last 30 years.

Although there are examples of keepers throughout football history exhibiting aspects of the role’s modern interpretation – such as Lev Yashin rushing from his penalty area to thwart advancing attacks in the 1950s – from the advent of the back-pass rule in 1992 to Manuel Neuer popularising the term “sweeper-keeper” in the early 2010s, more is expected of goalkeepers now than ever before.

“Nowadays goalkeepers have to be about more than saving goals,” Everton’s Dutch international keeper Maarten Stekelenburg tells The Independent. “The main priority still has to be saving goals, but every attack starts with the goalkeeper now. And the rules are changing every year; this year they changed another rule with the goal-kicks. Building from the back starts with the goalkeeper. I don’t want to say it’s getting more difficult, but goalkeepers are more involved in attacking now.

“To compare goalkeeping now to when I started, we are building from the back more and more and being involved – you see players like Ederson and Neuer, who was one of the best and took it to the next level. I don’t know where it’s going to stop. Nowadays, everything starts with the goalkeeper.”

Stekelenburg accumulated 58 caps for Holland in a 12-year international career, and kept goal for the Oranje throughout their run to the final of the 2010 World Cup. Although his shot-stopping skills and commanding presence formed key parts of his arsenal, the 37-year-old wouldn’t have enjoyed such a sustained period as the Dutch No 1 without being comfortable with the ball at his feet and able to sweep up behind a high defensive line.

From Johan Cruyff’s insistence that Jan Jongbloed be selected for the 1974 World Cup due to his comfort in roaming from his goal, to Stanley Menzo and Edwin van der Sar helping Ajax earn European success by pushing up behind a high defensive line, few nations have helped define and popularise the role of the sweeper-keeper as much as Holland.

Stekenlenburg was a relative late-comer to goalkeeping, having first been placed between the sticks for his local youth team as a 14-year-old when the regular keeper was injured. But from the moment he pulled on a pair of gloves, he knew who he aspired to emulate.

“For me, there’s only been one ever,” the Everton keeper says of his greatest influence, “and that was Edwin van der Sar. When goalkeeping started to become interesting for me, he was the one I was looking up to, and I was lucky enough that I played with him. What always intrigued me was how calm he was. And when I started to play with him for the national team, around big games he was always so calm. For me, that was very satisfying to see.”

For many of his generation, staying apace with how goalkeeping has developed over the last 20 years meant an adjustment, adding new traits such as close control, short passing and the timing of interventions outside the box to a traditional skillset of reflexes, catching crosses and communication. Reared in the revered Ajax academy from his mid-teens, though, Stekelenburg was an adept sweeper-keeper from his earliest forays into first-team football.

“As a 14-year-old coming to Ajax from an amateur club, it’s a different way of playing,” he explains. “In training, they got me used to that – that’s what the academy is for. There were lots of passing drills and stuff, and keepers were involved a lot of the time.

“I played almost 10 years in the Ajax first team, so I grew up with that philosophy and system, playing out from the back with a high defensive line. I was lucky that I was brought up in Ajax. It can be difficult for foreign keepers who come to Ajax. Goalkeepers who come to Ajax having never played in a system like that maybe need to have some time to adjust. I was lucky to have come from the academy.”

Maarten Stekelenburg saved a point for Everton with a string of important saves

Despite the evolution the role has undergone in recent years, Stekelenburg believes the key attributes any aspiring goalkeeper requires are largely unchanged, listing skills that transfer easily into a more modern interpretation of a keeper’s remit.

“First of all, you need to have calmness,” he says. “And you need to have a good technique for saving goals – that’s still the main priority of a goalkeeper in my opinion. I think it’s more decision-making that you need. A young goalkeeper starting at a club will make mistakes, but it’s important that you learn from it. It’s calmness and it’s all about decision-making, making the right choices.”

Stekelenburg, who cites Manchester City’s Ederson and Marc Andre ter Stegen of Barcelona as the best current exponents of the sweeper-keeper style, admits he is unsure of how the position will develop further in the future. But he is certain the desire for keepers to be involved in their teams’ build-up play will endure.

“Nowadays, every club has a goalkeeping coach and goalkeeping sessions day in, day out. The main thing is that the club has a philosophy and a playing style. Like at Ajax, we always played 4-3-3, and that was from the smallest teams in the academy, they played the same system. The philosophy of the club has to be there.

“But goalkeeping, the guidelines now are similar wherever you go. Here at Everton, we like to play out from the back, and even in the lower leagues, everybody now builds from the back. It’s integrated in football these days.”

It remains to be seen where the next evolution in goalkeeping will lead. But, having taken several literal steps forward over the last three decades, it’s unlikely keepers will be retreating any time soon.

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