Not the best week for Premier League goalkeepers
Background image: Carroll MacDonald
How many times have you heard it said goalkeepers are a breed apart? It isn’t a lie. The game's last line of defence exerts tremendous pressure. No one minds your back when you fluff your lines. The ball nestles in the back of the net. You can only fetch it out. Those errors often lead to defeat. Only a special mentality accepts a challenge in which failures are inevitable and guaranteed to expose you to the vilest abuse. In the past week, three goalkeepers let their Premier League teams down. Two cost their sides a chance at the European Cup. One did so from the bench. Yet, a fourth who experienced similar barracking apparently can’t live without a net behind him.
Two summers ago, Liverpool signed Alisson Becker following Loris Karius’ nightmare in the Champions League final against Real Madrid. The German practically passed the ball to Karim Benzema for one goal then mishandled a swerving Gareth Bale strike from distance to concede another. He wasn’t the first netminder to be flummoxed by the English the Welshman can put on a football. Sergio Ramos [who also judo-flipped Mo Salah out of the match] delivered a sly elbow that may have left the German concussed. The Kop didn't care.
With Alisson in the lineup, Liverpool returned for another final, this time collecting their winners’ medals. He also backstopped the Reds to the cusp of their first top-flight title in three decades. They’ve only lost twice in the 67 Premier League matches since he signed. That said, he has been injured. After exiling Karius to Turkish side Besiktas and allowing Simon Mignolet to sign for Club Brugge, the Merseysiders needed another backup keeper.
Adrian brought six year’s Premier League experience at West Ham to Anfield. The Andalusian ‘international’ [capped one time for the autonomous Spanish region's unsanctioned team ] played well in an early-season stretch when the Brazilian was unavailable, winning the hearts of many in the Kop. The Champions League is a different beast, however, one he’d never before encountered.
With Alisson ruled out again through a muscle injury, Liverpool entered the second leg of their Round of 16 tie with Atletico Madrid trailing 1-0, relying on the raucous Anfield crowd but even more so on their backup keeper. For 90 minutes, Adrian did everything asked, handling the few Rojiblancos’ incursions while his teammates wasted chance after chance at the other end. Opposite number Jan Oblak, a Champions League veteran, held the Reds at bay until Roberto Firmino headed a ball off the post before tapping in the carom that returned to him like a happy puppy.
Then, in extra time, the pressure got to Adrian. He scuffed a central clearance directly to Joao Felix who found Marcos Llorente for the finish before Liverpool defenders could recover. From there, Atleti scored twice more, no longer needing the away goals rule to progress. Afterwards, manager Jurgen Klopp claimed the club wouldn’t blame their keeper. Of course, he said the same thing about Loris Karius. For now, Adrian remains a Liverpool player. Come June, though, Istanbul might take on a whole new meaning for the Spaniard.
Alisson was, for a brief time, the world’s most expensive keeper. That honour now belongs to Chelsea’s Kepa Arrizabalaga who also missed his side’s Round of 16 tie, albeit not through injury. Kepa’s career began to spiral in the 2019 EFL Cup final against Manchester City. He refused to be substituted, sending then-manager Maurizio Sarri into such a rage the Italian almost exited the stadium. These days, Kepa finds himself second-choice for new boss Frank Lampard despite his price tag. The Blues legend is apparently unenamoured with his attitude. Thus, the Spaniard sat last week as Bayern Munich put three past deputy Willy Caballero at Stamford Bridge. Unless Chelsea can pot three away goals and a clean sheet in Munich when the tie resumes, goalkeepers will have played a significant part in three of four Premier League teams falling at the knockout round's first hurdle less than a year after two made it all the way to the final.
Only Manchester City appear poised to progress. Yet, even their keeper, Ederson Moraes, endured a difficult week. In the Manchester Derby, Bruno Fernandes’ short set-piece lob to Anthony Martial caught out the Brazilian. He failed to get down before Martial poked the ball between him and the near post. Worse, Ederson charged out late in the match and launched an errant throw that Manchester United midfielder Scott McTominay curled into the empty goal to put the match to bed. One can argue Benjamin Mendy should have beaten McTominay to the ball had he made a run up the pitch rather than towards the far sideline as Ederson gathered in the ball. Regardless, it wasn’t the keeper’s finest hour.
Even as three world-class Premier League keepers endure stretches that would cause lesser men to question their career choices, a fourth, now retired, doubles down on his shot-stopping skills. When Petr Cech’s skills began to wane, Chelsea happily sold him to London rivals Arsenal where he continued to struggle. The No.1 could no longer range from post to post as effectively. Yet, when he finally yielded the Arsenal goal to Bernd Leno and retired this past summer, he still felt the need to prevent goals.
Rather than find a Sunday league team at Hackney Marshes, he opted for ice hockey. The net is smaller, making it much easier to move from post to post. On the other hand, the puck is also much smaller, harder than a football and shot at you far more often. Whereas the need to make 14 or 15 saves in a football match is a rarity, the same amount is a bare minimum on the ice. A goaltender may be asked to stop 50 or more pucks in a game. That only serves to make hockey's netminders the most important players on their teams even if the rest of the squad still think them a bit odd.
Cech came away from his first start for Guildford Phoenix with Man of the Match honours after making two saves in the penalty shootout to clinch a win. After five games, he sports an excellent .930 save percentage and earned NIHL2 Player of the Month honours for January. The Phoenix essentially serve as the Guildford Flames' U23 side. It remains to be seen whether Cech can develop sufficiently to man the crease for the senior squad. His age and ability to commit the time while still working with the Chelsea backroom staff also come into question. Regardless, Cech’s choice of post-retirement pursuit exemplifies the competitive mentality keepers possess. It’s not whether they can handle the intense pressure that comes with donning the gloves, rather whether they can cope in the vacuum that exists everywhere else.