The press seemed to be in a bit of a frenzy when they received the Tottenham team-sheets and realised that Brad Friedel had been benched for a Premier League fixture. Friedel at 41 had not missed a Premier League game since 2004, thats 310 consecutive games he had started in a row in England’s top flight. Indeed the record that spanned over three clubs, a quite remarkable feat – but he isn’t untouchable and he is not free of rotation. Surely no player should be, even if they are a goalkeeper?
Similarly, Sir Alex Ferguson raised an eyebrow or two a few weeks ago when he confirmed he would be rotating Anders Lindegaard (above) and David de Gea in the Manchester United goal. It was a situation we were all aware of, but didn’t expect Ferguson to articulate. It was the goalkeeping solution that dare not speak its name.
In theory, it shouldn’t be a problem. Rotation has long ceased to be a dirty word – since Claudio Ranieri was roundly mocked for it in his time at Chelsea – regarding outfield players. Goalkeepers, however, are a different breed. It seems the ideal is to have a clear No1, with an able deputy who doesn’t mind being on the bench and playing a few League Cup games.
There are precious few cases of goalkeeping rotation existing, never mind working. The most famous is probably the inability of a couple of England managers to choose between Ray Clemence and Peter Shilton – which, incidentally, was during the period when England failed to qualify for two World Cups. That may be a coincidence, but what other examples are there? Real Madrid tried it when Iker Casillas was emerging, but Vicente del Bosque soon realised that ‘San Iker’ was a better option than César Sánchez. At Stoke, Tony Pulis seems to be pitting Thomas Sorensen and Asmir Begovic against each other in some sort of Sondico-gloved death match (Pulis said in August: “We have good competition between them and you hope that brings the best out of both”), but other than this, examples are tricky to find.
Ferguson, however, does have a blind spot with goalkeepers. Mark Bosnich, Massimo Taibi, Fabien Barthez, Roy Carroll and Tim Howard all appeared between the Old Trafford sticks in the post-Peter Schmeichel period, before Ferguson finally bought the man he admitted he should have signed in the first place, Edwin van der Sar. What’s more, his policy with De Gea and Lindegaard is reminiscent of his uncertainty over Howard and Carroll. In the pre-Van der Sar years of 2003-2005, Howard played 44 times in the league while Carroll started 32 games.
Is history repeating itself? One could argue that Ferguson is simply protecting two relatively inexperienced goalies from the perils of too much, too young. In fact, he has argued this himself, saying: “I think the most important thing I’m trying to achieve is experience of the English game. They are both young, they don’t have the experience of a Van der Sar or Schmeichel, so alternating is not a problem for me.” It’s a fair point, but putting aside the fragile nature of goalkeeping psychology, is Ferguson creating unnecessary problems for himself? With injuries to three central defenders and the health of Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans not exactly guaranteed, one would think he would take the option of stability when it was available.
If Ferguson is to settle on one keeper, though, which should it be? Economics would suggest the man for whom he paid £17m, but in dropping De Gea for the relatively small crime of a few mistakes against Fulham, the manager has already shown he has no issues with an expensive bench-warmer. The selection of Lindegaard is understandable: the Dane is a steady, if unspectacular, presence. De Gea, however, shows flashes of goalkeeping brilliance and, while he’s far from perfect, one shouldn’t expect a 21-year-old to be a fully-formed starter. Most of his issues – such as where he sets his weight when awaiting a shot – can be worked on and ironed out. On the other hand, it’s difficult to imagine anyone being able to teach Lindegaard some of the saves De Gea is already capable of.
Ferguson’s plan to shield De Gea from the potential harm of an unforgiving Premier League is inspired by the right motives. But the knocks to his confidence that this rotation might bring could ultimately do more damage.
However, you could argue that the press make a big deal of these decisions but its just part and parcel of the game nowadays. Certain sides prefer rotating their players including the keepers. It should keep them on their toes. If you have two good goalies then it makes sense to swap them about from time to time. Andre Villas-Boas is better taking Friedel out now and then, resting him rather than drop him if he makes a howler, that would suck out all of his confidence. Goalkeepers, at the end of the day, are just like any other player at a football club. Some get lucky and are the number ones throughout a season whilst others are rotated – its as simple as that. Confidence is a huge part of being a successful goalkeeper, so carefully plotted rotation is vital so as to not stifle confidence levels.