Goalkeeper-defender relationship critical to success


By Scott Akanewich


Without it, goals fly into one’s own net on a soccer field.

So, to that end, the wavelength between the man between the sticks and his teammates who patrol the area directly in front of him must be clear and concise.

After all, there is no room for error on that part of the pitch.

“If the attack makes a mistake, you still have 10 people behind the ball,” said Liberty Hill head Coach Wayne Munger. “But in defense, the ball can end up in the back of your net.”

All of it begins with the goalkeeper, for he is the one player on the field who has the entire game in front of him, which allows the opportunity to be the equivalent of a symphony orchestra conductor.

For the Panthers, senior Uriel Diaz is that man and he realizes how critical communication is to ensure opposing attacks are successfully repelled.

“Basically, if I don’t have good communication with my center backs, we have issues,” said Diaz. “I’m always letting them know when they have a man behind them or if there’s an open lane.”

One of the players Diaz must be in constant contact with is senior center back Gabe Hernandez, who must also communicate with his fellow defenders.

“Usually, I talk to them all the time,” said Hernandez. “But, Uriel tells us where to move.”

According to Hernandez, one element is absolutely crucial.

“Trust,” he said. “If we do well in preventing goals, we build trust.”

During the recent Panther Cup, the Purple-and-Gold defense experienced the full spectrum of what happens when they communicate effectively and what occurs when they’re lacking in that department.

In the season opener against Midlothian Heritage, the Panthers fell behind by a 4-0 deficit inside the first 42 minutes, but then something happened, said Hernandez.

“We started possessing the ball, which opened lanes up top,” he said.

Which made all the difference, as the Panthers staged a frantic fightback on the strength of a Jaron Frye hat trick in closing the score to 4-3, which was how the contest ended.

A defeat, but valuable lessons learned, said Hernandez.

“We learned in that game what we needed to do moving forward,” he said.

Munger attributed his side’s early-game struggles to a case of being overcautious.

“We have so much youth in our team who are missing experience,” he said. “So, I think they got in our heads early on and we gave them too much respect and space, but then we started stepping to the ball and found success – we were forcing them to play how we want to play and began creating more opportunities.”

Sure enough, the Liberty Hill defense only conceded a single goal in the three subsequent games, so it was mission accomplished.

However, success in the moment is only the beginning in establishing a solid defense game in, game out, said Munger.

“You can solve problems in the short term,” he said. “But, really, it’s a long-term project. Sometimes, it depends on who we’re playing or what kind of chemistry we have at the moment.”

At times, the Panthers will employ three center backs in front of Diaz, while at others a traditional back four with two central defenders and a pair of wing backs are the order of the day.

But, either way, everyone must always be on the same page or the consequences can be deadly, said Munger.

“When you lose track of a talented forward, the worst case is they score a goal,” he said.

Ultimately, if everything goes according to plan, no goals are conceded and the resulting shutout is a source of satisfaction for all involved, said Munger.

“We always love clean sheets,” he said. “But, if we’re not going to get them, the preseason is the time to see where the holes in our defense are.”

As a goalkeeper who is the last line of defense, Diaz takes extreme exception when an opposing shot beats him, he said.

“I prefer not getting scored on at all,” he said. “So, I just save as many shots as I can.”

Hernandez agreed with his keeper.

“As a defender, you always want to keep a clean sheet,” he said. “We especially don’t want a bad team to score on us.”

When the opposition changes tactics during a game, communication is what allows a defense to react accordingly, said Munger.

“It’s really more of a system question,” he said. “Some teams will press up high looking to counter, while others will press lower and look to recycle the ball back, so the ideal situation is to be compatible enough to handle when that happens.”

When a defense is able to maintain proper shape, opposing attacks will grow weary of failing to breach it time and again, said Munger.

“Having tightness at the back will wear a team down,” he said.

Achieving that kind of disciplined play requires a defense to be on point throughout an entire game in more ways than one, said Munger.

“Physically, each play is only a couple seconds of work,” he said. “But, it’s combined with the mental side of the game. You always need to anticipate the play and not have gaps in the action.”

Hernandez said sometimes the most effective course of action is to keep it uncomplicated.

“Making simple passes and not panicking or overreacting is important,” he said.

When it does all go horribly wrong at the back, necessary changes must be in the offing, said Munger.

“One thing we have going for us is unlimited subs, so we can always change personnel when things aren’t going well,” he said. “If everything really falls apart, we can also change formations and if all else fails, a good halftime talk will sometimes do the trick.”

One thing is for certain.

A strong defense provides a platform to build a foundation of success upon, which benefits the entire 11 players on the pitch at a given time – and that is only achieved through cohesion and chemistry, said Munger.

“Communication keeps everyone on the same page,” he said. “The goalkeeper can see the entire field from his vantage point including where the spaces are and can dictate the play going forward – in that way, a defense can be just as much of a playmaker as your midfield.”

But, patience is certainly a virtue, for true understanding isn’t an overnight process, said Munger.

“Strong communication takes time,” he said. “Depending on how much time players get on the ball, it will develop.”