Transfer record stood for 16 years before being broken by Liverpool - only for Chelsea to break it again 20 days later
Arrizabalaga, Alisson and rise of goalkeeper fees a sign of changes in modern football
Derby day could double up as debut day on Wednesday night. Thibaut Courtois should make his Real Madrid bow against his old employers Atletico Madrid in the European Super Cup.
He is a buy with a difference. A club defined by Galacticos, all attacking and expensive, have instead got a goalkeeper as their flagship summer signing. The World Cup star lured to the Bernabeu this summer is the man named the tournament’s best goalkeeper. Courtois has gone to Spain in a transfer window when Premier League clubs spent more on goalkeepers than strikers.
He arrived for £35 million (Dh164.2m). Until recently, it would have been a fee to remodel the market. Now, though he was entering the last year of his contract and had in effect gone on strike, the price looks cheap. His replacement at Chelsea, Kepa Arrizabalaga, cost more than twice as much, at £71.6m.
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The previous world record was held by Alisson, Liverpool’s £65m recruit. And yet, until Manchester City signed Ederson last summer, Gianluigi Buffon held the mantle of the costliest keeper ever for 16 years. His £33m fee represented an outlier for a decade and a half. Alisson’s did for less than a month.
The man who supplanted him from the record books rationalised the rapid inflation. “There is a new way to value goalkeepers,” Arrizabalaga said last week. “It is great big fees are paid for strikers and other players but why not for goalkeepers too? It is a good way to acknowledge the importance of a good goalkeeper.”
Chelsea’s acknowledgement could have been still more expensive, according to a report that they were willing to pay £89m for Jan Oblak. It would have made a goalkeeper one of the six most expensive players ever but Courtois’ replacement at Atletico should instead be his opposite number in Estonia on Wednesday night.
If the transformation in the costs of keepers in part reflects a wider issue as prices for both central defenders and full-backs have been raised in a way that has highlighted a recognition of their significance, it goes beyond that.
The changing job description has made very modern figures coveted properties. If one common denominator between the 23-year-old Arrizabalaga, the 24-year-old Ederson and the 25-year-old Alisson is youth, meaning that each promises more than a decade’s service in return for their respective clubs’ outlay, another is their ability on the ball.
The new breed of goalkeepers are more than shot-stoppers. In this, as in much else, Pep Guardiola is an influence.
“The way Pep looks at it, we're not just a team with 10 players and a goalkeeper," said Bayern Munich’s Manuel Neuer in 2014. "We are really 11 players and that fits in with my game.”
It is scarcely an exaggeration to say the German has the passing skills of an outfielder.
So does Ederson, who posted an 85.3 per cent pass completion rate in the Premier League last season, made all the more remarkable because the Brazilian is no stranger to 50-yard balls.
It marks him out as a rarity, and the laws of supply and demand dictate that when such multipurpose goalkeepers are few and far between, their values escalate whereas Joe Hart, a comparatively poor passer, joined Burnley for just £3.5m after being ousted at City.
Real’s case for Courtois rested in part on the case that he is an upgrade on Keylor Navas, the underappreciated triple Uefa Champions League winner. Yet, like their lengthy pursuit of David de Gea in previous summers, it also shows a change in attitude.
Once, they would only have looked to expensive attackers as the only source of improvement. Now the priority is men who stop goals, not score them.