Petr Cech and Davide De Gea may have risen to the status of great Premier League goalkeepers after joining major English clubs for big money at relatively young ages, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end.
There’s a crucial generational divide between the Manchester United No.1 and the Arsenal veteran; while the former is one of the champions of an era in which goalkeepers are as smart with their feet as they are with their hands, whether that’s saving the ball or distributing it, Cech is the last of the old school – having developed his game before a time when so much was expected of top flight glovesmen, he’s a far less proactive, far more cautious presence.
And yet, even at varying points in their careers, Cech well and truly into his decline and De Gea on the verge of what should be his most consistent years, both goalkeepers, varied in age and style, have been struck by the same phenomena at different levels of the game.
Whereas Cech’s performances for Arsenal have so bemusingly paled in comparison to his decade of almost impenetrable consistency at Chelsea, De Gea’s World Cup outings for Spain this summer have bore almost no resemblance to the world-class shot-stopper who has won four out of the last five Player of the Year awards at Manchester United.
We often think of goalkeepers as the most interchangeable type of footballer on the market. Yes, there are variations in styles and certain managers – like Pep Guardiola – will have more nuanced demands to suit their way of playing. Overall though, if every goalkeeper from the world’s top ten clubs were to leave one and join another team in the same bracket this summer, you wouldn’t expect a particularly vast rise or dip in performance.
Barring a few early teething problems, Manuel Neuer would still be Manuel Neuer and Jan Oblak would still be Jan Oblak – whether they’re pulling on an Atletico, Bayern or Chelsea shirt.
Yet, Cech and De Gea’s respective struggles prove that isn’t quite the case. Cech was an ever-calming influence at Chelsea, yet has oft seemed too passive for Arsenal, especially for a player of such experience.
De Gea has been talismanic over the last few seasons at United, but was probably one of Spain’s biggest underachievers at the World Cup – a couple of saves, alongside an absolute howler against Portugal and some incredibly nervous moments in the process. That’s created a situation where opinions of De Gea in his native country are markedly different from those in the Premier League.
The explanation though, isn’t quite as mystical as it may seem. In many ways, De Gea and Cech’s surprising struggles are simply proof that most goalkeepers are only truly as great as the defences in front of them, and even more so the manner in which that backline actively looks to protect them. The differences between Chelsea under Jose Mourinho and Arsenal under Arsene Wenger provide perhaps the key example here.
Take the Blues; solid with a deep-lying defence and well-organised back six. Now take Arsenal; open, expansive, high-pushing and usually disorganised at the back. That doesn’t necessarily dictate how many chances either side will give away to the opposition in any given game, because Chelsea can defend deep and still have an incredibly poor game, just as Arsenal can defend high and keep the ball for practically the entire ninety minutes. It does, however, influence the quality of the chances that the opposition are likely to receive.
Whereas Cech would, on the most part, have several Chelsea defenders in front of him who at a bare minimum would restrict the angles in which opponents could shoot towards goal, the type of goals Arsenal concede are more commonly breakaways – instances where the defence isn’t properly settled and the attacker is in space with most of the goal to aim at. Suddenly, it becomes a very different game, and seemingly one Cech at the age of 36 isn’t particularly good at. That’s why Bernd Leno’s come in to replace him this summer.
The same applies to De Gea when comparing how United set up to Spain. In theory, Spain have a fantastic defence – you’ll be hard pressed to find two better centre-halves or full-backs anywhere across Europe this summer. But in practice, Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique have been nothing short of abysmal at this World Cup.
Pique gave away a penalty against Russia, the free kick Cristiano Ronaldo scored from for Portugal and should have been sent off for a two-footed lunge on a Moroccan. Against the latter opposition, meanwhile, Ramos and Andres Iniesta dallied on the ball – before letting Khalid Boutaib sneak between them to score on the break.
How many of those incidents did De Gea really have a chance with, and how many times were United guilty of errors to that calamitous degree last season? Perhaps the same number as Spain were during just four World Cup outings compared to a whole 38-game league campaign.
Even without individual mistakes though, the theory still stands up – the Red Devils are balanced, organised and protect their own goal before considering threatening the other, whereas Spain play in a way that will always leave them exposed to counter-attacks or at the very least quick breakaways. That’s when defenders can’t narrow down angles, at least to the same degree, and the glovesmen are left to pull off something special.
There are copious other examples around the Premier League and yonder too – Tom Heaton and more miraculously, Nick Pope have excelled at Burnley behind one of the best pound-for-pound defences in Europe. Martin Dubrakva was one of the most successful signings of the January transfer window, but Newcastle are a pragmatic team with a solid, dependable backline.
Atletico Madrid, likewise, have developed two of the best goalkeepers of the last five years in Thibaut Courtois and Oblak. How much of that is a consequence of their natural ability, and how much is it due to the likes of Diego Godin making the job that much easier for them?
In some ways, it also comes down to personality and style. Ederson has proved himself perfect for not only Manchester City’s buildup play but also the type of chances they mostly give away – counter-attacks when they’re caught in possession higher up the field.
Claudio Bravo, on the other hand, looked completely hopeless when faced with the same task – but would Nick Pope or Tom Heaton, two of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League over the last two years, have done any better than the misfit Chilean?
Of course, there is one similarity between the Chelsea team that Cech made his career with and the United side that currently occupy Old Trafford, which in fact underlines the overriding theme of this article – Mourinho. His philosophy, albeit controversial at times, makes average goalkeepers look good, and great goalkeepers even better.
With another expansive team that employ two members of Spain’s ill-fated backline once again reportedly circling this summer in the form of long-term admirers Real Madrid, Cech’s decline at Arsenal illustrates the dangers of De Gea leaving United.
At the Bernabeu, outside the advantageous instruction of Mourinho, goalkeeping will seem like a whole different game for the Spaniard. As talented as De Gea no doubt is, life will be a lot tougher in the Spanish capital.