Jens Lehmann’s autobiography, The Madness is on the Pitch, is out now. Here’s an exclusive extract in which the former Arsenal No.1 discusses the evolving role of the goalkeeper…
In modern football, the keeper should be an organiser. He must be able to give orders, particularly during risky situations in the box, as often the defenders no longer have a feeling for the ball or the opposing players. One moment, they are watching the ball; the next, they are looking for their opponent – in the process, they lose their view of the whole game. This view, however, needs to be preserved by the goalkeeper and be translated into pinpoint stage direction, especially if the ball is in motion and the game is in flow.
Usually, defenders are well placed during dead balls, corners, or free kicks; the whole trick is to keep order as everything and everyone moves at top speed. To this end, it is not as important to watch the ball but rather the opposing players. If you know where they are or could be going, you also know where the ball is going and when it will be dangerous. This gets you that split-second advantage during which to shout at your defenders to take a step back, look to their right, or go left.
I never needed to do much yelling: up until the penalty spot, my teammates would still hear me even above 50,000 spectators. I did have to shout, though, if my defenders needed to confront a counter-attack way ahead of my goal or simply did not want to hear me. The reason for this is that once a ball is on its way to the unmarked forward, the full-back can no longer react. The secret of a goalkeeper’s success lies in his ability to anticipate not only individual shots but entire set-plays. Most of my goalkeeping colleagues stare primarily at the ball. In an interview, Oliver Kahn once told of how, in order to focus during a game, he had begun to look only towards the ball. Only then did I really understand why Kahn did not see and mitigate many situations earlier: if you only look at the ball, all you know is where it is, not where it will be.
For this reason, whenever the ball came from outside my box, I practically never stood head-on to it: otherwise, the segment of the game that I would be able to cover was going to be much too small. You only gain an overview if you free yourself from the fixation on the ball. Really, I always played like this, without anyone ever teaching me; I had already developed my style during my youth. My father created an archive in which he collected newspaper articles about me, and already in the very early clippings from my first games with the professionals, it said: ‘Keeper Lehmann stood out by his good control of the penalty area.’
Maybe it was because I had originally started as an outfield player, a forward. I will never know whether, under different circumstances, I might have been a good pro outside of the box too. If anything, I would have probably played midfield, as I had never been the fastest – my legs are simply too long. But I could have found a spot in the centre of play because there too you have to be able to read the game, which had come naturally to me from the beginning.
The move into goal did mean, of course, that I was giving up something crucial: the feeling of fulfilment during the shot on goal. Scoring a goal is something definite, while every saved ball is just another step down the path – a path that never really finds an end. The strike cannot be taken from you by anyone, but the grand save is forgotten after the next conceded goal and often entirely worthless. Even the most average forward can note something positive to his credit: the goals he has scored. In contrast, the performance of the world’s best keeper is recognised by mistakes, few as they may be.
To this day, I still consider every single goal ever scored against me a humiliation, even those conceded during a warm-up before the match. Already before kick-off, I wanted and needed to deliver a top performance, which was why each ball the goalkeeping coach put past me was a real nuisance. You can imagine, then, how much goals against bothered me during a game. ‘How stupid I am,’ I would think to myself even before the ball had passed the goal-line. It would take ages until I was over a lost game.
Some, I never managed to handle: for example, my defeats in the Champions League and European Championship finals, because such chances usually do not return. And since so much often hinges on a single ball, I too am in favour of video replays to decide on disputed goals. In football, a goal is the most precious thing. Occasionally, teams work for hours towards scoring one – or, from my perspective, towards preventing one. After all these efforts, it cannot be unclear whether or not a ball has crossed the line.
Fortunately, goal line technology has now been introduced to many of Europe’s top leagues, including the Bundesliga and the Premier League. But even when I had not conceded a goal, I would rarely leave the pitch a contented player. In at least 90 per cent of my games, I was not satisfied, because I had made a mistake. It might not have been important; it might have been one that no one had noticed, not even the manager. However, it still remained a mistake, and that meant I was still not perfect. I believe that only by consistent self-criticism can you develop to be a good player.
Although mistakes define a keeper’s life more than that of an outfield player, I have never regretted the walk into goal. I always perceived myself as the others’ team-mate, and the development of modern football has accommodated this greatly: the steady increase in pace and the invention of the back four have made the libero redundant – the man who used to be responsible for organising the defence. Now, the goalkeeper is the libero too.
This means a lot of work for him, created by his own defenders. The latter do not want and are not supposed to be man-to-man markers any more. Instead, they are zonal markers, with the result that they often stand in a completely wrong position to the forwards, granting them too many chances. I do not want to plead for the return to the old man- marking concept during which a defender of the Berti Vogts type used to pursue his opponent all the way to the loo – but defending means marking your man in the zone, because the latter alone does not score goals.
While this may sound simple, many defenders do not understand it. Slavishly, they think of their own position on the pitch and, eventually, do not stand optimally to the opponent. This is where the goalkeeper comes into play as organiser, as libero: with your orders, you ensure the correct position. You control how far the back four stands on the field, how large the gaps are between players. Staying in one line, meanwhile, is something they need to organise themselves, but many of them have grown lazy.
They move too slowly, especially forwards out of the defence. As a rule, if a ball is being played even a yard backwards by the other team, defenders need to move up a yard behind it; that is how they put the opposing forward under constant compulsion to move. The forward prefers to loiter on a level with the back four; it is convenient for him and makes him dangerous. If, however, the back four constantly pulses back and forth, he has to go with them, and that is when it becomes exhausting for him too. This is why I would try to set my back four in motion, shouting, ‘Outwards, outwards, outwards!’ – but not everyone listened to me, an issue which not even the managers press strongly enough.
Of course, I made mistakes over the course of my career, on and off the pitch – sometimes, you are simply off the mark about how a set-play will develop, and you are subsequently left to look a fool. I remember one of my first cup games with Schalke against Rot-Weiss Essen: shortly before the end, we were pushing for the equaliser; I was standing virtually alone at the halfway line as a long clearance came flying towards me. I wanted to stop it with the outside of my boot, but the ball jumped four, five yards away. An Essen player put it past me as cool as you please and ran with it into the empty goal – 0–2 and I was a complete laughing stock.
‘A good keeper with potential, but he plays much too riskily at times’ – such phrases became a kind of background music to me. A lot of it looked insanely easy, but every now and again, it would go wrong after all. Even in my final Bundesliga season in 2009/10 I was not beyond mistakes: during the home game against FC Köln with Stuttgart, we were trailing 0–1 when, just before the end, a long ball came sailing into my half. If I wanted to stand any chance at all, I had to go out. I was too late: Wilfried Sanou went through with the ball, and I had to fish the ball out of my goal for the second time that day.
In the beginning, this way of playing did not help me win my team-mates’ trust. You might receive fewer head-on reproaches, but you know best what it is you have done wrong anyway. Once, during a second-tier game at the age of eighteen against Braunschweig, who at the time were still playing really good football under Uwe Rienders, I played over 89 minutes as if I had eight arms. But in the ninetieth minute, a wobbling ball slipped through my hands in the mud, and a Braunschweig player slid it in. What was the point of Uwe Rienders coming into the dressing room afterwards, saying: ‘Great saves, sorry about the mistake’? Privately, he might have been laughing to himself. It was one of my more bitter moments – and the only one after which I sat in the dressing room and cried.
But year after year, I learned more and more things you should not do – that way, I drew closer to an almost perfect technique and style of play. I knew that the best way to survive in goal was to optimize my technique to perfection. What was becoming more and more important was making the right decisions at the right moment – something that young keepers, for example, do not know how to do yet because they lack experience and a grasp of the game. Arsène Wenger once remarked that I was improving the players around me – which is when you know the wheat has been sorted from the chaff.