Sir Alex: 25 years of Manchester United Goalkeepers

Manchester United manager

A quarter of a century.
25 years during a time when not lasting 25 weeks is sadly common.
Sir Alex Ferguson has accumulated a stunning array of silverware in the course of his reign at Manchester United and – even if we play football for millenia to come – is destined to be remembered as one of the greats. The praise has flowed freely in recent days, but there is one area of his record consistently derided – his ability to pick a goalkeeper. Is his record as bad as is made out? Here’s the story of the goalkeepers of Ferguson’s quarter of a century at Old Trafford.

Gary Bailey was United’s incumbent first choice when Ferguson arrived in town. The English-born, South African raised Bailey infamously paid for his own ticket to fly to Manchester for his trial with the club and with the arrival of the Scot, it wasn’t long before he needed to arrange more transport, this time out of the club. Ferguson’s first major goalkeeping signing came not long after with the purchase of Jim Leighton. Fergie had worked with him during the former’s stunningly successful stint in charge of the Dons. The Scottish goalie was much admired with Brian Clough – in that familiar style of combining a genuine compliment with a mild insult towards someone or something – observing “Jim Leighton is a rare bird – a Scottish goalkeeper that can be relied on.” For much of his time at Old Trafford, that assessment proved to be correct, but a loss of form culminating with being dropped for the replay of the 1990 FA Cup Final in favour of Les Sealey, signalled a bleak future at the club. Leighton wasn’t quite a liability, but if the club wanted to surge out of mid-table obscurity, the club were going to need a more reliable option between the sticks.

That option came in the form of Peter Schmeichel who Ferguson brought to the club after the Dane’s eye-catching performances for Brondby in the UEFA Cup of 1991. The decade of high finance and hyper-inflation that griped football during the 90s makes it easy to blithely accept Fergie’s retrospective assessment that Schmeichel was the “bargain of the century”, but back in the early nineties, £530,000 wasn’t exactly the risk-free, ‘shot to nothing’ purchase modern football pricing would have you believe. It turned out to be an inspired decision however, with the Great Dane going on to become a United legend with his combination of agility, leadership and controlled aggression raising the bar for what was expected of a Premier League goalkeeper. The outfield talent may have been the catalyst for United’s early dominance of the Premier League, but Schmeichel was the crucial foundation upon which the team was built. Such was his consistency during his eight seasons at the club, back-up keepers like Kevin Pilkington and Nick Culkin rarely got a look in. The one exception was the very under-rated Raimond van der Gouw did step in for the Dane on a few crucial occasions when Schmeichel was unavailable.

His quest to replace Schmeichel remains one of the more noticeable blots on Fergie’s copybook. No goalkeeper could truly have replaced a goalkeeper of such immense stature and influence, but Ferguson’s choices went badly awry. Massimo Taibi has become a byword for a costly and comical foreign import and his reign didn’t go much beyond a calamitous display against Southampton. Fergie deemed Mark Bosnich surplus to requirements in his early years at Old Trafford, but after his successful spell with Aston Villa, the older and more experienced Bosnich had an obvious attraction to Ferguson. Behind the scenes however, the Australian was struggling with his own demons and his return to the club never got going.

Bosnich remained at the club, but it was apparent he wasn’t going to be the solution to the problem and with that in mind, Fergie splashed the cash to bring World Cup winner, Fabien Barthez to the club. £7.8 million was handed over for his services and the size-able fee meant the pressure was on from the start. His spell was littered with mistakes and isn’t remembered with huge fondness, but Barthez was a quality goalkeeper and the problems he faced summed up the immense demand for consistent excellence that comes with being Manchester United’s first choice. With a league campaign, more than likely a couple of cup runs and almost always at least ten or so European games every season, the volume of matches any goalkeeper at Old Trafford is going to face means he’ll always be in the spotlight and the capacity for flaws to be exposed becomes greater. Barthez was generally good, but his dips in concentration were too frequent for the standards required. He could have been a roaring success at 98% of the other professional clubs in the world, but for Ferguson, he would never make the grade.

Perhaps stung by the failure of going for the big fish, Fergie then went for the comparatively unknown Roy Carroll with contributions from van der Gouw followed by the signing of Tim Howard. Initially the Northern Irishman provided cover for Barthez, but he got his chance as first choice when the Frenchman returned to Marseille. Sadly, his spell at Old Trafford will be mainly remembered for his comical attempt to save Pedro Mendes’ garryowen. As amusing as it was, it was somehow worked on the match officials, so at least he contributed to the cause. Howard is often regarded as flop. He wasn’t a success, but time has showed that it wasn’t the most misguided of decisions. Howard has gone on to become a Premier League stalwart with Everton and although it didn’t work out for him with United, the scouting system clearly correctly identified the player’s talent. It was certainly the wrong place at the wrong time for Howard, although I suspect even at his best, he would still be too error-prone for Sir Alex. Ricardo and Andy Goram also came through the revolving door for goalkeepers around this time, but again, were never likely to be the silver bullet Fergie craved in a custodian. Rather than being a rod to bash him with, it speaks volumes for Ferguson’s managerial acumen that he had assembled a team capable of winning trophies despite the handicap of under-performing keepers.

The second major goalkeeping success of the Ferguson era was to come in 2005 when he finally landed Edwin van der Sar. The Dutchman’s move to Fulham had the air of a great name cashing in before retirement, but he consistently impressed at Craven Cottage and despite his age, Sir Alex took him to Old Trafford a few months before van der Sar’s 35th birthday. What followed was one of the most remarkable Indian summer’s in the history of professional football. Van der Sar lacked Schmeichel’s revolutionary impact, but what he did bring was astonishing consistency and reliability. He commanded his penalty area with authority and excelled in doing the basics right. It wasn’t always spectacular, but it’s what was needed at the time and without van der Sar, some of United’s more recent successes could easily be more scarce. Ben Foster was brought in as a potential successor to van der Sar, but not dissimilar to Barthez – he’s talented, but a little too error prone for the United job.

In conclusion, I suspect that Ferguson’s perceived lack of talent in spotting goalkeepers is largely down to his length of time in the job. Of course not every one of his goalkeeping decisions has been a hit, but the sheer volume he has had to bring in during his time make the ratio look skewed in favour of misses rather than hits. If any other manager was at a top club for the same length of time, they would no doubt have a similarly patchy record. Plus one extenuating circumstance is the type of club he has made Manchester United. His success has meant the demand for complete excellence at the club is a constant and the goalkeepers who could achieve those standards have been exceedingly few of the course of the 25 years. Maybe he should have broke the bank for Buffon, Casillas or – by his own admission – gone for Edwin van der Sar sooner, but there simply haven’t been enough top quality goalkeepers around who could be expected to meet the immense demands that come with the clubs’ no. 1 role. Most of the time, they haven’t been available for any amount of money, so Fergie has had to go for riskier, less surefire options and that hasn’t always ended well.

Despite the fairly knee-jerk reactions of certain pundits and journalists, it’s too early to pass judgement on Fergie’s most recent dip into the goalkeeper market. David de Gea hasn’t had an ideal start to his time at United, but there are signs of improvement and he’s far from a write off. Anders Lindegaard is getting his chances too and he could yet be another Dane to have a big impact between the posts at Old Trafford. De Gea is the main hope however and much like Ferguson in his early days at Old Trafford, sticking with him through a rocky patch could be a decision to reap massive rewards.

Van der Sar Holds The Key To Man Utd Victory

One v One – Edwin Van Der Sar v Victor Valdes
Van der Sar v Valdes

Champions League Final. Barcelona. A goalkeeping legend’s last game for the club.
There’s a delightful deja vu about the European Cup decider that will at the very least, give Manchester United fans memories of that night in the Camp Nou twelve years ago. For those who like to link coincidences with fate, the stars may appear to be aligning in favour of the Red Devils, but in truth the result of the game will be decided on 7,000 odd square metres of grass rather than the vast expense of space.

If ever there was an opportunity to go out on an incredible high, Edwin van der Sar has it. Less than a week after collecting the latest Premier League winner’s medal of an astonishingly fruitful Indian Summer to his career, the Dutchman could also be bowing out as a European champion. Whilst we need to be cautious about getting swept up in the fairytale, van der Sar is one of United’s key players – arguably the key – in their attempts to win a fourth European Cup. Hyperbolic as it may seem, he’s coming up against one of the best teams to have played the game and almost certainly he’ll need to produce one of the best performances of his fantastic career if United are to achieve victory.

If there is one area where United are significantly stronger than Barcelona, its in goals. All season long, Alex Ferguson must have watched and cursed the Dutchman’s retirement under his breath. His composure and ability to do the simple things right were a huge part of why Fergie finally achieved his aim of knocking Liverpool of their perch. With his defence not always covering themselves in glory, it was often left to van der Sar to cover for the weaknesses with a well-judged intervention or a commanding claim of a high ball. And then there were the more eye-catching moments such as full stretch saves and breath-taking reflexes. van der Sar has reached his forties, but on current form there’s another half a decade of top level football there if he wants it. It’s hard to estimate just how quickly the body of an elite athlete will deteriorate when age does catch up with a player, but based on his performances, injury-record and appetite for the game, 5 more years may only be an exaggeration of only the very slightest variety. He remains one of the best in the world and the importance of his contributions are only highlighted when looking at the player he’ll indirectly be opposing at Wembley.

At times Victor Valdes gets criticised for the ‘sin’ of apparently not having much to do. The way Barcelona take a near monopoly on the ball and rarely seem to be doing anything other than create whirlwinds of wonderful attacking play seems to have given rise to the view that Valdes isn’t especially good and Pepe Guardiola could essentially name a scarecrow in goals with little adverse effect. There is some truth in the under-employment notion. I look back and my notes and very often there’s a white space beside his name due to the absence of any significant work for him to do. That doesn’t make him useless however. Valdes is a good keeper and as little as he may have to do in the numerous romps that Barca seem to manage, he has a set of skills suited to the demands of the role. He’s generally a brave, very athletic and commanding goalkeeper who is quick to close down opponents, but his greatest talent may well be his ability to concentrate – not only in terms of making saves, but in the more general sense of watching how play develops and always being alert to the needs of his defence – whether its to make a stunning save or being available to take a backpass.

That said, Valdes clearly has the capacity to make a mistake. At the Emirates, a poor piece of positioning allowed Robin van Persie to hammer in a goal that ultimately didn’t cost Barcelona, but made it a more uncomfortable passage. Equally, in the second leg, I recall Barcelona utterly dominated the second half, but Nicklas Bendtner was presented with a glorious chance to send Arsenal through. In the end, it was a poor touch that snuffed out the move, but Valdes – in conjunction with Mascherano – made life as difficult as possible for the Dane. A slight daydream or moment of hesitation from Valdes could have given Bendtner the space he required to finish and knock the Catalans out of the tournament.

Looking back at the 2009 final, the early stages of Valdes’ performance highlight the need for composure and an ability to do the basics right when it matters. In the first seven seconds, Valdes gives United a throw-in in an advanced position courtesy of a misplaced pass and about a minute later, the English side have worked themselves into a promising free-kick position. Cristiano Ronaldo hit it relatively well, but in reality it was a shot straight at Valdes which he couldn’t gather and somehow United failed to score. To be fair to Valdes it did bounce before in front of him and take one of the more erratic trajectories Ronaldo managed to achieved with his woefully over-rated free kick taking, but goalkeepers wanting to be considered amongst the elite in their profession need to deal with them in the overwhelming majority of cases. Games, ties and Champions League runs turn on such moments and had United snapped up the gift they were presented with, the pattern – and quite possibly the result – of the game could easily have been different. At the other end van Der Sar did everything that was asked at him and his stops not only prevented it from being a cakewalk for Barca, but gave United a punchers chance of taking the game.

I also wonder if his defence fully trust Valdes. I’ve seen him get involved in mix-ups with his defenders who at times seem anxious not to have to resort to him (case and point would be this goal against Levante from a couple of weeks ago – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xe2-ACui1hk). The frequency of misunderstandings may have a lot to do with the difficulty in communicating in the atmosphere of the colossal Camp Nou, but it seems to be an issue. Maybe it’s trust, more likely it’s just a breakdown in communication – either way, they afford too much of it in the Champions League final.

It’s a true goalkeeping great versus a good goalkeeper. Where van der Sar is strong, Valdes sometimes struggles. Barcelona may well have the talent to render the discrepancy null and void, but the stage might be set for van der Sar to make it count.

Goalkeeper World Rankings

Best Goalkeeper In The World Rankings – May 2011

Goalkeeper Rankings
1. (1) Iker Casillas (Real Madrid and Spain)
2. (4) Edwin Van Der Sar (Man Utd)
3. (3) Gigi Buffon (Juventus and Italy)
4. (5) Pepe Reina (Liverpool and Spain)
5. (2) Petr Cech (Chelsea and Czech Rep.)
6. (6) Victor Valdes (Barcelona and Spain)
7. (7) Hugo Lloris (Lyon and France)
8. (10) Manuel Neuer (Schalke and Germany)
9. (9) David de Gea (Atletico Madrid)
10. (8) Joe Hart (Man City and England)

Goalkeeper World Rankings

So there’s a deal done. The successor has been identified and the dotted line has been signed. You didn’t have to squint too tightly to read between the lines to see what Fergie was getting at. Whilst his team-mates had been begging Edwin van der Sar to reconsider his retirement plans, Sir Alex Ferguson responded like a man who has already bought the gold watch and arranged the catering for the retirement shindig. ‘Go away and enjoy your life, I’ve got my plans in place’ was the gist of what Ferguson was saying and such was the solemnity and unambiguity of his statements, that it was clear if he doesn’t have a replacement already secured, the process is at an advanced stage.

Having reached his forties still capable of excelling at the highest level, the calls for van der Sar to stay on are understandable. For much of this season I was worried that my assessment of the Dutchman’s performances was being coloured by over-sentimentality. Knowing we wouldn’t be seeing him for much longer, the temptation to eulogise decent performances into amazing displays of athleticism is always there, but van der Sar has been so utterly understated and reliable, the praise is warranted. He hasn’t made string of breath-taking saves (although to his credit, he still maintains the agility to do so), but his handling has generally been flawless, his command of his penalty area is supreme and his calmness has diffused throughout a defence that can do with all the reassurance it can get. As his long career reaches its final few games, van der Sar remains one of the best in the world and will be going out on a high. Just how much silverware is involved with this high will surely depend on how van der Sar maintains his level of performance throughout the month of May.

As enjoyable as van der Sar’s performances has been, there’s no doubt who remains number one in the world. Real Madrid didn’t come out of the El Classico series with huge credit, but again Iker Casillas did little wrong. He remains the world’s best and although there have been a sprinkling of mistakes in his performances, he retains a remarkably capacity to recover – both in the short-term sense of making a secondary save to cover for an initial mistake and in the long-term sense of showing mental strength when things don’t go quite right.

It’s been a controversial stance for some time (namely with Shaka Hislop who disagrees whole-heartedly!), but I still rate Gigi Buffon very highly. Throughout his injury troubles I felt it unfair to demote him down the rankings based purely on absence and I maintain that position. When he plays, he retains his talent and his form has been an important part in keeping Juventus in the hunt for an unlikely Champions League place. With Liverpool enjoying a resurgence, Pepe Reina is looking as sharp as ever. When things weren’t going well for the Reds, Reina wasn’t to blame, but playing in a more confident team has rubbed off on him. Petr Cech takes a small drop, mainly because of a couple of mistakes for Chelsea and the Czech Republic in the last few months. Overall however, he has still had an outstanding season and without him Chelsea would be struggling for European football next season, let alone a Champions League spot or even the title challenge they have somehow managed to string together. Joe Hart has dropped a few places, but that’s based on mistakes earlier in the year. It’s been a while since I’ve updated the rankings and although he has been better and still capable of producing amazing saves, those mistakes stick in the memory.

Manuel Neuer is the flavour of the month in goalkeeping circles lately. His performance in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final with Manchester United rightly earned the plaudits, but clearly the pundits who heaped the praise on him haven’t been watching him much in the Bundesliga where he has been putting in similar performances for much of the season. He hasn’t rocketed to the top of the rankings for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I try to make these rankings less knee-jerk and more long-term and as such, my views are based on watching over a reasonably extended period of time. Secondly, I still worry Neuer is more accident prone than is ideal. Every goalkeeper is allowed an occasional mistake, but there is a suspicion that for all his amazing saves, the Bayern bound goalkeeper still suffers from blips on too frequent a basis. In his defence, since first becoming aware of him a few years ago, the mistakes have been reduced dramatically and the sheer volume of work required of him behind the leaky Schalke defence means he’s in the firing line more often than some of his contemporaries on the list.

Although yet to make his debut on the list, Wojiech Szczesny deserves a mention for responding so well after disappointment in the Carling Cup final followed by injury in the Champions League. Criticism of him for going off at the Camp Nou was nonsensical as no-one truly knows the level of pain someone else his experiencing. Sure some people may have experienced dislocated fingers with little discomfort, but Szczesny’s personal physiology and medical history mean it’s may not be the same for him. He looks reliable and assured and Arsene Wenger looks to have solved his goalkeeping issues.

The Man Utd Goalkeeper Hunt

Man Utd Goalkeeper Hunt
The latest Dutchman heading for the United goal?

We know who it won’t be, but are we any closer to knowing who it will be?
On the pitch, it was a good week for Manchester United, but off the field, the hunt for Edwin van der Sar’s successor in the United goal descended into a muddy version of clarity.

Manuel Neuer’s performance in the first leg of Schalke’s Champions League semi-final was a perfect audition for the Old Trafford role – except for one crucial detail. It wasn’t an audition. Sir Alex Ferguson may have been impressed with Neuer’s stunning (and Schmeichel-esque) performance, but the German’s heart belongs to someone else. The current first choice of the Mannschaft doesn’t want to leave Germany and has stated his determination to win at least one Bundesliga title before even considering a move abroad. And he means it. His comments don’t seem to be laced with the ‘I’m not available, but chase me with a big bag of cash and we’ll see what happens’ subtext that often seems to accompany the well rehearsed soundbites. It looks like he his betrothed to Bayern Munich and although negotiations are yet to begin, it looks like it’s only the size of the dowry that needs to be finalised. There was talk of Sir Alex hijacking the arrangement in a similar manner to how he snapped Dimitar Berbatov from the jaws of Man City a couple of years ago, but in this case Neuer both looks and sounds like a man heading for Bavaria.

It was also a week in which Pepe Reina confirmed he would be staying at Liverpool – until the point the Spaniard can decipher if the latest dawn is of the ‘genuine’ or the ‘false’ variety. In future, Reina’s fiercely competitive nature may dictate a move to Old Trafford is required, but so far he has been impressed by the Dalglish revolution and is apparently willing to give King Kenny another season of his time. Talk of Gigi Buffon coming to the Premier League was aimed at getting an improved deal at Juventus and makes Man Utd an unlikely destination.

So where does that leave us? I’ve said before, that after a mixed record in signing goalkeepers, Fergie will almost certainly be looking for someone with the following profile:
(1) late 20s+
(2) Champions League and/or international experience
(3) not injury prone

The notion of Fergie pleading with Van der Sar to stay on for another season is something that I initially dismissed out of hand, but as time goes by and a standout candidate fails to emerge, it’s impossible to fully discount. Granted, it’s hard to imagine Fergie pleading with anyone for anything, but even in his 40s van der Sar has been exceptional and the reassurance he provides has been of great benefit to a United defence that has looked vulnerable at times this season. By all accounts Mrs. van der Sar has recovered from her health scare last Christmas and it could be worth Fergie’s while to test the Dutchman’s resolve to retire.

For my money, Maarten Stekelenburg looks the most likely candidate, but I’m concerned I’m making too much of a connection between Stekelenburg being Van der Sar’s replacement at international level and his chances of being Van der Sar’s replacement at club level. In the transfer market, placing too much faith in form shown in the Dutch league is fraught with danger (Kezman) so should we not think the same way when it comes to goalkeepers? Aside from 4 or 5 top teams, the league is filled with average opposition so can Fergie really be certain he’s getting proven performer at the highest level? Of course Stekelenburg did make it all the way to a World Cup Final with the Netherlands and that’s the highest level of competition you can get, right? Well yes, but there is a but. It sounds almost insane to say it, but the cumulative pressure and standards expected throughout the course of 50 odd games in the typical Manchester United season are going to be far in excess of that experienced in the seven games of a World Cup.

In terms of talent, David De Gea could be an instant hit at Old Trafford, but his age doesn’t fit what Sir Alex is likely to look for. Goalkeeping coach, Eric Steele is said to be a big fan (and scurrilously rumoured to be learning Spanish for De Gea’s arrival), but De Gea’s lack of experience in the Champions League and the spot-light in general do cast doubt about the likelihood of a move. All reports suggest that Atletico youngster is a very level-headed and mature 20 year old, but that’s no guarantee that he’ll settle in England or be able to handle the intense scrutiny that comes with the Old Trafford keeping job. Reports from Spain suggest Atletico Madrid have offered De Gea a contract with a view to ending the speculation once and for all. If he wants to go, he can go, but if he wants to stay, it ends now and he knuckles down for the next few years. With age on his side, my inkling is De Gea may just sit tight for a couple more years, build his reputation and eventually have his pick of clubs and salaries – at which point he may only be the ripe old age of 23 or 24.

I think there’s a joker in the pack, but I can’t figure out who it might be. Hugo Lloris (almost) perfectly fits the bill, but doesn’t appear to have been scouted too heavily. On a similarly Gallic theme, Steve Mandanda performed well when Marseille and Man Utd met in the Last 16 of the Champions League. He has had a decent amount of experience and is exceptionally agile, but his handling may not be up to scratch for the Premier League. Too often he needs a couple of attempts to gather then ball and that’s unlikely to have gone unnoticed by Ferguson and Steele. Inter Milan’s Julio Cesar ticks all three boxes, but I think his reluctance to catch the ball means trouble. There’s nothing wrong with a goalkeeper punching or parrying when the situation requires, but the sheer number of times the Brazilian opts against the catch will leave him open to ridicule from the media and it won’t be long before the dreaded ‘calamity’ label is applied irrevocably to his shoulders. In terms of talent, Shay Given must still be worthy of consideration, but the injury category has become a concern of late. For much of his career, the Irishman seemed to have a charmed life in terms of fitness, but in the last few seasons he has picked up some major knocks that have ruled him out of action for months at a time. Craig Gordon has been linked in the past, but his familiarity with the Sunderland physio’s table will count against him. Sebastian Frey is a little considered outsider, but again injury may be a worry. He hasn’t played since November and won’t until the new season at the earliest. In terms of age and experience, he might be in the frame and an added bonus (in Sir Alex’s eyes at least) would be his rejection of international football. I’ve heard the name of Fernando Muslera being mentioned and I would suggest if Fergie does sign him, it’s part of a well-timed revenge on the Glazer family and Fergie’s retirement will arrive seconds later. Poor decision maker, a flapper at crosses extraordinaire and almost totally unsuitable to the Premier League, the Uruguayan’s stunning agility catches the eye, but I think he would get savaged in England and furthermore, Fergie knows it.

As the date for Van der Sar to hang up his gloves comes ever closer, the hunt for a replacement is looking less than finalised. Maybe Fergie could do worse than trying to hang on to his Dutch of class.

If you think I’ve missed out on any potential United recruits, let me know in the comments section.

The Best Premier League Goalkeepers 2010-11

MOG Premier League Awards
It’s awards season and in the absence of any goalkeepers actually making the PFA Player of the Year or Young Player of the Year shortlists, here’s a look at the best performing goalkeepers of the season. It’s not exactly a list of the most talented goalkeepers, but rather the ones who have consistently performed to the best of their abilities. I haven’t ranked them, but here’s my shortlist.

Van der Sar
Even with retirement approaching, Van der Sar remains one of the league’s best

Ali Al-Habsi
Not even his mum could call Al-Habsi the complete goalkeeper, but he has been extremely effective for Wigan this season. At his best he is an excellent shot-stopper capable of hurling his sizeable frame across the goal with stunning agility and were it not for some vital saves, his team would be further adrift at the bottom of the table rather than one win away from safety. He has been one of the best performers in Roberto Martinez’s squad and was vital in taking a crucial six points from Wolves in two games this season and holding Liverpool to two draws. His handling is suspect, he regularly makes mistakes and his technique isn’t pretty, but he gets the job done and right now that’s all that matters to Wigan. Regardless of Wigan’s fate come the final day of the season, the Omani has almost certainly done enough to ensure he’ll be a fixture in the Premier League for some years to come.

Paul Robinson
Unhappy with being overlooked for England, this season saw the Blackburn goalkeeper make himself unavailable for international duty and his club have reaped the benefits. Like a spurned lover trying to show an ex what they’re missing out on, the perceived insult from Capello has been the driving force behind arguably the best season of his career. This term, Robinson has shown the focus that has often been lacking in his career. He has always been capable, but inconsistent. The disconnect between his natural ability and his concentration meant his career hit something of a glass ceiling when it came to progressing to one of the Premier League’s top teams, but this seen his sense of injustice has been a motivating factor is some excellent displays. If a player needs to have a chip on his shoulder to bring out his very best form, it does raise wider questions about the earlier part of his career, but we’ll blissfully ignore that because this season Robinson has been a joy to watch.

Edwin van der Sar
It may initially seem like a choice motivated entirely by sentiment, but in his final season as a player van der Sar has been the difference between Man Utd being champions elect and scrambling around for a Champions League spot. This is by no means a vintage Man Utd team, but van der Sar’s contributions at vital times have been crucial in smoothing the path to three points. His big saves have earned United points that their actual performances didn’t merit and although he hasn’t been perfect (such as against West Brom at Old Trafford) his attitude is always exceptional and he has brought a big net gain to United overall. He doesn’t let errors get to him and blips remain blips rather than diffusing into a prolonged slump in form. Despite his advanced years, van der Sar is still one of the world’s best. It’s been said many times before, but that doesn’t make it any less true – the Dutchman is leaving some huge boots to fill.

Honourable mentions
Ben Foster who has made some remarkable saves this season, culminating in a superb sowing in the Carling Cup Final. Pepe Reina – without him Liverpool could genuinely be in a relegation dogfight. Petr Cech – who started the season brilliantly to mask Chelsea’s shortcomings before the finger in the dyke become insufficient to plug the leaky defence in front of him. Robert Green – still someway short of the league’s finest, but he has shown character and resilience to bounce back from the low of World Cup 2010. Tim Howard has made some amazing saves for Everton, but he throws in too many clangers to truly be considered amongst the very best in the league this season.

The Manchester United Goalkeeper Hunt Continues

Paper talk over the last couple of days have attempted to shed more light on who’s likely to replace Edwin van der Sar at Old Trafford, but if anything, it’s only highlighted how messy the picture has become. Here’s the latest attempt to cut through the double-talk and go through Sir Alex Ferguson’s likely wishlist.

Pepe Reina
1. Pepe Reina
As unthinkable as it might be to Liverpool fans, Reina joining their most despised of rivals isn’t as far-fetched as some may think. The Spaniard’s fiercely competitive nature is evident on the pitch and he wants to win trophies. Fernando Torres’ conclusion that aspirations of silverware were best served by moving elsewhere will have got Reina thinking about something similar. A move back to Spain has been spoken about, but only to Atletico Madrid where his father played for much of the 70s, even reaching a European Cup final. His contemporaries at Barcelona and Real Madrid would seem to have those plum goalkeeping berths locked down and the move to the Mattress Makers is more likely to happen towards the end of his career.

Not for the first time in his life, Liverpool’s recent upturn in form won’t be to the satisfaction of Sir Alex, but on this occasion it has nothing to do with rivaling the Red Devils for silverware or honours. The Anfield club are about as far away from a title challenge as at any point during Fergie’s reign at Old Trafford, but their resurgence under Kenny Dalglish may convince Reina to hang tight for at least another season. Ferguson and his goalkeeping coach, Eric Steele are said to be big fans of Reina, but with improved form and the promise of further investment over the summer, extending his stay on Merseyside could be worth the risk. Time would appear to be on his side. He’ll only turn 29 towards the start of next season and such is the peak physical condition that Reina keeps himself in, it’d wouldn’t be a surprise to be talking about him in 2020. Reina has the option of having his cake and eating it by giving Liverpool another chance to return to the top of the English game. If it doesn’t work out and Man Utd are still the dominant force in the Premier League in a couple of years, he could move then and still enjoy an extended stay at Old Trafford.

David de Gea
2. David de Gea
With the Reina option looking less and less likely with each improvement King Kenny gets from his team, Man Utd have been exploring the possibly of raiding the next generation of Spanish custodian. David de Gea is at the forefront of the generation after reportedly impressing Steele on several scouting missions in the recent past. Purely of terms of talent, de Gea has exactly what it takes to succeed in the Premier League right now and with the potential for further improvement he could excel for Man Utd. At the age of 20, he’s a hugely exciting prospect, but his youth is something of a double-edged sword for Man Utd.

On one hand, snapping up a player barely out of his teens who has a proven track record of success has the potential – if the best of the dream-like best scenario’s comes to pass – of sorting out the Man Utd goalkeeping position for a decade and possibly more. On the other, de Gea is reported to have misgivings about moving abroad quite so young. De Gea seems to be a young man of uncommon maturity and attitude, but the option of staying with Atletico to develop further prior to a big move is said to be tempting him into staying put for the next couple of years.

One concern may centre around the step up in expectations. In terms of media attention and pressure, his time at Atletico Madrid will have given de Gea at least an idea of what he will go through in the spotlight of Old Trafford, but the expectations at each club are vastly different. With the team in front of him regularly misfiring, on the occasions when de Gea has made mistakes, the consequences haven’t been too grave. That won’t be the case at Man Utd where – regardless of the opposition or the competition – he’ll play two high pressure games a week with virtually zero margin for error. With silverware expected, allowing the goal that turns three points into just one and could in turn prove costly at the end of the season will not be tolerated and de Gea has to decide if he’s ready for that level of scrutiny at this early stage of his career.

Manuel Neuer
3. Manuel Neuer
Neuer would be a great option for Man Utd, but he has made noises about preferring to stay in Germany and wanting to win a Bundesliga title. The interest from Bayern Munich would give him an option to complete both of these stated goals.

There had been hope that Thomas Kraft would be the long-term solution to Bayern’s goalkeeping issues, but for all his potential, he may not be the immediate remedy that the Bavarian club require. Attention has been turned back to Neuer and for good reason. He has always been highly rated, but over the last season and a half, the Schalke keeper has come along in leaps and bounds. Mistakes have been less and less common and his has become a more commanding presence around the penalty area. He is strikingly similar to the great Peter Schmeichel in terms of style and pure effectiveness and the experience he has amassed in six years of first team football make him vastly more tried and tested than the typical 25 year old. He has the talent to make a big impression at Old Trafford, but the signs are he’s staying put in the Bundesliga for the time-being. With age on his side, a move may again be discussed in the future, but for the moment – barring a change of heart or bags of money – it’s looking unlikely.

Maarten Stekelenburg
4. Maarten Stekelenburg
In the midst of all the speculation, Stekelenburg has remained a constant in the background. Rumours have trickled through consistently and the lack of agitation for a move and comment from Stekelenburg hints at a man confident in the knowledge a deal has been struck and where he’ll be playing his football next season. The Dutch connection makes the narrative of this particular option all the more appealing, but rest assured it has little influence on how Ferguson and Steele are assessing their options – Stekelenburg is being considered simply because he’s good enough to be considered and similarities with the departing Van der Sar are purely coincidental.

Technically good and physically robust, the current first choice for the Oranje would be well suited to the challenges of the Premier League and he comes across as the type of level-headed personality who will take the move to Old Trafford in his stride.

Gianluigi Buffon
5. Gianluigi Buffon
I’d be stunned if Buffon turns up at Old Trafford next season, mainly because it’s his agent who has been doing most of the talking about a possible move to England and purely on a personal basis, moving to the Premier League wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense. Having spent his entire career in Serie A, moving to England would require uprooting a young family to a completely new culture for a few years. Otherwise he could try the commute, but that’s only likely to meet with disapproval from Sir Alex and eventual homesickness. It would appear that Buffon’s agent has looked at the only two major European clubs in need of a top quality goalkeeper in an attempt to frighten Juventus into offering him a much improved contract. My guess would be Buffon will get his contract, stay in Turin for the next couple of years before moving to one of the Gulf states for one last lucrative pay-day.

The financial situation at Juve is often cited as a reason why Buffon’s departure is a possibility, but how much is a 33 year old – admittedly top class – increasingly injury-prone goalkeeper likely to fetch in a depressed transfer market? Whatever figure you arrive it, it’s unlikely to be enough to chase the financial gloom away. The benefits of hanging on to Buffon almost certainly outweigh the benefits of selling him on. Possibly adding fuel to the rumour is a fractious relationship with head coach, Luigi Del Neri. After recovering from the injury sustained at the World Cup, Buffon declared himself fit and ready to return for Juventus. Rather than immediately reinstate Italy’s number 1, Del Neri kept faith with Marco Storari for an extended period of time and that didn’t go down well with Buffon. As he was one of Del Neri’s first signings when taking charge last summer, there may have been an element of politics involved in the manager’s decision to stick with Storari, but whatever the reason, it’s judgment like that which makes it likely Buffon will be at Juventus next season whilst Del Neri will not.

The ‘all things considered’ most likely options list
1. Stekelenburg
2. De Gea
3. Reina
4. Neuer
5. Buffon

Goalkeeper World Rankings

Goalkeeper World Rankings
Jan. 27th 2011

Current (Former)
1. (1) Iker Casillas (Real Madrid and Spain)
2. (2) Petr Cech (Chelsea and Czech Rep.)
3. (3) Gigi Buffon (Juventus and Italy)
4. (4) Edwin Van Der Sar (Man Utd)
5. (5) Pepe Reina (Liverpool and Spain)
6. (6) Victor Valdes (Barcelona and Spain)
7. (8) Hugo Lloris (Lyon and France)
8. (9) Joe Hart (Man City and England)
9. (10) David de Gea (Atletico Madrid)
10. (-) Manuel Neuer (Schalke and Germany)

Casillas
“31st in the world my ass.”

These rankings are my opinion.
Unabashed, possibly biased and undoubtedly debatable opinion.
There’s not much in the way of statistics, data analysis or science.
It’s nothing more than my gut feeling after watching mountains of football and paying nerd-like attention to the goalkeepers. I fully acknowledge they’re flawed, open to discussion and quite possibly wrong.

They’re still not the worst goalkeeper rankings I’ve seen. In my own slightly biased opinion.
That honour goes to Castrol World Rankings. They were brought to my attention this week and after deciding the overall rankings weren’t completely laughable i.e. Lucas Leiva isn’t at the top with Emile Heskey pushing him close, I checked out how they rated the world’s goalkeepers. ‘Bizarrely’ is the short answer.

Now everyone is entitled to an opinion, but if it’s so wrong it’s borderline gibberish just don’t bother. Daniel Aranzubia is a good pro, but rarely in his career has he looked like one of the world’s elite. Maybe being exposed to those fumes all day long is affecting the people at Castrol. Likewise Mariano Andjuar (3rd best in the world apparently) has impressed me on occasion, but his lack of consistency over a long period of time rules him out as one of the world’s best. Here’s certainly one of the top keepers in Serie A but gone are the days when that honour automatically qualifies you as one of the word’s best. With Curci, Storari and Sorrentino to also feature towards the top of the list all of a sudden you’ve got 5 Serie A goalies in the top 11, a figure which is wrong by in the region of 4 to 5. Other major queries I’d have would be:

Julio Cesar at the top is just wrong. Ceasr is an excellent goalkeeper, but at no point in the last year, month or even week has he been better than the likes of Iker Casillas, Petr Cech, Edwin van der Sar etc.
Craig Gordon at 7 – he’s playing very well, but it’s only been for a few months. Needs to have done it for a longer period of time to be that high on my list.
Cesar Sanchez at 12 – I’m not even convinced he’s the best goalkeeper at Valencia.
Marcus Hanneham at 17 – this makes him better than Petr Cech, Joe Hart and Heurelho Gomes. Again, he’s probably not even the best keeper at Wolves.
Petr Cech the 20th best goalkeeper on the planet? Which planet? He’s one of the top two on earth.
Finally – Iker Casillas at 31 in the list of keepers and 145th best player in the world overall?? Ok, now you’re just coming out with utter garbage to get attention – it’s the Sepp Blatter approach.

I didn’t actually get around to compiling my best goalkeeper of the year list last month, but regular readers will know how highly I rate Iker Casillas. It probably sounds a bit like man-crush. He should have been a genuine contender for the Ballon d’Or rather than the obligatry afterthought he appeared to be. He has carried his World Cup excellence back to Real Madrid and his crucial saves have facilitated a smooth transition to the Mourinho era at the Bernabau. One negative was the amount of picking the ball out of the net he had to do against Barcelona, but it was Barcelona at their rampant finest and concrete wall would have struggled to keep them at bay for 90 minutes. He was the best goalkeeper in December and of the Ministry’s Goalkeeper of 2010.

The rehabilitation of Peter Cech is complete. Not only has he returned to the heights of earlier in his career, but he has exceeded them. He is wiser with experience and combined with his supreme reflexes, agility and bravery he is awesome. With Chelsea struggling, there’s not much positive comment about any members of the team, but Cech has been simply outstanding. He’s a joy to watch and regardless of what happens with the Blues season, if he maintains his current levels he deserves to be considered for all end of season awards, not just the ones for goalkeepers. Reina maintains the good form that has kept Liverpool out of some serious trouble whilst Van der Sar still looks perfectly comfortable at the highest level of the game. The Dutchman’s retirement will be a huge loss to United and the fact that goalkeeping coach, Eric Steele was only half-jokingly asked by a BBC interviewer if he could convince Van der Sar to change his mind and stay for another year reflects how well he’s still playing having reached the big 40.

After a long spell out injured and an unseemly argument with the Juventus manager who suggested his reinstatement to the first team wasn’t a mere formality, Gigi Buffon has returned to action. Eyebrows were raised when he maintained his heady place in the rankings, but it’s unfair to demote someone due to injury. Sitting on the bench because you’re getting paid truckloads of money is a different matter …

That brings me on to Shay Given. I’ve been a huge fan of Given for many years, but the lack of activity in the transfer window does not paint him in the most ambitious of lights. Of course I understand that a football career is short and players need to feather their nests for a long period of earning a mere fraction of their professional days, but would the Irishman really be on the receiving end of a self-inflicted financial knee-capping if he moved to another Premier League club or major European league? Having such talent yet watching on from the bench isn’t right and Man City’s number two needs to play to prove he’s still one of the world’s best. Sporadic Europa League and international games are a start, but he should have bigger ambitions than that. Given isn’t suddenly a bad goalkeeper, we just haven’t seen enough of him. Joe Hart has been making mistakes of late and Roberto Mancini should give him a quick taste of the bench. It may not be a long term arrangement. The type of errors seem to come from complacency and a reminder that he’s not undroppable, wouldn’t be a bad idea. Hart is still a top quality keeper, but maybe we shouldn’t tell him quite so often.

Given has been dropped from the top 10 for Manuel Neuer. Ironically he hasn’t been playing a great deal lately either, but that’s got more to do with the Bundesliga winter break than anything else. His form has been crucial in Schalke’s recent surge from relegation candidates to European contenders.

Do you think any other goalkeepers deserve to be included? Leave your suggestions, abuse or praise in the comments section.