How can you say this player was so good when you never saw him play?
It’s the go-to argument for when a player of the past is mentioned in a positive light. I’m sure you’ve heard it dozens of times, especially if you’ve advocated for the likes of Pele, Alfredo di Stéfano, Bobby Moore, and other legends of the past.
But at the very least those players were well-respected and revered worldwide in their generation. If you asked a 1960s European soccer fan about Pele, they’d be able to tell you who he was in a heartbeat. The same goes for Di Stéfano and Moore.
Unfortunately, the same can’t really be said for the iconic Soviet goalkeeper Lev Yashin; at least, not for the first part of his career.
Often credited with being the greatest goalkeeper of all-time, Yashin was an impenetrable fortress between the sticks. He holds the world record for most penalty saves (over 150) and he kept around 275 clean sheets for club and country. He’s a five-time Soviet Top League champion (and six-time runners-up), the official best goalkeeper of the 20th century (per the IFFHS), & he’s the only goalkeeper to ever win the Ballon d’Or as the world’s top footballer.
And yet, Yashin wasn’t exactly the most well-known goalkeeper of his time. Sure, he played in (and won) some major international tournaments, including the 1956 Olympics and the first-ever European championship, and he dominated domestically.
But this was before the age of the internet and widespread broadcast coverage of soccer competitions. It wasn’t as though you could hop onto WhoScored.com to search up player stats or catch a game from a different continent on Bein Sports; this was a time when the only way you could see how good a player was was by actually watching them play live yourself. And while the average European soccer fan had multiple opportunities to see Di Stefano, Moore, Pele & many others legends play live via constant friendlies and top-level club football (English First Division, Spanish La Liga, etc.), Yashin — who played his entire career in Russia with Dynamo Moscow — was a harder ticket to come by.
That all changed in 1963. The Football Association — England’s governing soccer body — turned 100 years old that year. To celebrate, an international friendly was organized between England’s national team and a world team featuring some of the best players from the rest of Europe and South America.
The match took place on October 23 — exactly three days before the FA’s birthday — and was played in a sold-out Wembley Stadium in London. Some of the world’s top talents, including Di Stéfano, Portuguese icon Eusébio & prolific Hungarian goalscorer Ferenc Puskás, featured for the Rest of the World team.
And in goal for the World was Yashin. He was the side’s only Soviet member.
Yashin only featured in the first half, and the World team spent large parts of that half on their heels. England, spurred ahead by Wembley’s 87,000 spectators, controlled the tempo and peppered their visitors’ goal attack after attack. Despite their talent, the World team struggled to contain England.
But Yashin could not be beat. The Soviet goalkeeper — who celebrated his 34th birthday the day before — turned aside everything England threw at his goal. Sizzling shots? He dove and directed the ball away. Dangerous deliveries into his box? He bravely put himself into the face of danger and more often than not came away from the dust with the ball firmly in his grasp.
As if that wasn’t enough, Yashin was also causing problems for England offensively. Instead of holding onto the ball for a few seconds and eating time off of the clock, Yashin would immediately throw the ball to one of his teammates in an attempt to catch England out of position. His deliveries were accurate, and he would sometimes skip his defenders and opt to pass the ball to one of the midfielders near the halfway line to try to spark a quick counter-attack.
When the first half came to an end, Yashin was given a standing ovation by the home crowd.
Although Yashin had been playing at a professional level for 13 years already, it’s his performance in this friendly that’s cited as introducing him to the greater football world. His teammates, upon returning to their foreign clubs and countries, told their countrymen about this great Russian goalkeeper, while the English buzzed among themselves about the goalie — who they nicknamed the “Black Spider” — that had stumped some of their best ever players.
But how is it possible that one half of play from a goalkeeper (in a friendly, no less), could capture the astonishment of the greater football world? What exactly did Yashin do to earn the international praise he received following this match? And what does his performance say about his style and ability?
These are some of the questions I’d like to answer in this classic goalkeeper analysis piece. A lot is often said about the revolutionary aspects of Yashin’s play, but much of the praise he receives is too general and doesn’t really hit home at just how good of a goalkeeper he was. That’s why I’d like to do him justice by dissecting one of his best-ever performances and highlighting just how he dominated the position and influenced the game of goalkeeping.
Side note: It’s important to acknowledge the limitations of broadcast and video in the 1960s. Unfortunately, due to the camera quality and the lack of replays, there are some plays where I can’t go into too much detail. Nonetheless, I will do my best with what I’ve got.
One of the qualities that separated Yashin from the average goalkeeper of his time was his willingness to leave his line to intercept through balls and crosses, and we saw a good example of that early in the match.
Just over five minutes after kick-off, England’s Jimmy Greaves carried the ball near the World’s box. He spotted teammate Bobby Smith making a run into the box, so he delivered the ball forward. The pass curved away from Yashin’s goal, but the Soviet goalkeeper rushed forward and gobbled the ball up. In the process, he ran into Smith, who tumbled to the ground after taking a hit from Yashin’s shoulder.
This play is an example of two of Yashin’s most impeccable traits.
Firstly, it’s an example of his bravery. Excluding Yashin, three players are chasing this ball; two of them are Yashin’s teammates and the other is Smith. They are all running towards Yashin. Therefore, if Yashin attacks this ball, the likelihood that he’ll get into a head-on collision is high, which means the potential he’ll get hurt is also high.
In such a situation, it’s easy for a player to decide against getting involved for their own safety. Players are only human, and its only natural to avoid situations that cause us physical pain.
For a goalkeeper, it’s also easy to avoid situations like this one due to the fear of conceding a bad goal. By getting involved in the play, goalkeepers risk missing the ball and giving the opponent an open goal to shoot at, or putting themself in a poor position to handle an attempt. Because of this possibility, some goalkeepers — especially in Yashin’s time — fear getting involved and opt instead to handle situations from the safety of their goal line.
Here though, Yashin shakes off those fears because he sees an opportunity to snuff out a chance. He approaches the ball assertively and refuses to yield to the oncoming trio of players and the possibility of conceding a bad goal.
Of course, Yashin is stupid; he still cares for his safety. That’s why once he collects the ball, Yashin raises his shoulder to shield himself from the oncoming traffic. He didn’t throw himself at the players’ feet and hope for the best; he secured possession of the ball while playing smart but brave goalkeeping.
Secondly, this is an example of Yashin’s willingness to leave his line and intercept passes.
Around this time, most goalkeepers would stay on or near their line when on the defensive. The average goalkeeper in this era was a lot more reserved; they let their teammates handle things such as passes, crosses and runs from the opposition, and they would just focus on saving shots. If no shot was coming their way, the goalkeeper was not to get involved.
But Yashin didn’t believe in this. He was one of a handful of goalkeepers from this era who took on a more proactive role in goal. and this included leaving his line to intercept crosses and passes near the edge of his box. Yashin commanded his area like a general, and he refused to allow his box to be taken advantage of.
That’s why, when Greaves sent this pass into Yashin’s box, the Soviet had to react. Although the ball was curving away from his goal, Yashin knew that if he reacted quickly, he’ll get to the pass before anyone else. The Soviet stayed on his toes leading up to the pass, and he was the first to make a move to the ball once it entered his territory.
Yashin’s willingness to leave his line can also be seen in another play later in the half.
On this play, England’s Gordon Milne intercepts a clearance from the World team near the edge of their box. He carries the ball into the box near the top corner left of Yashin and crosses the ball into Yashin’s six-yard box. Unfortunately for him, Yashin plucks the ball out of the air before his free teammate could get to it.
Here, Yashin expects Milne to deliver something — be it a shot or a cross — to his goal, so he assumes his set-position — on his toes, knees slightly bent and body leaning forward — as Milne makes a move. This allows him to quickly spring into action when needed.
When Milne sends the cross into Yashin’s six-yard box, Yashin is already taking a step towards the ball. All he was to do is stretch his body and, as the commentator puts it, “pluck that [cross] out of the air as if they mean nothing.”
Yashin was a brave and forward-thinking goalkeeper for his time; he believed that the 18-yard box belonged to the goalkeeper and only the goalkeeper. Yashin had all four corners of his box covered, and if any footballer — such as England’s players on this day — thought they’d be given free rein to do whatever they wanted to in his area, they were greatly mistaken (as evidenced above).
Yashin’s proactiveness wasn’t limited to intercepting passes and crosses; he also took charge when making his own deliveries.
Yashin enjoyed getting involved in the offensive side of the game. For example, when a teammate was under pressure, Yashin would move towards that teammate and open himself up for a back-pass.
Because the back-pass rule — which prevents goalkeepers from picking up a pass from a teammate’s foot with their hands — had yet to be implemented, Yashin would pick up the pass and gain unobstructed possession of the ball.
Granted, this was something a lot of goalkeepers at the time did anyway, so this particular point is nothing too special. What is special is what Yashin would often do with the ball afterwards.
The average goalkeeper in Yashin’s era often used this play for one thing; time-wasting. A defender would pass the ball back to the goalkeeper, the goalkeeper would pick it up and hold it for a few seconds, and then he’d either return the ball to his defender, find another teammate to deliver a short pass to, or try to kick the ball as far away from his goal as possible.
Yashin didn’t subscribe to this philosophy. Although the tactic had its (annoying) benefits, Yashin saw these possessions as an opportunity for him to build something out from the back. Instead of killing time and allowing his opponents to get back into formation, Yashin would immediately look for an opening in his opponents’ set-up, and he’d attempt to take advantage of that hole before his opponents could patch it up.
Furthermore, the Soviet goalkeeper would look to play the ball to his midfielders or attackers. That way, his team’s attack could forgo the pressure put on by an opponents’ attackers and start from near the halfway line as opposed to near his own goal.
An example of how quickly Yashin would move the ball forward after gaining possession of it can be seen after a particular save on England’s Bobby Smith (more on the specific save in a bit). Mere moments after making a stupendous stop on the Englishman, Yashin threw the ball to a teammate in space, tens of yards away from his goal.
Note the amount of open space surrounding Di Stéfano when he receives this ball. There are only two England players within camera shot when Di Stéfano first touches the pass, and neither of them are in a good enough position to actually challenge him for the ball. Di Stéfano has time to take a touch and consider his outlets without being rushed into a decision.
This freedom that Di Stéfano has is borne out of Yashin’s quick throw. Had Yashin taken his time delivering this pass, England would’ve had enough time to reorganize themselves and thus be in a better position to either intercept this pass or pressure Di Stéfano into making a bad play.
But due to Yashin’s proactiveness, the Soviet goalkeeper was able to catch his opponents off guard and find a teammate in an advanced part of the field with acres of space surrounding him.
This is why Yashin is often considered to be the father of modern goalkeeping. While the average goalkeeper of the era focused on time-wasting, Yashin would look to play the ball as quickly as possible in an effort to catch his opponents sleeping. He had an uncanny ability to identify pockets of space in a hurry, and his quick but accurate deliveries ensured that his teams were able to exploit these areas more often than not.
Along with his willingness to play off of his line and his quickness when starting attacks, Yashin was also a very effective shot-stopper. The Soviet goalkeeper made a number of fantastic diving saves to deny England, most of which were, unfortunately, either too blurry to analyze or were not caught by the camera.
Luckily for us, the camera caught a clear sight of Yashin’s top stop.
Midway through the first half, England’s Bobby Charlton approached the right side of Yashin’s goal. He used a couple of hip fakes to gain some space on the World’s Djalma Santos before he delivered a cross from the edge of the penalty box. The delivery rose over three World players and found Smith free near the six-yard box, who dove towards the ball and redirected a header onto goal.
Smith seemingly had Yashin beat, but the goalkeeper dove to his left and plucked the ball out of the air. Yashin was able to prevent the ball from squirting free — a very difficult task on a shot from that close — and he immediately threw the ball forward, looking to start a counter-attack.
This is a world-class save by Yashin — probably the save of the game.
For starters, Yashin does a good job adjusting his position for the shot. Initially, the Soviet goalkeeper is two or three steps off of his line, likely so that he can be a step ahead of his opponents in case he decides to attack a potential cross.
But when the delivery comes in, it becomes clear that Yashin will not be able to reach the cross in time. So, he readjusts his positioning by retreating back to his line. This is a smart play from the Soviet goalkeeper because it gives him an extra half-second or so to process the shot and react to it.
That may not seem like much of a difference, but consider this; a goalkeeper in Yashin’s position only has about a second or so to process the attempt and react to it. Time is not on the goalkeeper’s side, and any time that’s wasted — even if it’s only fractions of a second — could be detrimental to a goalkeeper’s chances of stopping the shot. Every millisecond counts, and if you can give yourself even a few extra tenths of a second to react to a shot from this range, you’re increasing your chances of stopping the attempt. That’s why it’s a very smart play by Yashin to retreat to his line like he did.
A goalkeeper does live dangerously when they position themselves so close to their goal line, though. If a goalkeeper doesn’t have a good understanding of their positioning in relation to where their goal line is, they’re at risk of positioning themselves behind their goal line and potentially conceding a bad goal.
As an example, take Everton goalkeeper Jordon Pickford’s position on Florian Lejeune’s game-tying goal in Newcastle United’s 2-2 draw with Everton. (Goal at 8:28)
As Pickford attempts to track the ball’s movement, he ends up positioning himself with one foot behind his goal line. Then, after jumping into his goal, he’s positioned completely behind his own goal line.
At this point, Newcastle’s Lejeune takes a shot that hits Pickford. Unfortunately, because the Everton goalkeeper is too far behind his own goal line, the ball had completely crossed the goal line before Pickford had even gotten a touch on it. As a result, the goal stood.
This goal was aided by Pickford losing track of his position on his line — most of his body is in his net leading up to Lejeune’s goal — and his improper balance and set-shape were born out of that. This results in Pickford throwing himself backwards into his goal (as opposed to forwards or to his side), and it puts him in a position where he can’t save any shot, even one that’s coming straight at him.
There’s a thin line (pun not intended) between playing on your goal line and giving yourself more time to react to an attempt, and playing behind your goal line and handcuffing yourself from saving a shot. In this scenario, Pickford failed to walk that line properly.
But Yashin handled himself very well in his scenario. He did not lose sight of his surroundings — he had a good idea of where he was positioned in relation to his goal line — and he made sure he didn’t cross his goal line or position himself at an awkward angle to the ball.
Yashin also kept himself properly balanced, which allowed him to push himself forward and keep the ball (and his body) out of his goal. Had he not been properly balanced, Yashin might’ve dove backwards and accidentally carried the ball over his line.
One more thing I’d like to highlight about this save is the fact that Yashin held onto the shot. Given where the attempt came from and how little time Yashin had to react to it, the Soviet likely would’ve been expected to slap the ball away from his goal line.
But Yashin, rather than risk giving away a rebound, absorbed the shot by placing his hands in a W-like formation.
Named so because the goalkeeper’s hands make a “W” when catching the ball, a successful W-technique has the goalkeeper’s two thumbs firmly meeting in the middle of the ball, while the other fingers wrap around it. As part of the technique, goalkeepers are also encouraged to keep their hands wrapped around the top half of the ball. Doing so means the ‘keeper has a fail-safe in case they don’t catch the ball properly; it’ll just drop in front of the goalkeeper, allowing them to recover and control it.
This technique is not the only way to catch a shot, but it is a popular way due to its effectiveness. The goalkeeper’s thumbs cushion the ball while blocking it from pushing through their hands, and their palms and other fingers prevent the ball from slipping out of the goalkeeper’s grip.
When executed properly, the W-technique will absorb all of a shot’s power and nullify its threat.
This is why Yashin is able to catch Smith’s shot without giving up a rebound. His widespread use of the technique is also why he’s one of the best goalkeepers when it comes to controlling and preventing rebounds.
The Soviet goalkeeper often saved shots with two hands as opposed to one — usually in the aforementioned W-technique — and that allowed him to get a better grasp of the ball and nullify a shot. And if he couldn’t get a clean catch, Yashin would use his hands to guide the ball into his body, allowing his body to cushion the shot and wrap itself around the ball.
It was rare to see Yashin give up a bad rebound; if he couldn’t catch a shot, he’d often deflect it to the sides of the pitch (into less dangerous areas) or out of play. And if he couldn’t do either of those, the rebound often wouldn’t stray too far away from his body, meaning he’d have enough time to recover from his first save and pounce on the ball.
Yashin was nicknamed the “Black Spider”, and it really seemed as though he had webbing on his gloves due to how often a shot would just stick to his hands.
Through this particular save, Yashin displayed not only his incredible shot-stopping ability, but also his ability to readjust in a quickly-changing situation, his strong positional awareness, and his uncanny ability to hold onto practically any kind of shot.
England ended up beating the World team by a score of 2-1, but both of England’s goals came with Milutin Šoškić in goal. Yashin kept a clean sheet in 45 minutes of astonishing action.
Although all three goalkeepers who participated in the match performed marvellously, it was Yashin who received the plaudits post-game. The fans at Wembley Stadium gave him a standing ovation following the half-time whistle, and the game’s English commentator was full of praise for the Soviet goalkeeper; he remarked at one point, “I don’t know what you have to do to get that ball past Yashin.”
To be fair, neither did most players that faced Yashin that year. 1963 was a career year for the Soviet — not only did he win his first Soviet Top League title in four years, but he also became the first (and only) goalkeeper to win the Ballon d’Or as the year’s top footballer.
The Ballon d’Or win came just two months after Yashin’s performance in the commemorative friendly, and few who saw him perform in that match would argue against him deserving the award. His fellow footballers certainly believed he was worthy; the Portuguese icon Eusébio, who played with Yashin in that friendly, once called him “the greatest goalkeeper in the history of world football”, and Gordon Banks, his opposite number one on that day, said that Yashin served as “the model for goalkeeping for the next 10 to 15 years.”
For large parts of his career, Yashin’s performances in the Soviet Union had gone unnoticed due to the inability of most foreigners to view games. But when Yashin was given the chance to prove to the greater footballing world that he was the sport’s number one goalkeeper, he took it. Despite featuring in a friendly that starred all-time football greats such as Di Stéfano, Charlton & Greaves, Yashin overshadowed them all in one half’s worth of play.
Yashin’s performance vs. England significantly contributed to his reputation as the world’s best goalkeeper, and it earned him an untouchable place in football history.