Conducting a quick straw poll in the office throws up one emphatic answer: who’s the best centre forward in the world? Harry Kane… Harry Kane… Harry Kane….
I’m sure that’s not English bias towards a sharp-toothed Lion nor recency bias towards a World Cup hero. This man scored more goals than anyone else in the calendar year of 2017. But I have to ask, why not Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo – Kane may be very excellent, but surely he hasn’t attained that level yet. Or Mohamed Salah – the Spurs and England star didn’t complete a hat trick of Premier League golden boots this year, a certain Egyptian King did.
But those guys aren’t centre forwards – they’re attackers, maybe even wingers to some. Just not out-and-out strikers.
We may be lacking some vocabulary to define exactly what Messi, Ronaldo and Salah are and how they differ from Kane, but we still know what we’re talking about. We’ve evolved to be able to respect these subtle differences, at least in outfield players. But we haven’t for goalkeepers.
If you did the same poll for the world’s best goalkeeper you might get a similarly emphatic response. Most Premier League observers would accept that Manuel Neuer still has a claim to being number one, or that Gianluigi Buffon was in the conversation up until a few years ago (probably not anymore). But the answer they’re likely to give is David de Gea.
Whilst the Spaniard made just one mistake in his country’s shirt at the World Cup, the nature of it – in the opening game against Portugal – led some to wonder whether the unofficial title of world’s best should be taken from him.
It wasn’t a great tournament for Spain, and De Gea didn’t cover himself in glory, but questioning how good a keeper the Manchester United man is feels like going too far. It hits on an overlooked point, though.
He has never been as highly thought-of in Spain as he is in England. His performances for his club outweigh those for his country. It probably has something to do with concentration: at the Old Trafford club, he’s often pelted with shots, for Spain, his job is more about keeping his head in the game so he can react if called-upon.
Goalkeepers for possession teams are a different beast to those who play for sides that usually face a lot of attacks. De Gea falls into both categories, one at club level and the other internationally. But the vocabulary hasn’t caught up with this.
Switch Ederson and De Gea at club level and you’re likely to see both start to look bad. The differences might even go beyond what you’d find if you swapped Kane and Salah around.
We can’t have different words for different goalkeepers, but we can start talking about not comparing the two. Just as asking whether Kane is better than Salah doesn’t seem like a fair question, nor is the comparison between De Gea and Neuer legitimate.
If the Manchester United goalkeeper looks more uncomfortable for country than he does for club, that’s only because we’ve put the wrong type of goalkeeper in a possession team. But most top teams these days do like to play that style of football.
You wonder if De Gea needs to make sure he never leaves Manchester United if he’s to continue to be thought of as the best in the world.