Newcastle’s Goalkeeper Dilemma

Harper and Krul

One v One at St. James’ Park
Convincing the Toon Army that he’s not part of a Cockney Mafia with the sole intent of destroying the club can wait, there’s important work to be done. He’s barely in the Newcastle hot-seat and wet Tyneside week, but already Alan Pardew faces a key selection dilemma. With Steve Harper returning from injury and Tim Krul impressing many with his performances in his senior team-mate’s absence, he’s got a difficult choice to make. It would be harsh on Krul to be axed after a string of good displays, but equally Harper was Hughton’s first choice when he was fit so in full health it stands to reason he should be afforded the chance to earn his place back.

It’s an important decision because right now Newcastle’s season is at a crossroads. Whilst the victory over Liverpool was a great start to the Pardew era, the weaknesses remained obvious. As Wolves are showing, playing nice football is well and good, but without the results it’s going to be a long hard slog. Newcastle are likely to need every point they can get and picking the right keeper could be the difference between a relegation scrap and an outside shot at a European place, especially to a defence as fragile as Newcastle’s.

Krul has played only a handful of Premier League games and is very much the long term option. He’s young and will make mistakes on the path to being a genuinely top class goalkeeper, but there are signs he can make it right to the top. There’s a youthful enthusiasm to his performances that is sometimes in danger of spilling over into a poor decision – being too hasty in coming off his line or being to eager to come for a cross to showcase the command of his penalty area. His handling also needs a bit of work. He sometimes doesn’t catch it cleanly at the first attempt and needs another bite at the cherry to tidy up. In the Premier League, that will get punished before too long. All in all however, there is real potential. He’s very quick and agile and the bonus is the areas of his game that need work are things that will improve with experience. He should be a Magpie for a long time to come.

But Alan Pardew needs results now and that’s where the difficult choice comes in. Steve Harper is a very good goalkeeper. He’s reliable and it’s difficult to recall significant errors on his part down through the years. He does the basics right and what’s asked of him with an unspectacular unfussiness. He was the goalkeeper beaten by Xabi Alonso from his own half at Anfield a few years ago, but rational analysis of that shows his starting position wasn’t really the issue, but rather the fact he lost his footing in the scramble to get to the exocet from Alonso. Ironically, if he kept his footing, it wouldn’t have been a scramble, it would have been a straightforward save. 

Perhaps part of the reason he isn’t held in higher regard is down to his apparent contentment with being back-up to Shay Given and spending much of his career on the 1st team bench or the reserves’ team sheet. He never seemed to express displeasure at the situation or agitate for a move elsewhere where he could show his talents on a more regular basis and whilst that’s exactly the type of attitude a manager loves to have within his squad, it is ultimately a lack of ambition and a waste of the best years of his career. There were some loan moves, but it’s only at the age of 35 that he’s getting his chance in the Premier League. Maybe when he hangs up the gloves, he’ll look back at the years between 28 and 35 and think a regular starting position in the Premier League could have been enough to earn him some England caps. Newcastle do pay big club salaries, so maybe the natural human desire to feather his nest can partially explain the lack of career progression.

With both keepers at different ends of there careers, the handover could be smooth with no-one losing out to any significant degree. The goalkeeping department has the potential to be stable and reliable for several seasons to come. How often can you say that about anything involving Newcastle?

One On One – Casillas v Stekelenburg

Casillas v Stekelenburg

The individual battle between Iker Casillas and Maarten Stekelenburg concisely sums up the wider battle of the World Cup Final – and that’s not just a lazy summary so we can go on living our lives. Spain are the proven winners with a history of classy performances whilst Holland have done all that has been asked of them without ever looking convincing. Substitute the respective goalkeepers names in place of the nations and the still works.

Casillas had a quietly solid night against Germany. He wasn’t asked do anything spectacular by a surprisingly toothless German side, but the fears were Germany would mount an aerial bombardment to take advantage of the Spanish defense’s biggest vulnerability. They needed their goalkeeper to be commanding and authoritative under the high ball and the captain delivered. He came for crosses with determination and generally got the ball clear of danger with little fuss. It was a display so simple yet effective, it’s importance may have easily been overlooked.

Stekelenburg had a vastly differing semi-final experience. As well as Diego Forlan has been striking the World Cup football, there was little excuse for the Dutch keeper missing his relatively straightforward shot from 30 odd yards. It seemed to confirm widely held suspicions established prior to the tournament. Towards the end when Uruguay threatened an unlikely comeback, the Dutch could also have done with their goalkeeper commanding his penalty area with more authority.

Dutch fans must fear that Stekelenburg is never far from another mistake, particularly considering the enormity of the game. Spanish fans will have no such fears. That’s not to say Casillas isn’t also capable of making a crucial mistake, but based on everything we know, the European Champions have the advantage in the goalkeeping position.

One on One – Casillas v Neuer

One one One

Iker Casillas (Spain) v Manuel Neuer (Germany)

There’s an element of the master and the apprentice to the match up of Casillas and Neuer. Or to use a more contemporary and equally questionable analogy, Dr. Evil and Mini-Me. At 24 years of age, Neuer is threading in the studmarks of the Spanish number 1. At a similar age, there could be little doubt that Casillas was a goalkeeper of some talent, but he was rough around the edges and even rougher under the high ball. But he constantly worked at his game and several years – and several inevitable howlers – later, he ranks amongst the handful of truly elite goalkeepers in the world.

His displays at this World Cup perhaps indicate why he was able to make the transformation from potential star to proven stalwart. He hasn’t been at his very best during the tournament, but his workrate and awareness have compensated on a couple of occasions when his technique failed him. A prime example was against Portugal. Against teams who struggle to mount meaningful attacks, the temptation is to switch off and think about your holidays – or in the case of Casillas your stunningly attractive girlfriend who’s on the sidelines. On a rare occasion when Portugal did get a threatening ball into the Spanish box, the flight of the infamous Jabulani ball took a late dip and what looked to be a simple catch turned into a problem. Yet – once it dawned on him catching it was going to prove tricky – he had the sense to get the ball away from danger with a volleyball-esque ‘scoop’ that Thierry Henry would be proud of. Against Paraguay, the tidy penalty save against Cardozo got the headlines with it was later on that his reactions truly saved Spain. After Casillas uncharacteristically spilled a shot from Barrios, the ball broke to Roque Santa Cruz. Without top class awareness, the striker would have a straight-forward task of slotting it home, but Casillas was quick to recover and got out to block Santa Cruz from point-blank range.

As wanky as it sounds, there’s a lesson to be learned for Neuer in how Casillas has progressed. The German is a goalkeeper of talent, but far from perfect at the moment. Against England and Argentina he showed his excellent reactions with a couple of world class saves, but those performances were littered with minor errors that could become major embarrassments. His handling was suspect against Argentina and as yet isn’t assertive enough when coming to collect crosses. Any criticism of him must be qualified with difficult situation he finds himself him. Firstly, he is extremely young and wouldn’t be German number 1 had it not been for the distressing suicide of Robert Enke. As a human, pulling on that jersey must remind him, even if only briefly of the recent tragedy. Even then, it was likely Rene Adler would take the position ahead of him had it not been for an injury that ended the Leverkusen keeper’s season prematurely. Then the normal impact of being involved in a game of immense pressure must also be taken into account. All in all, it’s probably a miracle he gets out of bed in the morning, so let’s not throw too much abuse his way.

The Germans have an extremely talented young squad, but that inexperience extends to the one position on the field were in can be most exposed. Neuer will become an excellent goalkeeper in the not too distant future, but he’s the weak link in a strong chain at present. Spain have the stronger goalkeeper and with so much attacking talent on show, that could prove pivotal in the second semi-final.

Maarten Stekelenburg (Holland) v Nestor Muslera (Uruguay)

One on One

How are the respective goalkeepers likely to impact the first semi-final?

From what I had seen of Maarten Stekelenburg prior to the World Cup, I considered the possibility that Bert Van Marwijk might invite Edwin Van der Sar along for an unplanned trip to South Africa. He filled in when the Dutch goalkeepers had a mini injury crisis at the beginning of qualification so such a decision would not have been completely out of left field. A combination of difficult family circumstances and my underestimating of Stekelenburg’s talents meant that was probably never truly realistic. Under the reign of Van Marwijk, the Ajax keeper has become the first choice of the Oranje, yet there can be no doubt that Van der Sar would command the position if he made himself available for international duty.

But Holland must play with the hand they’ve been dealt and Stekelenburg has done most of what has been asked of him throughout the World Cup. He made some saves against Brazil that were as excellent as they were crucial. Without his efforts Brazil could have been out of sight early on in the quarter-final and we wouldn’t even be talking about Holland. My judgments on Stekelenburg were based mainly on some of his performances for Ajax. He looked slow, clumsy and unconvincing at times, and this was reinforced by the fact Marco Van Basten saw fit to drop him during the 2008-09 season but he has recovered to make the position his own under Martin Jol. That said, he’s been around for the better part of a decade, so it’s easy to forget how young he is. At 27, he’s allowed make a few mistakes, but with Holland eying up their maiden World Cup crown, he’ll need to be at the top of his game. And his best will be required because he’s good, but far from perfect.

In the other corner is Fernando Muslera. If Stekelenburg epitomises the Dutch team’s adequate yet largely unimpressive progress in this World Cup, then Muslera’s form also apes that of Uruguay in general. In short, there are signs of genuine talent, but on occasion they have prevailed by accident rather than design. Ultimately he made the save in the penalty shootout that earned the Uruguayans their place in the last 4, but during open play he was suspect. Sulley Muntari had the praise heaped upon him for his goal, but (a) it was struck from about 30 yards out (b) it wasn’t struck with any great pace and (c) it wasn’t right in the corner. Muslera was slow to react and didn’t get across his goal well enough. He is undoubtedly agile as his penalty save showed, but in the build-up to the Luis Suarez handball incident he was left flailing foolishly as the ball pinged around the 6 yard box. His judgement and decision-making need work, but there is certainly ability that’s ready to be molded. There’s no arguing with results and the clean sheets he has accumulated during the World Cup demonstrate he has talent, but he’s not flawless and nor should he be at just 24 years of age.

In years to come, Muslera may well become a top class goalkeeper. Serie A is as good a finishing school as a young keeper is likely to get, but for the moment, Stekelenburg is the more convincing of the two. With so much attacking talent on the field, it would be a shame if a World Cup semi-final was settled by a goalkeeping error, but neither custodians strike you as being utterly flawless. The pressure of such an important match will highlight any flaws.