In the past month, Kepa Arrizabalaga’s rise from the ashes has been a story that fans have got behind. Until Casemiro’s late equalizer last week, the underfire Spanish goalkeeper did not concede a goal for over 10 hours on the pitch. After his performances against Aston Villa and Brentford, Kepa looks like a player who is once again confident in his abilities and has the self-belief to play under pressure.
Of course, there could be plenty of reasons for his newfound form. But one of the major factors is Graham Potter and Chelsea’s most recent goalkeeping coach Ben Roberts. Now, many have already waxed lyrical about the former, but the latter, Ben Roberts, is someone who has consistently slipped under the radar.
Goalkeepers rarely train with the outfield players and that could be a reason the work of goalkeeping coaches does not get mentioned in the same bracket as other backroom staff. However, Roberts’ impact on goalkeepers in the past decade has been nothing short of exemplary. He has revolutionized the department and has a huge success rate in the clubs he has worked at so far.
Football career & coaching
Roberts started his footballing journey with Middleborough back in 1993. He was loaned to various clubs during his career, as injuries were a constant theme with him. He found his calling at Brighton & Hove Albion in 2003 and made his mark in the club’s promotion campaign to the Championship that year. However, as fate turned out, Roberts was forced to retire due to a back injury at the age of 29.
Following his retirement, he took a break from football and traveled to South America and Asia, where he studied Brazilian training methods before completing a sports science degree at Roehampton University. His insight into the biomechanics of human performance also earned him the ‘Pursuit of Excellence’ award from Adidas.
As the saying goes, “the heart wants what it”, Roberts eventually returned to football after his former Brighton teammate Nathan Jones convinced him to join League Two side Yeovil Town. He became the first team scout and a goalkeeping coach, and this is where his illustrious new career began. At Yeovil, he trained the likes of Alex McCarthy and Stephen Henderson, who were both just entering their twenties at that point.
McCarthy particularly had a blossoming spell at Yeovil, appearing 44 times for the club in a year and a half. He went on to become a regular at Southampton in the Premier League and made an appearance for the England National team in 2018. After a successful spell at Yeovil, Roberts moved to Charlton Athletic as a goalkeeping coach in 2010.
His story at Charlton was fascinating as he developed Rob Elliot, Neil Etheridge, and current England international Nick Pope, to name a few. Roberts laid the road for Pope to become the player he is currently since he defended the young goalkeeper during tough periods, although a particular tale on how he placed confidence in young Pope encapsulates his coaching method.
After a calamitous first half against Blackburn Rovers, the Charlton manager decided to substitute Pope. But Roberts revealed was ready to walk out of the stadium if Bob Peeters, the manager, hooked him off. Things soon became heated between the Peeters and Roberts, but ultimately Pope stayed on the pitch and made crucial saves in the second half. It was the start of Pope’s rise to the top of the English football pyramid, and he had Roberts to thank for it.
Roberts then decided to move to the championship team and his old club Brighton & Hove Albion, where he had fond memories from his playing days. Moreover, the Englishman was reunited with Nathan Jones and once again had a massive influence at the club. David Stockdale was the first one to develop under Roberts’ guidance as he led the Seagulls’ charge to the uncharted Premier League territory.
At Brighton, he settled and performed wonders as he further improved Matthew Ryan, who even won the Premier League Player of the Month award for his stunning performance in October 2018. But the tale cannot be completed if one doesn’t mention his influence on Robert Sanchez. From playing in England’s third division in 2020 to become one of Spain’s best keepers, Sanchez has come a long way in just two years.
Reasons behind Ben Roberts’ success
It is reported that Robert Sanchez was in tears when Ben Roberts moved from Brighton to Chelsea last month. After Sanchez was awarded his first call-up for the Spanish national team, former Brighton man and student of Roberts, David Stockdale tweeted, “Well done Robert Sanchez on your full call up. Another reminder why Ben Roberts is the best in the business.”
Tim Krul, meanwhile, was Brighton’s number 2 for a brief period but credited Roberts for the confidence he instilled in him after a difficult period. The former Dutch international also revealed that the coach gave him the push and a reason he moved to Norwich City, where he is thriving at the moment. The positive atmosphere among the goalkeepers’ union under Roberts’ leadership is one of the prime reasons why the keepers consistently show improvement.
Having said that, his eye for detail and analyzing finer margins certainly trumps everything and differentiates him from the rest. Roberts is someone who spends hours analyzing the game to look at different scenarios and patterns of his opposition. He takes into account the technique of the striker and the positions a team shoot from. For example, Manchester City prefers cutbacks and usually shoots from within the penalty box, while, say, a team like Aston Villa or Wolves look to shoot from long range.
All these finer details matter and ultimately make the difference in a league where the quality is high. Following the analysis, Roberts usually spends time working with his goalkeepers on the patterns analyzed and developing them tactically before the game. Another important aspect of his training method involves transparency in communication between the goalkeepers and the coaches. Training sessions are certainly intense, and his innovative methods and individual attention also help keepers to focus on improving their abilities.
Modern keepers are required to be adept on the ball as the outfield players making it one of the hardest if not the hardest job on the football pitch. So, Roberts believes that mentality is the crucial aspect for a keeper since the current players face plenty of criticism and noise from the outside world.
“Character is a big one for me when it comes to goalkeepers, because there’s a different type of pressure in that position which is like nowhere else on the field. The Premier League is the highest level and you have to be able to deal with that. Before we sign people, we do a lot of work on someone’s character and look at how many times they’ve played under pressure or been in certain situations,” he said.
Graham Potter certainly knew Roberts’ ability and did not want to let go of him when he moved to Chelsea. And he has already shown his worth by improving out of favor Kepa Arrizabalaga’s form. Potter also believes that his goalkeeping coach has played a part in Kepa’s revival, saying, “That’s why we brought him (Roberts) with us. He did fantastic at Brighton with Robert Sanchez and he’s a good guy, good around the group.”
Ben Roberts’ record speaks for itself. He is arguably the best goalkeeping coach in the Premier League and by the looks of it, Chelsea seems to have couped an important member alongside Potter. As seen with other clubs, his influence will undoubtedly grow at Chelsea given his capacity to improve players consistently. Well, we hope he becomes a household name soon because he’s still not being spoken about enough despite the success.