ISL 2020-21: The evolving role of goalkeepers in Indian football

The role of goalkeepers is evolving with the managers expecting their custodians to function as a sweeper back and also start moves from behind with quick passes.

Published : Nov 22, 2020 13:08 IST

Arindam Bhattacharya has been named one of the five captains in the ATKMB squad by head coach Antonio Habas.
Arindam Bhattacharya has been named one of the five captains in the ATKMB squad by head coach Antonio Habas.

Arindam Bhattacharya has been named one of the five captains in the ATKMB squad by head coach Antonio Habas.

Arindam Bhattacharja’s reflex saves under the crossbar for ATK, in last season’s Indian Super League title clash against Chennaiyin FC, earned him the Best Player in Final award. Four goals were scored in a 3-1 win for ATK’s, yet the custodian walked away with the honours. It was  proof that on his day, a goalkeeper can make a difference to team fortunes.

He guarded the goal again in the  ISL 2020-21 opener for ATK Mohun Bagan against Kerala Blasters FC at Goa’s Bambolim stadium, vindication of chief coach Antonio Habas’ trust in him.

“No goalkeeper can stop an excellent strike by a forward, but you can definitely attempt to block by getting into position and showing self-confidence.

Arindam had played in that frame of mind and deserved the award in the tournament’s most crucial game,” explained former Indian goalkeeper Brahmanand Sankwalkar.


The burly custodian is among five players in the ATKMB squad trusted by coach Habas to carry the captain's armband. The role of goalkeepers is evolving internationally and in the ISL, as the managers expect custodians to function as a sweeper back and start moves from the back.

Goalkeepers, usually looked upon as the last line of defence, now also operate as the first line in offence and are expected to be comfortable with the ball at their feet. Indian international Gurpreet Singh (Bengaluru FC) catches rivals by surprise with a long pass across the pitch to wingers.

Brahmanand is okay with change in work profile, but cautions against punishing goalkeepers for roles they not familiar with. “This has been demanded from goalkeepers even in the past. The player in the goal conveyed (to the coach or manager) that they were not ready (for tasks beyond guarding the goal).”



He added: “Experienced coaches have seen all the damage goalkeepers have caused when doing the extra tasks. The improvement in goalkeeping too is getting noticed, when the player is able to handle more responsibilities in match situations. In case of a mistake by the goalkeeper doing something beyond his basic role, a mature coach will tell the erring player to cool down and continue to trust him to get the job done. A young coach may not be so patient and a harsh decision may follow.”

Besides his sharp reflexes, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu has a long passing range.

The ex-Goa and India star is in touch with football as Chairman of Goa Football Development Council and operates from an office at the Fatorda stadium, Margao, one of three ISL venues this season.

FC Goa will play in this season’s opener at the same venue against Bengaluru FC, with youth international Mohammed Nawaz a strong candidate for FCG’s first choice goalkeeper position.

 “There were times when Nawaz was cool and excellent, at other times there were errors. The more he plays, the more maturity he will develop in the mind. He is one for the future,” said Brahmanand.


Talking about overall goalkeeping quality in ISL, he asserted: “There were ups and downs in the goalkeeping department. Subrata Paul made a comeback last season, showed flexibility and I feel developing his mind will be useful. Arindam needs to build up agility, he already has the maturity so getting his body into shape is the challenge.”

Elaborating on the qualities he looks for when sizing up any goalkeeper in action, Brahmanand quipped: “Anticipation and decision-making are the key points I look for in any goalkeeper, apart
from how flexible he is in a difficult situation. I judge any goalkeeper on the overall situation… he may make a great save or make an attempt which may still not prevent the ball going into the net, it does not matter.  Focus and never-say-die attitude from the player counts.”


The ISL games will be played in empty stadiums, a factor he feels is not likely to impact goalkeepers. “Players have learnt to overcome awkward situations like this.  If the goalkeeper’s focus is on himself and the opponent, silence in the stands will not matter for those trained to shut out distractions and be 100 per cent in the game,” said the veteran.

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