By Jay Jaffa
Falling goalkeeping standards seem to have gone relatively unnoticed in recent times, particularly when you consider the increased focus on wobbly defences and the gluttonous goalscorers in England.
Fans and indeed strikers are quick to pounce on any fallibility shown by goalkeepers and as this year is proving, no-one is safe from the spotlight.
Once unquestionably in the top three goalkeepers in England, Pepe Reina is the most high-profile decline and now looks to be beyond the point of no return, even at the relatively young age of 30. Much like former England goalkeeper Paul Robinson in Croatia, a freak goal skittled his confidence as Darren Bent’s beach ball-assisted strike for Sunderland in October 2009 deflected past him, but the Spaniard did rally in difficult times until his dedicated coach Xavi Valero was stripped from him at the culmination of the Rafa Benitez era.
What is left is a shadow of the goalkeeper who kept 20 clean sheets in 38 games in 2008-09*, and his latest error in chasing Sergio Aguero out of his box and into the left channel, only adds weight to the critics’ argument. Reina may have kept seven clean sheets so far this campaign, but he is conceding goals at an alarming rate (1.4 per game) when he averaged 0.95 across the entirety of the previous four seasons.
Of course, change fosters problems and few Premier League clubs have undergone as much as Liverpool in the past five years. With that has come changes in personnel, systems and mentality – all of which can serve to disrupt a goalkeeper’s rhythm and stability. But is that argument enough to defend Reina – traditionally a dominant, reliable aerial presence – from the number of high crosses he has missed this year (seven) – a career high (and Premier League high amongst first-XI goalkeepers)? Or how about the number of errors Reina has made (six) – which has him on a par with Adam Federici and three behind the league leader Ali Al-Habsi (nine)? Four of those mistakes directly led to a goal (joint second highest in the league) and help represent the fragility of Liverpool’s No.1.
Sticking with the Spanish, David de Gea felt the brunt of Gary Neville’s anger in the aftermath of Tottenham’s 1-1 draw with Manchester United. According to the Sky Sports pundit, De Gea was at fault for Clint Dempsey’s late equaliser – an opinion that divided onlookers. De Gea has only made one error that has directly led to a goal this year (his calamitous mix-up with Nemanja Vidic versus Fulham) which goes to show the occasional futility of a statistics-based argument. Going on statistics alone, his punch from Benoit Assou-Ekotto’s cross was a success but it was the second phase that led to Dempsey’s tap-in.
It does however, bring another aspect of goalkeeping into view – the intangible side, the aura of a goalkeeper. One of the game’s greats, Germany’s Sepp Maier once said: “A goalkeeper needs to exude a sense of calm.” This was, in his opinion, one of the foremost necessities of playing between the sticks but it is often the most difficult trait to acquire.
De Gea, like many before him, has the ability to make truly world-class saves. He can reach shots few others can, and has shown great proficiency at saving with his feet. What he lacks (and this may well prove to be a burden of his youth) is a presence – and I do not mean his size. You can read a lot into how a goalkeeper is perceived by the reaction of his team-mates, and the bawling Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra and Vidic provide valuable insight into their feelings towards the 22-year-old.
His biggest weakness is his ability to deal with the high ball. Joe Hart is not dissimilar, though certainly less obvious. Nonetheless, though Hart went some way to alleviating rising concerns about his prowess with a matchwinning display against Brazil at Wembley on Wednesday, he was barely tested by crosses – a common theme in international matches.
At the other end of the spectrum is Asmir Begovic, a goalkeeper with a burgeoning reputation that could make him only the sixth shot-stopper to ever transfer for over £10 million (behind Angelo Peruzzi, Gianluigi Buffon, Hugo Lloris, De Gea and Manuel Neuer) – an incredible statistic given the importance placed on a goalkeeper.
The Stoke No.1 has yet to miss a high cross this season, catching 52 (second only to Brad Guzan who has 62) and punching just twice (a league low amongst first choice goalkeepers). At 6ft 5in you would expect him to be dominant in the air but his stats make for impressive reading. At a comparable height, Petr Cech has claimed 29 high crosses and punched 18, while missing three.
There are, however, other elements to look at than aerial ability and the propensity for making mistakes, and indeed it is the hard-to-measure side of goalkeeping that is becoming more vital.
The evolution of goalkeeping plays its part in the misfortunes of Premier League shot-stoppers. With the genesis of the offside rule and the ever-increasing pacy, counterattacking styles of much of the league, goalkeepers are having to adopt the role of sweeper. It may be too simplistic to suggest that in adapting their game to this oft-neglected necessity goalkeepers are not focusing on the fundamentals, namely keeping the ball out of the goal, but it is a worthwhile consideration.
There are those who seem able to accommodate everything into their game though. Edwin van der Sar’s best asset was his ability to sweep and distribute the ball with both feet, while Tottenham’s Hugo Lloris has shown remarkable adaptability to the Premier League and reads the game better than any other goalkeeper in the league. Lloris and Tim Krul have four interceptions each, while at the top of the pile is Mark Schwarzer (six) leaving the high-profile Tim Howard and Cech with zero.
Again, the systems each club use will dictate to some extent the statistics we can analyse. A team playing a high line (Tottenham for example) should expect their goalkeeper to make a number of interceptions outside his box, whereas a deeper sitting, possession-based team (like Chelsea) shouldn’t.
All goalkeepers make mistakes, that is an inarguable fact. It is those that make the fewest and for the least damage that shine, and for the moment, to the detriment of the goalkeeping union, there are only a few in that category.