How much does the goalkeeper matter in a team aspiring to win league titles?
Is it possible, with enough outfield talent, to get away with a custodian touched more by the brush of distinct averageness than sublime greatness? Inspired by a watching of The Damned United and the remarkable vision of one Brian Howard Clough and curious to know how vigorously Manchester United should be in their pursuit of David de Gea, I had a look at the pedigree of goalkeeper associated with Premier League winning teams. Even though it brought him a fair deal of criticism at the time, Clough’s purchase of Shilton was inspired and paid of in the most spectacular of ways. Winning back to back European Cups when it was genuinely a cup competition and there was substantially less room for error showcased the potential benefits of a top class goalkeeper and to this day, there seem to be managers with aspiring title-winning sides who fail to grasp the importance of having a solid performer between the sticks. It’s far from an exact or even particularly detailed science. Although I’m aware there was football before the Premier League, statistics can be a bit sketchy prior to that so I’ve begrudgingly accepted that as my arbitrary cut-off point.
One thing immediately stands out – the list oozes quality. There’s not much more than can be said about Schmeichel. Tim Flowers was excellent for Blackburn and probably deserved more than the 11 England caps he earned. David Seaman gets a hard time for a handful of high-profile mistakes, but his years of performing superbly for Arsenal make him a genuine great. After a couple of years of struggle, Petr Cech has battled back to be considered one of the world’s best and with time on his side, may go on to be considered on of the best of all time. Again, there may be an unfair weighting given to the moments of madness that littered his later career, but Jens Lehmann was fantastic for Arsenal in their Invincibles season and performed well beyond that despite collecting little in the way of silverware. Barthez may be remembered as something of a calamity keeper and although his errors were at times tremendously amusing, he was a World Cup winner who’s overall contribution was overwhelmingly positive, despite the occasional moments of madness. Eventually the errors got too much to bear for Sir Alex and he was shipped out. but the Frenchman won a World Cup, a Champions League, several domestic titles and a plethora of individual honours during his career, so clearly he was a player of immense ability.
There is one exception and that comes in the 1999-2000 league season when Mark Bosnich was mostly United’s first choice with Raymond van der Gouw stepping in where necessary and Massimo Taibi briefly adding the comedy value. That’s not to belittle the talents of Bosnich who was utterly breathtaking at times during his career at Aston Villa, but clearly by the time he reached Old Trafford, the demons that would later seriously derail his career had arrived on the scene and he failed to recapture the stunning form of his years at Villa Park. From an early stage, it was clear the Sir Alex Ferguson had minimal faith in Bosnich and its surely no coincidence that in this season of chopping and changing within the goalkeeping ranks, United conceded 45 goals which remains the most allowed by any Premier League champions including the 42 game seasons of the early 90s. United had claimed the treble the year before and such was the talent they had, not only did they compensate for the absence of a top quality goalkeeper, but they did it by romping to the Premier League title with almost unimaginable ease. It’s the exception that every rule needs to have.
Ignoring the separation of league-winning goalkeepers into a further hierarchy of ability and such horribly vague labels as ‘legend’ it’s safe to say that the vast majority of the goalkeepers – at that time in their careers – were very, very good and amongst the best in the world. As such, there’s a clear correlation between a quality goalkeeper and winning leagues. You may have assembled a stunning array of outfield talent, but unless it’s a truly exceptional team, a substandard goalkeeper can’t really be hidden. Is it surprising that Arsene Wenger’s trophy drought has run largely in tandem with Manuel Almunia’s reign as number 1? This isn’t about mocking Almunia – I can remember a time when people sang ‘England’s number 1’ by way of genuine praise as opposed to a sneering chant – he’s a good keeper, but he highlights the difference between good and exceptional that is required from a goalkeeper in a team aiming to win leagues. If you don’t have a top class number 1, you may get away with it for a while, but leagues are about performing consistently to decide who’s the best and the goalkeeper is a perfect microcosm of this. Over the course of a season, a goalkeeper who makes five mistakes that cost a goal in 38 games could easily cost his team 10 points and that’s a huge tally for a team going for a title. Five mistakes isn’t a huge amount, but when dealing with thin margins between success and failure, it’s enormous. Very often the best thing about a top class goalkeeper has nothing to do with amazing athleticism or lightening reflexes, it’s the timing – doing the simple things right, taking charge at key moments and settling a defence that may be struggling. Casillas and van der Sar are masters of this and it’s no surprise that they’ve collected the volume of medals they have.
Is substantial investment in a goalkeeper warranted? Well, not if you can find your own Schmeichel, but if not, your best bet is splashing the cash.