Between the posts: analysing the semi-finalist goalkeepers 

INSIGHT: We examine the EHF EURO 2020 semi-finalist goalkeepers and exactly what each means to her team’s success in the medal round

Sandra Toft and Althea Reinhardt have combined to make the most saves of the semi-finalists so far. Photo © Jure Erzen / kolektiff

 The four semi-finalists at the EHF EURO 2020 have put on a great show on their path to the penultimate stage – and some of that spectacular entertainment came from between the posts. 

So how will the goalkeepers influence the medal round at the Women’s EHF EURO 2020? Considerably, of course, but here we delve into the details, examining exactly how the semi-finalists measure up against each other and what each goalkeeper means to her side.

At the end of the main round, Norway’s Katrine Lunde is on top of the ranking in terms of save rate, while the list of highest number of saves sees Denmark’s Sandra Toft in second, followed closely by Croatia’s Tea Pijevic. France have actually seen something of a drop in their goalkeeper performance, after consistently being among the frontrunners in this area at the previous two EHF EUROs – a fact that alludes to occasional problems in the typically outstanding defence in certain periods in their matches.

Leading from between the posts

We start with the hosts Denmark, for whom Toft is truly a barometer for the overall team performance – championship after championship, we have seen Toft’s ability to completely shut down Denmark’s opponents and inspire her side’s attack to greater heights. When the goalkeeper is in peak form, any team will surely profit from that and raise their level on the field, but in Toft’s case this ability is particularly noticeable.

Luckily for Denmark, Toft is having an outstanding tournament. In France at the 2018 edition of the EURO, where Denmark ranked eighth, she made a total of 46 saves by the end of the main round. In Sweden in 2016, when Denmark went on to play for the bronze medal, Toft saved 62 shots by this stage in the competition. So far in 2020, Toft has saved 60 shots and ranks second only behind the Netherlands’ Tess Wester, with 70.

The fact that Toft’s number of saves in 2020 is comparable with the last time Denmark reached the semi-finals shows just how influential she is – when she is in her best form, so are Denmark.

Supporting Toft as the second keeper for Denmark is rising star Althea Reinhardt, who has had less consistent performances overall but is particularly tough to beat on penalties, having saved three of the eight she has faced. Toft has saved four from nine from the seven-metre line.

Together, the two see Denmark lead the overall number of saves at the EURO, with 76. Next come Norway, Romania and the Netherlands with 72.

Norway show some different trends from that of Denmark, with their level of keeping consistently among the highest at recent EHF EURO events, no matter whether they play for the medals or not. This shows that Norway’s goalkeeping is always especially strong and the overall level of the team is not reflective of how well the goalkeeper is saving, while for Denmark the goalkeeper performance is one of the most decisive factors on a game-by-game basis. 

In France in 2018, when Norway missed the EURO semi-finals for the first time since 2000, their goalkeepers combined to top the overall ranking for performance in that position and Silje Solberg had the best save rate overall, with 40 per cent. In 2016, when Norway clinched their seventh title, Solberg shared the top percentage with Russia’s Viktoriia Kalinina.

So, we can see that Norway are always a leading side in goal and therefore it is not necessarily here that the performance and subsequent rankings change – certainly the keepers are important, but the fluctuations in tournament rankings come from other factors.

French goalkeepers face lowest number of shots

On to France, the top-ranked team for goalkeepers at the EHF EURO 2016 and the second-ranked at the 2018 edition on home soil. At the end of the main round in 2020, France are the fourth-ranked side for goalkeepers overall. Individually, Cléopatre Darleux is seventh based on save rate (35 per cent) and number one option Amandine Leynaud is ninth (32 per cent).

Certainly all goalkeepers work in combination with their defence, and the figures are therefore also reflective of that cooperation. France rely on the strong cooperation perhaps the most of any team, so it is not shocking that their keepers might have some lower rates here at the EHF EURO 2020, considering the team endured two first halves that saw their opponents reach their highest number of goals in that period – Russia, with 19 goals, and Sweden with 14.

“It is always hard work to build a strong defence, but without it you can’t win trophies,” Leynaud told ehf-euro.com in an exclusive interview earlier in the EURO.

In those periods, without the defence working at its usual level, Leynaud and Darleux (or Laura Glauser, in her short time on court) could not save at their best – although they have still faced the lowest number of shots among the semi-final goalkeepers.

It is unusual to see France struggling to find their defensive game and it will be critical for them to tidy up this crucial element on the final weekend. If they do, France will very likely also climb higher on the overall goalkeeper ranking at the 2020 edition.

Among the biggest revelations of the EHF EURO is Croatia's Tea Pijevic, who enters the semi-finals – for her team’s historic maiden outing in this stage – as the fourth-ranked keeper overall, with a rate of 37 per cent. In terms of number of saves, she is third, with 57. Unlike the other semi-final teams, who rely more on shared time in goal, Pijevic has the responsibility for Croatia, playing by far the most minutes of all the semi-final keepers so far – 294.

Pijevic has not only grabbed attention for her statistics. Her seemingly carefree attitude as she caught the ball on multiple saves rather than the usual batting away have lent to a mental battle against shooters, who see their shots caught easily as a significant demoraliser.

Pijevic herself acknowledged this style is a risk as she spoke with the EHF EURO social media team on site in Denmark, but it has definitely set her up as a goalkeeper that can get in the heads of shooters on another level. The only keeper to rival her in this manner is Toft, who can quickly set a team on the back foot with her incredible – and occasionally effortless in appearance – saves.

There is no doubt the goalkeepers are set to contribute to the great spectacle that will be the final weekend of the EHF EURO 2020. Will they be the deciders? We look forward to finding out!  

written by Courtney Gahan / jh