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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

From Burnley to Real Madrid: the modern trend of increased competition among goalkeepers

With the transfer record for a goalkeeper twice broken this summer, the role of the No 1 has evolved in recent years

Joe Hart joined Burnley this summer from Manchester City after failing to feature in Pep Guardiola's plans. Reuters
Joe Hart joined Burnley this summer from Manchester City after failing to feature in Pep Guardiola's plans. Reuters

The seventh best club in England’s Premier League last season arrived in Greece on Wednesday for a European tie that could shape their year.

If Burnley, whose expeditions onto the continent come once in a generation, defeat Olympiakos, for whom competing internationally is almost a given, they go into the Europa League group stage.

Experience may not be on Burnley’s side, but one thing they are not short of is worldly goalkeepers.

Burnley have four international glovemen on their roster, two of whom, Anders Lindegaard and Nick Pope are carrying injuries, which was partly why they ventured into the transfer market to sign Joe Hart, and bring their complement of England goalkeepers to three. Hart, Pope and Tom Heaton have all represented their country within the past 12 months; each of them maintains ambitions of doing so again.

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Read more:

Ian Hawkey: Ajax turn to wise heads in bid to reclaim place at Europe's top table

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From Kluivert to Kluivert: Six of the best Ajax graduates of the past 21 years

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Quite a logjam, then, once all are fit and jousting to be Burnley’s No 1 over the next 10 months. A long run in Europe might ease the bottleneck a little, because leading clubs now commonly designate a different goalkeeper for Cup or European outings to the custodian who keeps in the league.

That’s a modern trend, though it hardly explains the widespread overbooking of elite goalkeepers across the game’s most ambitious clubs.

Real Madrid have got their season under way with Keylor Navas, last line of defence for their three successive Uefa Champions League triumphs since 2016, in goal for their opening European match - the Uefa Super Cup final - and their La Liga bow.

But he is looking over his shoulder now that Thibaut Courtois has arrived from Chelsea, where Courtois’ replacement, Kepa Arrizabalaga, cost a world-record fee of €80 million (Dh339.6m) from Athletic Bilbao. Incidentally, Chelsea’s No 2 in goal, the veteran Willy Caballero, was Argentina’s first-choice when they started their disastrous World Cup in Russia.

Kepa Arrizabalaga is the world's most expensive goalkeeper following hi move to Chelsea. EPA
Kepa Arrizabalaga is the world's most expensive goalkeeper following hi move to Chelsea. EPA

At Arsenal, meanwhile, Petr Cech senses his imminent overthrow, his club having signed the younger Bernd Leno, a Germany international who watched Cech make splendid saves against Chelsea last Saturday.

But he has also seen the Czech great look uncertain with the ball at his feet in the opening game of the season, against Manchester City, a club where the recruitment of goalkeepers, and special attention to how a keeper uses his boots as much as his gloves has been a particular issue.

Hart, remember, was discarded by City two summers ago because their manager, Pep Guardiola, believed he needed a better passer in that position, a No 1 ready to advance, confidently, beyond his 18-yard line in support of a high line of defence.

Claudio Bravo was signed from Barcelona to do that. He made a mixed impression; Bravo, demoted, now understudies Ederson, who last summer answered Guardiola’s wishlist of skills and ended an expensive period at City of goalkeeping trial and error.

Manchester City completed their search for a sweeper-keeper with Ederson. Getty Images
Manchester City completed their search for a sweeper-keeper with Ederson. Getty Images

What happened at City, the journey from the popular Hart, twice a Premier League champion with the club, through Bravo to Ederson tells the story of how the assessment of what a goalkeeper needs has altered.

Yet at the same time as clubs look more and more for keepers who have grown up prioritising their skills with their feet, their mobility outside the penalty box, the longevity of those who best mastered the skills of shot-stopping and commanding their six-yard area increases.

Cech, at 36, has no intention of winding down. Why would he, when he sees Gianluigi Buffon signed by ambitious Paris Saint-Germain at the age of 40?

Fact is, when Buffon and Cech were learning their craft, defensive lines were generally stationed deeper on the pitch, and the determination of coaches to have keepers playing the ball out via swift first-time, precise passes, long and short, was not the obsession it has become.

Petr Cech is part of an older guard of goalkeepers when shot-stopping took ultimate priority. AFP
Petr Cech is part of an older guard of goalkeepers when shot-stopping took ultimate priority. AFP

One or two experienced glovemen argue that the pursuit of the nimble sweeper-keeper is now distracting recruiters from the essential qualities needed in a goalkeeper. And they highlight how contrary pressures put on modern keepers can cause confusion.

Witness the errors in the finals of both the World Cup and the Champions League this year. France’s Hugo Lloris and the unfortunate Loris Karius, of Liverpool, both conceded soft goals - to Croatia’s Mario Mandzukic and Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema respectively - because, receiving the ball in relative comfortable situations, they had turned their minds to the next pass they should make before calculating how to first keep the ball away from an advancing striker.

Lloris, whose France won their final, was merely left sheepish by his slip. Karius, inevitably, has been replaced at Liverpool by Alisson, the summer’s first goalkeeper to set a new record fee for the position, and so far earning praise in the Premier League, though he would be wise to anticipate unyielding scrutiny when he makes his first error, with his hands or his feet.