Despite being utterly crap at it for the duration of my youth, I’ve always been intrigued by what Vladimir Nabokov referred to in his memoirs as the ‘gallant art’ of goalkeeping; that lonesome practice which bears with it a ‘halo of singular glamour. He is the lone eagle, the man of mystery, the last defender’. It’s an intriguing position for at least two reasons. Firstly because it manages to combine, perhaps better than any role in any other sport, the camaraderie and intimate sense of fulfilment that comes from competing in a team, along with the solitary glory of succeeding in an individual capacity. It’s certainly the only role in which I can imagine an ego the size of Nabokov’s, finding a place within a team.
The other aspect of goalkeeping which relentlessly intrigues, and confuses me, is how difficult it is to measure the quality of their performances, as well as, more generally, the scope of their talent, especially in comparison to other professionals. The process is made much easier with outfielders as they are constantly pitting, and thereby contrasting their skills against each other on the pitch. With goalkeepers, it isn’t so simple. Goals conceded is the most obvious metric by which to assess their contribution but it has obvious shortcomings (not worth outlining).
Annoyingly, I haven’t been able to find it, but one of my favourite interviews with a Chelsea player I’ve ever read, was with Petr Cech, I think in The Times, around the time he had just moved to England. During the interview, Petr made the enjoyably candid observation that the majority of pundits whose job it is to evaluate goalkeepers don’t have a clue what they’re talking about. I think I remember he gave the example of a keeper receiving praise for an outstanding fingertip save from a free kick, where, were it not for poor positioning in the first place, he would have simply been able to catch it.
In my opinion, the implication of Cech’s criticism is that a great goalkeeper, much like a great referee, should be almost invisible. Wonderful reflexes and mid-air acrobatics tend to be the first things we look for in identifying a great keeper, but in reality, the infrequency with which such capabilities are needed, is a much more reliable measure of talent, and intelligence.
There is a point to these musings. David De Gea has had an excellent season and has been a hugely important player for his team. I don’t think anyone would deny that and I don’t think that anyone is surprised that Real Madrid seem anxious to make him their latest ‘Galactico’ purchase. Praise for the Spaniard hasn’t stopped their however, many claim he is even the outstanding nomination for the PFA Player of the Year Award. I think this may be going a bit too far.
The unavoidable implication behind calling De Gea the season’s best player, is that he has been the season’s best goalkeeper and even that is not a point which is to be easily conceded. The debate over who is the better, of De Gea and Thibaut Courtois is an interesting discussion and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to pick a winner – but for now, by my reckoning, it’s still the Belgian that comes out on top.
When you step back and compare their careers to date, then you find there is much less of a debate to be had, over who has achieved the most in their respective young careers. Courtois is on the verge of winning his third league title in as many countries, to go with his three domestic cups and Europa League. He’s also won 29 caps for his country as well as having been named Belgium’s Sportsman of the Year. Despite being 18 months older, De Gea has only the one league title and Europa League in comparison, and only has four international appearances.
But what makes things particularly difficult in comparing the two at present, is how over the past couple of years, they’ve each developed such different styles of keeping. Behind a less than formidable Man Utd backline, which presses quite high up, De Gea has become a fairly conservative player, tending to stay close to his goal line, and rely on his ability to stop the shots his defenders often fail to prevent. Courtois on the other hand, playing behind superb, deep set defences has developed an extremely aggressive style, where he will use his size and presence where possible to control his penalty area. Both in this sense are ideal for their teams and I don’t think any fan of either club would trade players if given the offer.
But going back to those timeless words of wisdom uttered by St Petr, the reason why I think Courtois is the best in the country, is because of how he exemplifies the understated aspects of a great goalkeeper, which his predecessor described; because of the apparent simplicity with which he goes about his keeping, as well as the air of calmness and ease which marks the vast majority of his performances. As the former Arsenal and England keeper David Seaman said on Sky TV earlier in the year, he makes what is often a thankless role, ‘look easy’.
While his rival in Manchester may make the headlines with extravagant saves, and while he may seem to be contributing more directly with his dramatic interceptions and improvised shot stopping, I think the more prescient eyes are watching Courtois diffuse and prevent the situations which De Gea needs all of his talent to deal with, after they have arisen. In a sentence I think the best way to sum up the comparison between the two: De Gea, for all his brilliance I think might be guilty on occasion of making the routine parts of his profession look spectacular – Courtois makes the spectacular look routine.