For a shot heading towards the top corner, there are two main approaches for a goalkeeper to attempt the save: a top hand or bottom hand save. The terminology is fairly straightforward. Depending on which side the shot is, the top hand is on the side of the body where the shoulder is closest to the crossbar when the dive is made. If the shot is to the goalkeeper’s right, the left hand is the top hand and vice versa. The decision of hand choice only comes into play for shots in the top third of the goal. Anything lower than head-height is almost certainly the obvious, bottom hand.
There’s a little bit of a debate in some goalkeeping circles as to which approach is better. English goalkeeper Katie Startup wrote on the differences between the top and bottom hand saves - at eighteen years old, no less - but overall there isn't a ton of literature on the subject. Some coaches prefer the top hand acrobatics while others lean towards the simplicity of the bottom hand. Let’s break down the advantages for both types of saves.
Starting at the bottom and then heading to the top, the bottom hand save has a number of advantages. Most obviously, the bottom hand is closer to whichever post the goalkeeper is diving towards. With the ease of using the nearer hand on reaction saves, it makes sense to extend their territory for shots floating to the top corner. Whether it is a strong palm or fingertip save, the natural flow to the bottom hand dive matches the simplicity of the save. Additionally, it’s easier to line up the hand-to-ball coordination the closer the hand is to the ball.
The bottom hand save has a very specific bonus factor, one that isn’t discussed much, and it's centered on the wrist. For skipping or lofted balls to the goalkeeper's side, the bottom hand save offers a flick ability unique to the hand. For American audiences, they might remember Stefan Frei’s save that kept Seattle in the 2017 MLS Final. Non-millennial soccer fans may be familiar with Gordon Banks’ immaculate stop on Pele. And of course, our most hipster of readers will be quick to recall David Seaman’s Stretch Armstrong save in the 2003 FA Cup semi-final.
All three are similar in that the flexibility of the wrist helps flick the ball from the goalmouth. This is a major advantage that the bottom hand can offer that the top hand would struggle on. It's almost the equivalent of a forehand throw on a frisbee versus a big bear paw. The forehand throw contains a lot of wrist action while the swatting bear paw has some, but not nearly as much. The danger with this save, that all three goalkeepers could have easily faced (and in Seaman's situation, did), is that it's hard to get a good clearance with this flick. This is why the top hand is preferred on back the bar situations. It's a great last resort to keep the ball out of the net, but there's a decent chance someone will follow up on it as well.
As for disadvantages with the bottom hand, there aren’t many poor aspects to the save, although there are areas the top hand is better at, which we’ll get into later down article. The main disadvantage to the bottom save is that it’s a little tricky jumping off your right foot and reaching for a ball with your right hand, or vice versa as David Seaman tried to pull off against Brazil in 2002. Notice how the narrator heckles the poor Englishman for his lack of jumping. Now Seaman displays a number of poor choices on the goal but had he gone for a top hand save, he would have been significantly closer to the ball and would have had an additional spring to his jump.
The 2018 World Cup offered us a number of memorable goalkeeping moments, some great and some that goalkeepers would like to forget, but it also featured a couple of stellar top hand saves. Russia' Igor Akineev made a wonderful tip over in the 90th minute against Uruguay, both Mohamed El-Shenawy and Lovre Kalinić utilized a top hand correctly, and of course, Courtois showed Neymar a massive paw in their quarterfinal matchup.
Notice how far the ball is redirected off Courtois' hand, along with the other top hand saves linked above. This is a strong advantage to the top hand save. While the wrist does exhibit some movement on the play, the overall strength and leverage of the joint play a big role in making the save, along with the elbow extension and fingers flicking the ball onward. In contrast to the bottom hand's scooping or parrying mechanics (depending on the shot), the top hand implements a tossing motion where the wrist helps retain the momentum of the shot but slightly alters the trajectory of the ball.
While some are against the top hand entirely, the top hand can offer a little more reach across the goalmouth compared to the bottom hand, although it requires some time to cover the distance. If you were to stand with just your right foot on the ground, you can reach higher with your left hand by tilting your hips and shoulders than you could with your right hand. A similar process occurs when diving off the lead foot, the top hand will actually cover more distance (especially the more vertical the jump is) but will need a little more time to do so. This is why top hand saves typically occur when a goalkeeper has the time to move their feet. The graph shows below shows how, over time, the top hand (red line) can actually outcover the bottom hand (blue line).
Additionally, the top hand can get some nice leverage on a ball, more so than the bottom hand in most top corner save occasions. But with all the moving pieces to a top hand save, it's wise to remember what Uncle Ben told Peter Parker: with great power comes great responsibility. The same sentiment rings true for the top hand save. There are a lot of moving pieces and, unlike the bottom hand save, the goalkeeper’s vision becomes blocked by crossing the arm in front of his or her face. And then of course, there’s the danger of trying to use the top hand when the goalkeeper doesn’t have enough time to cover the distance with the hand. So while the top hand may offer some added oof to a save, it can easily leave a goalkeeper flapping at empty air if they don't approach it correctly.
When deciding which hand is the correct one for a save, the main response you’ll hear from coaches everywhere is “use whatever works”. This ties back into the style and personality that comes from each and every goalkeeper. Ideally a goalkeeper has tried both types of saves and has drawn the line on where they feel comfortable with each hand. Some goalkeepers will use their dominant hand regardless of the situation, which can lead to an unnecessary weakness for the goalkeeper. A goalkeeper should be efficient with both hands as they are with their feet, even if they have different preferences between themselves.
However a goalkeeper goes about choosing which hand to use, it’s good to remember the pros and cons of each. The bottom hand can reach the ball quicker and is typically more simple to line up, although it may not offer enough reach or leverage to displace to a ball that requires a goalkeeper to move their feet. The top hand save will typically parry a ball with a strong force and can cover the length of the goal better than the bottom hand, but will need the correct time and footwork to pull off the save.