At what point does a goalkeeper become ‘old’? Is it when he doesn’t recognise any of the songs in the charts? Or maybe it’s that moment when you actually have an opinion on the merits of a range of various denture adhesives. Or is any goalie who takes a thermos of Bovril into the goalmouth perhaps on the wrong side of the hill?
It’s clearly a wonderfully unclear subject. Some keepers will get to their early thirties and feel the creeking joints aren’t able to handle being thrown around the penalty area, whilst others will reach their 40s and think they’re able to keep going for another couple of decades until the pension or an interest in moaning about youngsters kicks in. With a sizable proportion of Premier League 1st choice keepers now qualified as fully fledged veterans, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about age and how it affects the performances of the goalie.
Speaking to a former journeyman pro on the European PGA Tour recently, he maintained that in most aspects of the game, he was still a match for the younger star attractions in the sport. His driving was by and large as accurate and lengthy as the youngsters whilst his approach play was, if anything, better thanks to years of experience. The one aspect of his game that he felt was suffering was the putting – the simple, unspectacular, but all important act of putting. From tee to green, the difference was barely noticeable, but with putter in hand, he lacked the less discernible touch of old.
Although the comparison may not transfer directly to football, I would suggest that in goalkeeping, it’s also the subtler and less spectacular parts of the game that are the first to suffer. Without wanting to bash Brad Friedel, his performances in recent weeks would seem to have the hallmarks of a goalie approaching the end of his career. The funny thing is he’s still playing to a very high level. Against Arsenal he made a reflex save that was simply stunning and that level of performance was by no means an isolated incident. He has been doing it all season for Villa and if goalkeeping was all about reactions he’d have several seasons ahead of him yet.
Sadly it’s not all about reflexes and the ravages of age are starting to take hold in less obvious ways. He’s not throwing balls into his own net, but there are hints he’s not quite the athlete of old. His legs don’t seem to provide the spring they once did. Against Blackburn, he allowed a long range Pedersen free-kick to go over him and into the net. What was perhaps most worrying about it was the fact the American seemed to judge the flight of it pretty well and was in a decent position to save it, but when it came to jumping and keeping it out, he failed to get the necessary vault and was left clutching at fresh air. On other occasions, he’s been slow to get off his line out to an oncoming attacker. Not slow in the sense of realising he needs to advance as the player walks around him whilst he’s still pondering, but in the sense of it’s taking him slightly longer to cover ground than it once was. The differences are minute, but crucial. For example, if it once took him 1.2 seconds to cover 10 yards previously, it may be taking him 1.4 seconds cover the same distance these days. Arguing the toss about one fifth of a second is generally the staple of utterly mundane Formula One punditry, but in this case it’s more than just the difference between one car going really fast and another car going really really fast. For a goalkeeper in a 1 v 1 situation, that time is important. The further the keeper is away, the more of the goal the attacker has to aim at and in the last few weeks there have been times when Freidel hasn’t closed down quick enough. It maybe hasn’t cost Villa a hold load of goals, but it might. For a man of such immense size and stature, maybe speed and agility have never been his strongest traits, but his immense talent has covered for the weaknesses.
The American has been a wonderful Premier League goalkeeper and given fans plenty to savour over the years. He owes fans of football in general and goalkeepers in particular absolutely nothing, so calling it at day at the end of the season and shortly after his 40th birthday would be entirely understandable. What’s made his resurgence at Blackburn and then Villa all the more enjoyable is that fact he bounced back so superbly after a poor spell with Liverpool. But Villa look like they’re already making post-Friedel plans. The highly-rated Brad Guzan was initially thought to be the natural long term replacement, but his appearances have been generally confined to the cup competitions which would suggest he isn’t making the progress expected of him. Speculation linking Alan McGregor of Rangers with a move to Villa Park would seem to confirm the suspicion Friedel’s compatriot isn’t seen as first team material.
Without wanting to start writing his footballing obituary, time may be catching up with Friedel, but whatever he decides, he has been amongst the finest of his generation.