The Nets Big Thing?
Is a shot in the top flight more difficult to save than in the lower divisions? It’s not the football equivalent of the ‘tree falling in the woods’ philosophical riddle, it’s a question faced by scouts, coaches and managers in leagues all over the world. With outfield players pace, touch and strength can be judged in a more quantifiable way, but assessing a goalkeeper isn’t as straightforward. You may be watching a lower level, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into needing less agility or slower reactions to deal with it.
After seeing Johannes Hopf in action, the internal debate continued with renewed intensity. The second tier of Swedish football doesn’t feature highly on most people’s radars, but Hopf came to my attention recently whilst playing for Hammarby a few weeks ago when a string of high quality saves made the difference between victory and dropping points against Varnamo. Every time I’ve seen Hopf since I’ve been impressed and left with the distinct impression that he is capable of performing at a far higher level. The result wasn’t very flattering when his team took on Landskrona, but individually he was superb and his efforts stopped the scoreline having more rugby-style look to it. You may have your own ideas about the differences between various standards of football, but whatever the level, the core requirements of the goalkeepers remain the same and he performs them with absolute aplomb. This is a goalkeeper really capable of going somewhere.
What was so impressive? Well, it feels like a cliche to say it, but the young Swede strikes me as a very well rounded keeper, adept in virtually all the duties a goalkeeper is likely to encounter. He’s got the agility and athleticism to deal with the shot-stopping aspect of the job. He regularly seems to throw his body at the ball, stretch out one of those long arms of his and save a shot seemingly destined for the back of the net. In this day and age, we should be beyond the point of expressing surprise when someone of height also shows an ability for dexterity and movement, but there’s something about the ease with which Hopf does it that seems remarkable. His reflexes are superb and he’s capable of making breath-taking saves in close combat. In one on one he’s aggressive, stays big to give himself the best chance and shows good adaptability to make the save by whatever means possible. His hands are good and he exerts a real command and calmness on his penalty area. He uses every inch of his 6ft 5 frame to great effect to take control under the high ball and it seems to breed confidence throughout his defence. His awareness is strong. He’s not afraid to play the role of sweeper if the situation requires and likewise, he’s alert to the possibilities of setting up quick counter attacks and at times looks Schemiechel-esque with his throw outs. It’s a mightily impressive box of tricks to have at your disposal.
If that’s not enough by way of gushing praise, another major advantage is his experience. He won’t turn 25 until next summer, but already in his short career he has amassed a good deal of experience and he’s already closing in on having made 200 senior appearances. Again there may be those who question the level at which he’s playing, but there’s a maturity to his game that you rarely see in keepers of a similar age. Moreover, it’s encouraging because he has consistently shown a capacity to rise to the top at each of his clubs and establish himself as first choice (most recently usurping former Arsenal keeper, Rami Shaaban) that almost makes the level irrelevant. At the bare minimum it shows this is a young man capable of learning, developing and consistently improving himself.
Physically, he has the height, but he’s also got a certain bulk that should mean he’ll handle the physicality of the British leagues with little difficulty. Technical strength is also in his favour. His footwork is good and he likes to catch the ball where possible and it’s apparent that his style would be suited to the English game. It’s no surprise to hear a move to the UK has been close in the past, but fell through late on in the horse trading. I’ve been told by a very reliable source that Preston and QPR have also made approaches deemed insufficient by his club and Bayern Munich and AEK Athens are amongst the continental clubs who’ve been taking a long hard look at him. In my opinion, his likely fee and ability to progress would be perfect for Arsene Wenger. Clearly the Frenchman doesn’t like spending big and places an emphasis on improving players, so Hopf would be right up his alley.
Maybe the scouts suffer from the same problems of assessing the standards of various leagues around Europe, but at the very least he deserves a chance at a higher level and a small risk now could potentially pay off many times over. Everyone has to start somewhere and it’s folly to dismiss talent on the grounds of not being at the highest level at that particular moment in thime.
Hopf looks to have the fundamentals plus a lot more, so don’t be surprised if you see him making upwards progress in the very near future.