Champions Manchester City and stubborn Stoke City are the only two teams in the Premier League that on average, concede less than one goal per game. While the defensive backline of clubs up and down country has come under fire recently, I would argue that the man between the posts should take his share of the blame. It’s certainly worth asking why so few clubs possess a prominent goalkeeper in the prime of their career?
Take Manchester United for example, a side undergoing their routine, awkward transition between two reliable goalkeepers. At 22 years of age, David De Gea boasts undeniable potential but is raw to core, whereas his colleague Anders Lindegaard is six years his senior but has limited experience at the summit of European football. Sir Alex Ferguson has chopped and changed repeatedly this season, with both men apparently allergic to the number one jersey.
In the wake of their chaotic 4-3 victory over Reading last week, the United boss described it as “agony” and the “worst defending of this season”. A goalkeeper can only be as good as the defence in front of him and the tinkering in both departments has surely hampered rather than helped their title bid.
The defensive frailty is a real concern for those in the red half of Manchester, having already shipped 21 goals this season, three more than struggling Sunderland. Just one side in Premier League history has gone on to win the championship after conceding as many after fifteen games. Unsurprisingly, it was the Red Devils in 1996/1997, but the average for the league’s eventual winners is a mere 11, the current total of fierce rivals Manchester City.
Speaking of Roberto Mancini’s side, even the seemingly faultless Joe Hart has found himself thrust under the intense glow of the media spotlight. Journalists have been queuing up to lambast England’s ‘saviour’ for nurturing an inflated ego, which has allowed errors to creep into his game. However, I would argue he is simply a victim of his own and indeed the nation’s painfully high standards.
Outside the top two, is there a sole candidate that has been consistent, assured and won more points for his team than he has lost? Perhaps such a thing can’t exist within the rigours of modern football. By my calculations, there are only six definitive first choice keepers that find themselves in the optimum 27-32 age bracket. Cech, Reina, Al-Habsi, Foster, Federici and Vorm should by definition, present the perfect blend of experience and physical maturity.
And yet the standout names on that list – Chelsea’s Petr Cech and Liverpool’s Pepe Reina – have both suffered a severe dip in form this season. Neither shot-stopper installs the same degree of confidence or air of authority as years gone by, with only 11 clean sheets between them all season. Perhaps I am being over critical but at 30 years of age they should be at the peak of their career, not sitting at the top of a very slippery slope, encouraging the whispers that they’ve entered a state of decline.
At present, West Brom’s Ben Foster is arguably the leading light in the division with Swansea’s Michel Vorm hot on his heels, although he has been confined to the treatment table in recent weeks. Wigan’s Al-Habsi and Reading’s Adam Ferderici on the other hand are strange characters, one minute sublime and the next surreal, as infuriating as they are dependable for their managers.
The majority of shot-stoppers are either too juvenile – De Gea, Szczesny and even Krul – or a matter of weeks away from being ushered into a retirement home – Friedel, Jaaskelainen and Schwarzer. There is a growing sense that while the Premier League can showcase some of the best attacking talent in the world, it can’t do the same at the other end of the pitch.
There is another angle to this subject which points to the lack of English options in the Premier League, with only John Ruddy providing any real competition to Joe Hart. Ben Foster’s retirement and Rob Green’s resignation to the bench at Loftus Road means Roy Hodgson has had to dip into the lower leagues. However, England U’21 goalkeeping coach Martin Thomas insists he is working with the best batch of ‘safe hands’ for nearly a decade.
Alongside the already renowned Jack Butland, Hull City’s Ben Amos, Middlesbrough’s Jason Steele and Norwich City’s Declan Rudd have thrived on the international scene.
“It’s not only those four, there’s also other lads like Alex Smithies of Huddersfield and Wes Foderingham who’s at Swindon,” explained Thomas.
“The best part of around 65 goalkeepers, a majority who are English and under the age of 26, are playing in the Football League every week. All you hope is they can do well enough to take the next step and eventually work up to the Premier League.” (FA)
Perhaps then this is simply a transitional period, similar to when teams enjoy phases of success before enduring a rebuilding process. The return of the formidable goalkeeper could be just around the corner, and then we’ll be forced to complain that we don’t see enough goals.