Nearly a year ago, in response to its increasing use, I gave my opinion on the strategy of employing the fly goalkeeper throughout a match. The tactic often sees teams using the numerical advantage to maintain possession for long periods. The issue has come to the fore again with Kairat Almaty, who heavily use this tactic, becoming the 2015 Champions of Europe. I will now take another look at this subject.
Firstly, I would like to congratulate Kairat on their title. No-one can deny they performed fantastically to win the competition for a second time in three years. When you consider they play in a league with only six teams and dominate so much they won all their games but one this achievement is even greater. They have defeated the top teams from Europe’s most competitive leagues. The magnitude of this feat should not be underestimated.
In this year’s UEFA Futsal Cup Final Kairat played excellently in all aspects of play but the key to their recent success has been their frequent use of their fly goalkeeper. Several other teams have done this but no-one has been able to do it as superbly as the Kazakhstan Champions. They have developed a unique way of using this tactic which other teams have found almost impossible to counteract.
The key features of their strategy are the following;
- With your goal left unguarded it was previously a very risky and all-or-nothing tactic, which tempered its use. Kairat have managed to minimise this risk in various ways. Firstly, as soon as there is any hint that they could lose possession their goalkeeper sprints back so he is never caught out of position. Secondly, they always shoot very powerfully which stops their opponent gaining control of the ball to shoot quickly before their goalkeeper gets back in position. Thirdly, whereas most teams substitute an outfield player to fulfil this role Kairat use their first choice goalkeeper so they always have a recognised goalkeeper ready to save any shots.
- They combine their powerful shots with putting two or three players in the opponent’s penalty area which restricts the view of the opponent’s goalkeeper, gives the opportunity deflect the ball into the goal and allows them to be in position for any rebounds.
- They spread themselves out using the whole width and depth of the opponent’s half so the space created makes it is very difficult to press them without leaving yourself open. If you go to block the shot then you often leave the passing line to the spare player.
- The fact they use their normal goalkeeper allows them to bring him forward without any warning. This element of surprise doesn’t give time for the other team to position their defence for the sudden numerical superiority or bring their preferred defenders on as usually is the case. It also creates great uncertainty in their rivals which they carry throughout the game.
Tactics don’t function alone and they need players to execute them. Cacau, the Kairat Head Coach, has designed his system in combination with the exceptional talent he has at his disposal. His players possess excellent intelligence and technical ability, such as the experienced Joan, enabling them to play this system to perfection.
Of course, the most crucial player in this tactic is their goalkeeper Higuita, named after the famous Colombian footballer of the 1990s. He has a fierce long range shot and a precise pass that is better than most outfield players, even when playing first time or dinking the ball over a rapidly approaching defender.
It can be fascinating to watch how effective Kairat are at using this strategy. When watching them I can appreciate the expertise, technical ability and hard work in training that is required to make it successful. However, at the same time, when used for long periods I can also find it a bit tedious.
My concern is that if I am getting bored watching it then how are people who are less passionate or new to futsal going to react. Instead of seeing the usual intricate and rapid combination plays, 1v1 dribbles, end to end counter attacking and other similar actions that got me hooked on futsal they see a very static and slow game. It is not only the team using fly goalkeeper that don’t show these plays but their opponents because they see little of the ball. It can be claimed it is entertaining to watch but it is impossible to argue that is as thrilling as the way futsal is normally played.
Some argue that the solution to prevent its use is for teams to find a strategy to overcome it. Over the last three years the best clubs in Europe have struggled to do this. In fact, Kairat is the only team to defeat Barcelona in Europe. I, more or less, agree with this idea with regard to Kairat and believe eventually they either will or Kairat will no longer have the players to execute the tactic so effectively. One worry I do have is that teams will try to counteract Kairat by employing the fly goalkeeper themselves, resulting in lacklustre encounters.
However, I think this is where the debate is getting off track. The focus on Kairat is wrong as they are only receiving all the attention because they have mastered this tactic. They should be praised for using it with such devastating effectiveness. If it was only Kairat that was doing this there wouldn’t be a problem. The issue is that several teams have employed it in the past even if its use is not endemic.
We have seen it used several times in international competitions that are the showcase for our sport. Azerbaijan, Croatia, Holland, Kuwait and Romania have all used it at one time or another in a manner to disrupt their opponent’s game. In last year’s UEFA Futsal Cup 3rd Place Playoff between Kairat and Araz both teams employed the tactic for the majority of the game and many regarded it as a dull affair.
It is these tournaments that are the only televised futsal during the year in many countries where the sport is yet to become established. Is this really what we want to show during our best opportunity to promote futsal to a large audience?
Futsal is a sport that requires more media and public interest to drive the investment that is desperately needed and to become an Olympic Sport. Sport is a competitive industry and the ‘product’ must always be reviewed and modified, whilst maintaining the essence of the game, to ensure it is as entertaining as possible.
Other sports adapt their rules to protect the spectacle. Some argue that this tactic is just like ‘parking the bus’ in football. I don’t see this. First of all you can ‘park the bus’ in futsal by defending 10m from your goal. The difference is the fly goalkeeper fundamentally changes the nature of the sport. Futsal goes from being a dynamic and high tempo sport to being a slow and static one. I would argue the speed of play is futsal’s biggest asset and its advantage over other sports.
If I had to compare it with football I would say it is more like the back pass tactic used frequently during the 1990 FIFA World Cup where a player could continually pass the ball back to their goalkeeper to pick up. Fans found this boring and football reacted by introducing a rule preventing this a couple of years later.
A more relevant example might be from basketball who introduced the backcourt violation and shot clock regulations as they were struggling to attract fans. It stopped teams on keeping possession without attacking once they had taken the lead, quite similar to how they fly goalkeeper has been used.
Before I conclude, I want to reiterate that I am not taking anything away from Cacau, Kairat’s Head Coach, and his team. They have deservedly won the UEFA Futsal Cup on two occasions through excellent execution of an innovative strategy.
No other team is trying to imitate their specific way of using it despite their success which shows how difficult it is do. It requires very high levels of technique, decision making and practise in training. It can also be added that in final they were arguably better than Barcelona when playing without the fly goalkeeper.
So what should be done? Maybe it is too hasty to bring in a rule change immediately and we should wait a little longer to see how its use develops. Personally I think it will always be used by some teams. We should, however, be ready to act to protect the wonderful spectacle that futsal offers.
If a rules was to be introduced I would not propose it prohibits the fly goalkeeper altogether as it adds to the uniqueness of futsal. I love that a futsal match is never over and there are often dramatic comebacks because of teams employing the fly goalkeeper in the last few minutes of a match when they are behind. Rather, it should be made more difficult to implement so that the balance of risk means it is only used in these situations. Last year I proposed a backcourt violation rule that I think would reconfigure this balance (See this article).
I respect that others may have a different opinion and welcome you to put your view in the comments section below. The motive behind mine is that I want this sport to be enjoyed by as many people as possible and see it grow to reach the widespread popularity it deserves.