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?

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Arsenal’s Goalkeeper Problems

Almunia

We’ll start this off with possibly the most back-handed compliment ever aimed the way of Arsene Wenger. It speaks volumes about Wenger’s success with Arsenal that they have achieved so much without the services of a top class goalkeeper for so long. Since David Seaman hung up his ponytail – and possibly a couple of seasons before that – it has been a weak link in an otherwise strong chain. And Wenger’s blindspot to this seemingly obvious issue has cost Arsenal goals, points and games that have partially explains the underemployed trophy cabinet at the Emirates Stadium.

There was no doubt that Jens Lehmann was a very talented player, but the sudden rushes of blood to his head regularly brought his team a lot of unnecessary trouble. His successor, Manuel Almunia is again not without ability, but he shares the same moments of weakness and the negatives seldom outweigh the occasional positive. As recently as the game with Liverpool, he made a weak effort to stop David N’Gog’s shot and made a regulation Steven Gerrard free-kick look like a physics defying banana shot all in the name of an elaborate dive for the cameras.

For years Given looked like the obvious solution to the problem position, but Wenger seemingly never felt it was a problem bad enough to warrant the swoop. Recent speculation suggests the Gunners’ boss feels Given’s 6ft 1 frame is insufficient to give him the command of the aerial battles Wenger desires. If anything, Given’s relative lack of height makes him a better keeper. He is aware that he may not have the dominance required at set pieces so often opts for authoritative punches when taller goalkeepers may be tempted to go for ill-advised catches. All round, Given is excellent and probably doesn’t get the credit he deserves due to the fact he’s never done it at a top club. In fairness, that credit needs to be earned, because being at a top club means two high pressure games every and a level of scrutiny that goes way beyond what a player will experience at the middle to lower ranking teams.

The move for Mark Schwarzer is odd. He’s a quality goalkeeper, but at best he’s a stopgap for a season or two before the same situation rears its ugly head again. For all the good Wenger has done for Arsenal and the English game, his struggles in the goalkeeper department have contributed to several barren years. He has the chance to change that and he should grab Given while he can.

Luis Suarez Handball

Luis Suarez makes it into a goalkeeping blog by virtue of his dramatic late intervention in Uruguay’s dramatic triumph over Ghana. What he did was cynical and deliberate, yet also understandable. He knew what the ramifications of his actions would be and as events transpired, it was worth it. At least his goalkeeping talents are far superior to his acting talents judging by his poor ‘what, me ref?’ schtick in the aftermath. Losing on penalties is an immensely unappetising way to have your defeat served up to you, but the circumstances of Ghana’s exit are especially agonising.

It’s one of the classic hypot-ethical arguments in football. It rarely happens to be as dramatic as what we witnessed in the World Cup quarter-final, but the debate is essentially a simple one. With your team facing certain defeat in a hugely important game, would you knowingly break the rules and deny your opponents a goal? You know you’ll be sent off, but there’s the glimmer of hope that your goalkeeper will pull of a save or – as happened to Gyan – the pressure will force an error. Or alternatively, you adopt the Corinthian spirit, do your best to keep the ball out of the goal by legal means and if you fail, the goal is conceded and your team go out within the rules. The fact that the majority of people would opt for the first option says something is wrong with how such incidents are treated on the pitch.

Suarez got his marching orders and Uruguay live to fight another day. He’ll be suspended for that fight and most likely Uruguay won’t go beyond the semi-final, but it should end there. FIFA talking about extending the ban for Suarez is harsh and populist. He was dismissed and will serve out his ban as per the disciplinary procedures. Looking to extend it is a political action motivated by the fact the victims were the last African side in the first African World Cup. Sepp Blatter would have liked nothing more than to point to an African side in the semi-final and say his controversial tenure at the head of the game is a roaring success and the global game is now truly global. It was a tough way to go out, but further punishment is not necessary. A quick read of Andrew Jennings’ excellent expose, transparencyinsport.org lends weight to the argument that this potential extended ban has deeply political motivations. Blatter relies heavily on the votes of the African associations to keep him in power at FIFA and the gesture wold go a long way to appeasing an understandably aggrieved confederation that would have been delighted to have a team in the last four of a World Cup.

FIFA shouldn’t be looking to take their pound of flesh from Suarez. With the stakes so high, he did what most professional footballers have been conditioned to do – help his team to win regardless of the consequences. If football’s ruling body want, they can change the rules and basically award the goal without the need for the taking of a penalty. Although the odds of a penalty being scored are still in the favour of the attacking side, obviously having the goal on the board is far more desirable. A witch-hunt isn’t going to solve problems that need to be addressed.

England’s Goalkeeping Problems

David James
England’s progress hasn’t healed one glaring problem.
So England march on. Or limp on at the very least. The win over Slovenia was a vast improvement on what went before, but that’s like having to compare gruel with the option of starvation.

England problems in general haven’t gone away and one problem in particular looms larger than most. David James was adequate on the rare occasions he was called upon against Algeria, but with more to do against Slovenia, it became clear that the old problems remain. He didn’t command his penalty area in the way he should and constantly seems poised to make the wrong call on collecting crosses.

We can safely say that barring the highly unlikely combination of an goalkeeping injury crisis and a prolong stay in the World Cup, Robert Green won’t see any more game time. That leaves James as the number one and that is a concern, particularly with Germany on the horizon.

James is undoubtedly agile, but his decision-making, ball-handling and flapping at crosses are a major liability. Aside from the historical baggage of a rematch with the old foe, England will face a very slick German side. Joachim Low has his team playing well and the style is notable for it’s variety. The Germans use the wings well, link up excellently in the centre of the pitch and combine a lovely fluent, passing game with a serious aerial threat, especially with Miroslav Klose returning. James will face a comprehensive test of his abilities and whilst he should cope with the long-range shooting of Ozil, Khedira and Podolski, it’s when the Germans revert to through balls and crosses that the England keeper may struggle. James is no stranger to conceding penalties in one on on situations and we can expect him to be involved in several during the match. Discussing his problems under the high ball any further seems like a waste of time.

So what’s to be done? Joe Hart seems to be a better all round prospect than James, but if Capello wasn’t willing to give him a chance against Algeria or Slovenia, it would seem immensely harsh to throw him into the pressure cooker of a clash with the Mannschaft. James will keep his place and that should make it a very uncomfortable afternoon for England supporters. That considering the history of these two teams, it would hardly be a surprise if James got his chance to shine in the one part of the game that suits him perfectly – the penalty shootout.