David de Gea’s saves don’t automatically make him the best in the league

Is David de Gea the best goalkeeper in the Premier League? If not, who is? Hugo Lloris? Thibaut Courtois? Ederson?

The problem with questions like these is that they don’t really allow for a real answer.

Who’s the best midfielder in the league? David Silva? Paul Pogba? N’Golo Kante, even? You see the problem: the only reasonable answer mutters something about comparing apples and pears and walks off shaking its head.

Thankfully, you rarely get these types of comparisons. The Ballon D’Or does some of the work by comparing – let’s be honest here – the best attackers in the world, but even then you can see how strange the whole concept really is: even Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, the two most compared players of all time, are comparable only in terms of greatness, not by any other metric.

With goalkeepers, though, you sense that it’s not just bad comparisons at play when ‘the best in the world’ debate is thrown up, there also seems to be a lack of nuance involved about what goalkeepers actually do.

So what does a goalkeeper do? Or, what sorts of qualities should we be looking for in the best ones? They say drummers are just guys who hang around with musicians, are keepers just guys who hang around with footballers?

Save the shots is an obvious response, but there should be more to it that that. In fact, that’s part of the problem.

Since Alex Ferguson left Manchester United in 2013, David de Gea has been arguably the only Manchester United player to go from strength to strength. He was already a good goalkeeper, but few would have talked about him in terms of being the best in the world. That’s now changed, he’s often talked about as one of the best the world has to offer in that position. Because unlike players in any other position, success isn’t always measured by winning.

In fact, not winning often helps more: you’ll regularly hear about how great a keeper like Tom Heaton or Jack Butland is, and that’s because they make saves at a much higher rate than most of their peers, not necessarily because they’re better goalkeepers, but because they’re busier goalkeepers.

That’s not to say that being able to make saves isn’t an important skill – of course it is. Manchester City aren’t much better this season simply because Claudio Bravo is no longer in goal, but it has to be part of the reason. But that should only serve to underline the point: it wasn’t just Bravo’s difficulties at stopping shots that cost his team last season, it was also the lack of confidence he instilled in his defenders. In the end that put them under even more pressure. Indeed, far from just harming the defence, it may well have made City more cautious in attack for fear of conceding a counter.

All of this is to say that, for goalkeepers, there’s a lot more to it than just making saves, and that’s crucial for the rest of the team and even the entire season, rather than just one result. Indeed, it should be thought about more when it comes to picking out who the best keepers in the league are, just in the same way we’d think before we said that David Silva would make a great player for Burnley, whose midfield could certainly do without a luxury attacker like the Spanish international.

Saves and wonderful moments should rightly see goalkeepers like De Gea praised for their jobs, but they also make for spectacularly bad ways to actually judge who the best and worst keepers are.