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A goalkeeper’s perspective: Hedvig Lindahl

I spoke with Sweden and Atlético Madrid’s veteran goalkeeper about the many variables a goalkeeper faces every game.

Brazil v Sweden Semi Final: Women’s Football - Olympics: Day 11 Photo by Stuart Franklin - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

Hedvig Lindahl has some sage advice for any goalkeeper out there. “Don’t get beat over your head, don’t get beat there because you’re off balance and most importantly, if you have the chance to get there first to kick it away, that’s always the best option.” It sounds like simple advice from Lindahl when you read it but if you really think about it, that’s sound advice for any goalkeeper, young or old. It’s something so seemingly simplistic that has made Lindahl synonymous with the Swedish national team. Lindahl is the fifth most-capped player to ever wear her country’s jersey and a veteran presence that has been pivotal in some of their biggest triumphs to date, and she took the time out before a busy club period to speak to AllForXI.

Her career didn’t only start in goal. Lindahl started out as a forward and a goalkeeper but she doesn’t really remember much of that time except that she liked being inside the penalty area. She began her football in Södermanland county with local teams around that area that were primarily boys teams as girls teams at that time, weren’t an option for her. Due to her performances, she was then selected at 13 years-old for the regional Södermanland team which then led to her gaining notice and getting selected for the national team at youth level.

“Around the time I was 13, I had been playing more in goal than as a forward but when I got selected to the regional team, I decided to become a goalkeeper full time.” Lindahl states. “I have vague memories of lots of positive feedback whenever I played in goal, and I always played with boys and did so well, so that made the decision for me.”

Lindahl’s first goalkeeping session didn’t happen until she was 14 years-old but once she had that session, and continued to get passionate coaches around her who helped her develop, her overall game evolved and became better as well. “Young goalkeepers now have different sessions than what I had. Better sessions.” Lindahl muses. “Back then, I was fortunate that I had so many passionate people around me who helped me develop otherwise I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

Frauenfussball: Algarve Cup 2005, GER - SWE; Photo by Christian Fischer/Bongarts/Getty Images

Where she is now, is currently playing for Atlético de Madrid Femenino in the Primera Iberdrola, in the same city that her idol, Iker Casillas, plied his trade. “It’s funny, he’s roughly a year older than me but he had the biggest influence on my style.” Lindahl says. “He had huge visibility compared to me so because I saw him often, he became my role model. His usage of his whole body, his explosiveness, his agility, all of that was so impressive to me. He also had to work harder than taller goalkeepers because of his height and had to use more spring to gather high balls but it didn’t stop him from becoming one of the best goalkeepers the game has ever seen.”

While she was modeling her game after Casillas, her coaches aided her development as well. Different coaches appeared at different times as she switched teams throughout her youth but Elisabeth Liedinge, a former Swedish international, remains one of the best she’s worked with. Liedinge and Lindahl crossed paths when Lindahl joined Malmö FF Dam (now known as FC Rosengård) in the Damallsvenskan in 2001. That relationship also helped Lindahl become a mainstay with the national team as well throughout the various youth levels.

As time went on, Lindahl felt that she needed a shift in her career. In 2015, she ended up leaving the Damallsvenskan and moving to England to join Chelsea FC. “I moved there primarily because of my family. We had just had our first son and I didn’t feel like it was sustainable to keep driving or taking the train for one and half hours to training, while having a small child at home.” Lindahl states. Sweden did offer other opportunities for Lindahl but the veteran goalkeeper felt that the league was beginning to drop in quality compared to other European leagues and it was time to see what they had to offer instead.

“I could have stood strong and stayed in Sweden, for the league and to make it work there but I needed to make an individual decision so I looked abroad,” Lindahl notes. “At the time, I didn’t think England was all that interesting and I was hesitant about the league itself but my agent at the time heard that Chelsea were looking for a goalkeeper. I spoke to the manager (Emma Hayes) on a video call and she answered my questions well, so I thought ‘okay, I can do this’.”

Chelsea Ladies FC v Notts County Ladies: Women’s FA Cup Final
Despite a rough start, Lindah’s time with Chelsea was successful
Photo by Michael Regan - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

Her time at Chelsea proved to be a steep learning curve for Hedvig Lindahl but one she enjoyed. As the league and the club itself grew, so did she. “Different leagues have different styles and in England, at the time, I was expected to go through people to get the ball which isn’t my style.” Now, the FA WSL isn’t as physical a league but when Lindahl was there, the league was still up-and-coming and it demanded that goalkeepers in that league be physical and seek contact. “I’m a bigger goalkeeper compared to others but I don’t intentionally seek contact,” Lindahl continues. “I’d rather flick the ball around a player than go through them.” That caused a few conflicts between her and her defenders as they learned to play with each other. In Sweden, Lindahl had played a longer, more transitional game. The goalkeeper would receive the ball and kick it long, rarely would they be required to play it short. Goalkeepers also had to always defend set pieces and spaces behind their backline, which was not what those in England wanted from her.

“I ended up telling them that I decide when I should come out, not you. Just because you’re used to a goalkeeper running through people, doesn’t mean that I will.” Lindahl persists. “Why should we all end up in a pile of bodies when you can just kick it out?”

After four and half years at Chelsea, the time came for Lindahl to make another career move. This time, Germany and VfL Wolfsburg came calling in 2019. “I always admired German goalkeepers so the move was good for me. I learned specific goalkeeping techniques there such as blocking and spreading, which I also did in England but not to the degree that I did in Germany,” Lindahl states. That isn’t at all surprising to hear if you’re familiar with Germany and the goalkeepers they have produced and continue to produce. Nadine Angerer, one of the best we’ll ever see in goal, hailed from there and went on to win multiple titles for club and country. Germany continues to produce excellent goalkeepers each year and apart from being able to spot talent, they also produce and develop that talent well.

Lindahl joined a great Wolfsburg team that had won domestic and continental titles in recent history so she came into an environment that helped specifically develop her organisation in transition defending even more.

Spain, where she now plays, gave her game the opportunity to grow once again in another direction. “The league here expects more responsibility from goalkeepers. We always play it short or play it to the second line, trying to find a space or a player to pass to. I used to play indoor football which helps and I’m a technical goalkeeper already but it’s been a long time since I had to rely on that so my technique had been sleeping,” Lindahl finishes with a laugh.

Again, the role of a goalkeeper in Spain isn’t a surprising one to hear about either. Spain is known for its possession-oriented style and goalkeepers in the league are expected to be able to pick a pass and become part of the passing game. That doesn’t mean that the fundamentals get left on the wayside, as Lindahl’s teammate Lola Gallardo and others have shown with their performances. Instead, on top of those, your technical ability has to be just as good as any outfield player on your team.

Atletico De Madrid V SD Eibar - Primera Division Femenina
Lindahl tries to communicate with everyone on the pitch
Photo by Irina R. Hipolito / Europa Press Sports via Getty Images

“During a game, I speak to almost everyone,” Lindahl states, which shows just how involved she is throughout, whether it’s vocally or physically. “I’m not sure if everyone likes that but I do that only when it’s necessary, especially when I play with Sweden. If I can see a gap in our pressing, I will shout instructions to the forward.” That’s something that would work well in the Spanish game because of how most of the teams like to play. A high press with possession. “It’s not always ideal,” Lindahl continues “because sometimes someone behind the forward may have a better view but if I know that the player in midfield is a quieter player, I’ll take on the responsibility especially if I see that something isn’t working.” As a goalkeeper, that viewpoint is essential and Lindahl uses it to maximise not only her role in the team but those around her as well. The less she has to do when facing a shot because those around her are in place, the better.

Speaking of Sweden, one of the biggest moments in her international career occurred during the 2016 Rio Olympics. Sweden knocked out the World Champions, USA in the quarter-finals on penalties, a first for the USWNT in their history. Hedvig Lindahl was the hero on that day.

“I do a lot of work beforehand in terms of analysis, patterns, tendencies, etc which helps. I can usually feel it if I’m ready or not and it’s easier to save a penalty during a shootout than it is during the game itself because of the flow of the game,” Lindahl begins as we delve into that crazy day at the Estádio Nacional Mané Garrincha. “You want to feel tall, wide, big, chest out, etc and when I have that energy flowing through me, I know that I’ll probably have a good chance.”

A goalkeeper’s confidence is key to any penalty shootout, as well as their preparation. On the day though, that confidence tends to not only give the goalkeeper the extra push they need to make a save but it sometimes seems to transmit to the takers, both against the goalkeeper and those on her team. “Some takers will come with the same confidence as me, and then they might win that energy battle,” Lindahl notes. “Most times, I tend to win that battle though so that even if they score, I’ll get close to it or almost save it, which makes them relieved but their teammates more nervous because now they’re thinking ‘wow, I have to make mine perfect or she’ll get it’.”

On that day in Brasilia, so much energy was flowing not only on the pitch but in the crowd as well. That energy helped Lindahl win her “energy battles” and help Sweden progress to the semi-finals of the Olympic tournament. “It was such a weird game but so many things came together for me.” The battle of the goalkeepers was the theme in that match. Hope Solo, considered the benchmark of goalkeepers and pantomime villain for the crowds in Brazil, against Lindahl, the underdog but crowd favourite. “I felt crazy!” Lindahl exclaims, “I’ve never experienced anything like it since actually. That’s what was needed to beat the US then, a really good team that had just won the World Cup.”

The crowd was notably against the USWNT and in particular, Solo because of her comments about the Zika virus in Brazil before the team traveled for the tournament. “I felt like a conductor for the crowd whenever Hope was in goal. Whatever I did, the crowd followed.” Lindahl states. “I had such a connection with them but it was the exact opposite for her. I got a lot of energy from them and it created such an experience for me.”

Lindahl wryly notes that she only saved one penalty, Alex Morgan’s, but she thinks the flow and the momentum she got from the crowd and thus transferring that to the penalty takers may have led to Christen Press’ miss which ultimately won the game for Sweden. “I didn’t even guess the right way for her [Press] penalty but the energy out there, maybe it was enough to throw Press off. I didn’t try to fake any of it, that’s harder. I just let it happen and it did.” Lindahl concludes.

We circle back to goalkeeping fundamentals after I had asked Lindahl if she was fine to continue on talking despite it being around 8:45pm for her in Madrid. If you get the chance to talk to someone as experienced and as talented as Lindahl, you want to talk as much as possible about the position because it’s still one so many of us don’t quite understand. That’s what this series is all about and Hedvig Lindahl was more than happy to keep talking about goalkeeping as a whole. For example with diving, there’s no real way to tell if a goalkeeper making a lot of diving saves is badly positioned or well positioned but just forced into making those saves. Usually though, Lindahl confesses, if the save looks easy, the goalkeeper has put themselves into a great position and worked with their defenders to cut down all of the angles. That’s what you want from a goalkeeper, more easy looking saves than hard ones.

“I also always get asked by younger goalkeepers when they should stay or when they should go, especially in a one-on-one situation and I tell them the same things I’m going to tell you, there’s a lot of variables that come into it which determine what you should do.” Lindahl starts as we talk about what a goalkeeper has to consider in mere seconds. The angles of where the ball is, where the striker is, where you are in goal, they all matter. “You need an excel sheet to calculate all the variables,” she notes with laughter. The detail she then proceeds to explain a one-vee-one situation to me from a goalkeeper’s perspective is fantastic.

“If the player has the ball under control, behind the backline and dribbling towards you, they can shoot any time.” Lindahl continues on. “Don’t get caught moving forward or backward, you have to have balance. If they take a long touch, that’s when you can do something.” As the situation develops so should a goalkeeper adjust to what is happening around her. The most decisive thing for a goalkeeper in those moments is their positioning before the ball is even played. “If a long ball happens, you have to think ‘Can I get there first? If I can’t, where will she be if she gets there first?’” Lindahl explains further as she carries on. “If the striker can lob me then I have to back up but if she gets control? I have to stop so I can do something, even if I’m not in the perfect position because if I keep moving, I’ll be off balance and I can be beaten at any angle if I’m off balance.”

Balance is key for goalkeepers throughout a match. A shift one way or the other can result in a save or a goal and it takes knowing when to shift and how to shift, that usually separates great goalkeepers from good goalkeepers. “It’s better to be balanced than to be in a perfect position,” Lindahl concurs. “If a player doesn’t have any control in a 50/50 situation, go for the ball! Even if you can’t quite get there, you’ll be close enough to then block or spread yourself to close down the space.”

Atletico De Madrid V RCD Espanyol - Primera Division Femenina
Closing down the space is vital for a goalkeeper according to Lindahl
Photo by Irina R. Hipolito / Europa Press Sports via Getty Images

The permutations aren’t done just yet for myself and anyone else out there wondering what a goalkeeper has to consider during a one-on-one situation. The Swedish international also noted that when a backline is playing a low block, your decision or your calculations as a goalkeeper have to be slightly different than what we had discussed before. “If a low block gets beaten by a through ball, you have to calculate if you’re faster than the striker,” she adds. “Sometimes you miscalculate and that’s usually when the comments are made by those watching.”

‘She shouldn’t have come out.’ That’s a common refrain from pundits, analysts and fans alike when a goalkeeper gets beaten in a one-on-one situation but Lindahl is adamant that it’s not as easy as people think it is. “You’re processing so many things at once and so quickly, sometimes you get beat because you were wrong. Human error. There’s nothing you can do about it. Even if you’re not convinced that you’re faster than the player, you should still come out and close down the space/make yourself big while maintaining your balance.” That, Lindahl feels, is the most important thing you can do in those situations. As long as you make a decision, commit to it because even if you can’t get there quickly enough to clear it, you can still make it harder for the striker by making her angle smaller and if there’s defenders around, knowing that they are there to give the striker even less space to score from.

It’s a source of annoyance for Lindahl, just how unaware people are about what a goalkeeper is doing and how quickly they have to do a lot of those things during a match. “If there was one thing I’d ask everyone to do before judging a goalkeeper’s performance, it would be to watch their positional game.” When someone comes up to her and says ‘oh, you didn’t have a lot to do today’, Lindahl can’t help but roll her eyes at that comment. “They didn’t see if you were playing as a sweeper keeper or if you had a lower starting position which helped you make a save,” Lindahl explains. “Don’t insult me by saying I didn’t do anything when I cleared three balls that could have become one-v-one situations that you didn’t see. It’s a big risk playing a high line because good midfielders, if not pressured, can expose your backline and you become the last line of defense. When you step up, you’re opening a big space behind you so when I make those clearances or I kick it out, please note that because that’s me, still doing something during the game.”

“When you have a lower starting position, yes you make the save and everyone says ‘oh you were amazing’ but if you had started higher, you could’ve gotten the ball first and kicked it away or found a teammate, preventing a one-on-one situation from even developing. I don’t like how they don’t see what the goalkeeper does with their positioning.”

As an example, Lindahl points to the 2012 London Olympics. “I played lower than usual in that tournament because I didn’t feel comfortable playing higher that day and I saved a one-on-one situation.” As no one had noted that her overall positioning that day was different, all she heard from people was ‘oh you’re so amazing’ when in actuality, she felt very unsettled that day. “I was like ‘oh you’re so stupid’ because they hadn’t seen that I was so uncomfortable that I didn’t fix the situation earlier and clear the ball, I had to make a save in a one-v-one situation instead. That’s the one thing I’d want people to watch, the positioning. It makes it easier to judge a performance because while everyone sees the saves, there’s so much more to goalkeeping that just that.” she concludes.

This annoyance also explains why her proudest moment as a goalkeeper wasn’t a save, it was a clearance. “In 2008, we played Germany in the quarter-finals of the Beijing Olympics and I was playing as a sweeper keeper. Birgit Prinz, who at the time was considered the best around, was about to have a one-on-one situation with me from a few meters inside of our half but because I started out so high, I was able to stop that situation from developing so I’m quite proud of that. No one saw it or noticed it though.” she finishes with a laugh.

“My biggest save however, was against Canada in the Round of 16.” At the 2019 World Cup, Sweden beat Canada by a goal to nil to advance to quarter-finals. During that game, Hedvig Lindahl faced a Janine Beckie penalty in the 69th minute. It was tough handball call by VAR that gave Canada the penalty but fortune was shining on Lindahl that day. “It was one of those saves where I felt that I couldn’t reach it but I stretched out and hoped something would happen and it did. I had to use every inch of my body to make that save so I was proud of that one as well.”

To provide some levity as we wrap up this interview, I asked Lindahl which defenders she enjoyed playing with the most and despite not wanting to miss some out because she feels like she’s played with many great defenders, she did give me three names. “I liked playing with Linda Sembrant because she’s a good communicator, good passer, good positionally, a great leader, very calm and very positive,” she states. “I played with her for a long time and when she came up through the youth ranks, she stood out because of her passing game which I really like.” The other two notable names were Hanna Marklund and Karolina Westberg who are both former players with Sweden. “I picked them because of their leadership skills and knowledge of the game, as well as their tactical skills. I could pick so many that I’ve played with but I’ll stick with those three.”

Germany v Sweden: Quarter Final - 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup France
Linda Sembrant was one of Lindahl’s picks for a favourite defender to play with
Photo by Catherine Ivill - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

She then declined to pick a 5-a-side for me. “ People will be mad if they’re not in my team,” she states with a laugh. “I’ll have to pass on this one.”

She had no problem stating her favourite jersey though. “If the colour is black, I like it. I’ve worn so many because I’ve played for such a long time and I don’t remember all of them but black is it for me. That’s all. You feel fierce and cool in black and it may not be the smartest choice weather-wise but it’s something to do with the confidence you feel in it. You feel all rock-n-roll!”

One final note from Lindahl herself was the state of goalkeeping now. Even though because of time, she can’t keep up with all the leagues, she feels that the quality of goalkeeping is high in general. “It’s harder to stick out as a young goalkeeper now because you might have one thing you’re good at but not the other. The level of competition is so high now that being able to stand out from it isn’t easy anymore.” Her hope one day is that when she gets more time, she can start diving into the younger goalkeepers more and take a closer look at them, especially in Sweden. She thinks that not only there but even internationally, there’s a lot of young goalkeepers who are potentially very good, just waiting to break out.

Atlético Madrid are still in a tough battle to finish in a Champions League spot this season and Lindahl remains a huge part of that mission with the team despite sharing time with Gallardo. For Sweden, the 38 year-old goalkeeper will be looking towards the 2022 UEFA European Women’s Football Championship this summer in England. Lindahl is sure to feature for both club and country prominently from here on out and as per her request, we should all be looking out for not just her positional performance but those of other goalkeepers as well. We may gain a lot more perspective from it.

03/14, 6:45 PM update: Lindahl reached out to AllForXI to update/follow up on this piece. The article has been lightly edited for clarity.