Did Jose Mourinho inadvertently start a goalkeeping revolution?
Last year, as the unflappable Petr Cech sat on Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea bench behind golden-boy Thibaut Courtois, tactics-guru Michael Cox contended whether Roman Abramovich’s side had assembled the best ever selection of goalkeepers in the history of football.
Perhaps Cox had a point: starting in goal was Courtois, the man that Atletico manager Diego Simeone, when asked whether he would try and sign the Belgian permanently, stated that ‘any price would be cheap’. Behind him was Cech himself, a towering figure in British football who holds the all-time clean sheet record in the Premier League. Completing that formidable trio was the experienced and respected veteran Mark Schwarzer, one of few players to have more than 500 Premier League games behind them.
You could probably argue with Cox all day on that particular issue, but that’s beside the point. More, emphasis should be applied to Chelsea being able to amass such a wonderful collection of players in goal, a transition that highlights how footballing squad culture has rapidly changed in a short period of time.
To understand the extent of that change, rewind your mind back to the nineties to where it was considered perfectly acceptable to have one first team goalkeeper in a squad. Your David Seaman’s, Peter Schmeichel’s and David James’ would all play 60 matches a season. They never got injured, their respective squad’s benefited from complete consistency in goal, and- generally- no one really had much of an issue with the status quo.
There doesn’t appear to have been a watershed moment where footballing culture switched in this regard. However, it has been argued that Jose Mourinho’s overly-public bust up with Iker Casillas, and the subsequent promotion of Diego Lopez to Madrid goalkeeper, ignited the trend. Barcelona’s run to European champions last season with Marc-André ter Stegen, their domestic backup goalkeeper, served to narrow the microscopic lense on this particular renaissance. Pepe Reina, too, who by all accounts was considered one of the best goalkeepers in England between 2005-2010, shocked many when he decided to join Bayern Munich (albeit briefly) to sit backup to Manuel Neuer.
Superficially, none of this really makes sense. For one, you could question why any aspiring professional sportsman would be content at playing second fiddle on a day to day basis to a supposed superior. And considering goalkeepers seldom become injured, too, you can’t help but think that a squad status of ‘backup goalkeeper’ is abstractly ‘benchwarmer’. Opta recorded in the 2012-13 season that a backup goalkeeper was used just nine times in 380 Premier League games, representing a 2.3% chance of a sub-goalie making an actual appearance. All of that talent, hours of training and professional commitment, just to wait until an unlikely event occurs.
Clearly, the days of your Steve Harper’s (107 Premier League appearances in a 20 year spell), Carlo Nash’s (13 appearances between 2007-2014) and Tony Warner’s (120 ‘bench’ appearances without ever playing for Liverpool) have gone- for the very top teams, at least. Now, it’s becoming uniform to have two extremely accomplished goalkeepers, who rotate based on the competition at hand.
But there’s more merit to the approach than meets the eye. Joe Hart, Casillas, Simon Mignolet, amongst many others, are all goalkeepers who have been dropped after poor turns in form at various points across the last couple of years. In every instance, a replacement has come in for a handful of games, made enough mistakes to justify being dropped themselves, allowing each first team goalkeeper to return to their first team duties rejuvenated and refreshed.
No top European club, with the vast resources that they have at their disposal, should ever be liable to the individual failings of one player in one position. That’s why Tottenham were willing to let Gylfi Sigurdsson leave in exchange with Ben Davies for Michel Vorm. It’s also why Barcelona were willing to splash double digit figures on ter Stegen and Chilean Claudio Bravo. It wasn’t so long ago that every now and then someone like Henrique Hilario would get a rare Premier League start for Chelsea; Hilario was third choice for a reason though. What’s the point of having a player as backup if they’re not good enough to fulfill a role? What of Newcastle United, now, who face a vital Premier League run in with their two best goalkeepers side-lined?
What’s more, the distinct attributes of being a goalkeeper are perhaps more pressurised and scrutinised than any other on the pitch. No other position has a higher risk factor to it, meaning if a goalkeeper does go through a terrible run of form, a team is more likely to suffer for it. That’s why, arguably, no other position needs an adequate backup more. And rotation is healthy: it creates a sense of competition within positions and allows no player to think too highly of themselves.
Much has been made of the on-pitch transformation of a goalkeeper, from a ‘stopper’ to a ‘sweeper-keeper’, but this off-pitch movement of rotation has been more subtle. Top European clubs are now stockpiling the finest goalkeeping talent for a rainy day, opening the void beneath them for greater opportunities to more nascent talent.
While Schwarzer, Cech and Courtois was short lived and temporary (Cech is now at Arsenal, Schwarzer at Leicester), there’ll likely be a new contention for the best ever squad of club goalkeepers soon. De Gea-Romero-Valdes is impressive. Cech-Ospina- Szecseny has a nice ring to it. Could Hart-Cabellero-ter-Stegen be next?