Goalkeepers: undervalued, underpaid and priceless

If, as they say goalkeepers are mad, then they ought to have really started a union by now. They are an essential anatomy of a team along with the striker says José Mourinho in “Inside Sport: Can England win the next World Cup?” but they are not nearly as valued much. In the Premier League, Craig Gordon stands as the most expensive goalkeeper at £9million when he moved from Hearts to Sunderland but he is not even close to getting into the list of the all-time most expensive transfers in England. And he is still some way short of the £15million paid by Newcastle for Alan Shearer – some fourteen years ago now.

The justification for paying more for a striker than a goalkeeper seemingly follows the simple logic “that goals win games.” But if that really is the case, surely stopping goals is worth just as much? There is perhaps an issue of ignorance, as it is not obvious, in the same way as a forward, that goalkeepers are involved as much but that would go beyond ignorance. Indeed, Johan Cruyff mulled over the idea of fielding an outfield player between the sticks as coach of Barcelona but luckily his senses came to the fore. Managers and fans alike realise the true worth of goalkeepers but as indicated by West Ham’s strategy in 2009/10 under Gianfranco Zola, the goals they leaked was always an after thought to the goals they failed to score. Goalkeeping was just an impartial means of getting the result – and that was to score goals for the wins to stay up.

Robert Green is a competent goalkeeper but at no point was there to question his failings as opposed to that of Manuel Almunia. The Arsenal goalkeeper has come under the fiercest critics in the last two years and fans are baffled as to why he remained first choice for so long. Wojciech Szczęsny has gone some way to silencing those doubts but the Pole is still young and that brings with it inevitable inconsistencies that only time will slowly eradicate. Almunia is a solid pro and a humble personality but a club of Arsenal’s stature demand someone of exceptional talent and Almunia perhaps falls short.

Arsène Wenger’s failure to find a top quality goalkeeper suggests then, that supply of the top talent is at a paucity and therefore the high demand for the best forces the prices up – it’s basic economics – and too high for Wenger to want to compete. However for goalkeepers it doesn’t quite work like that.

In comparison with other outfield positions, there are definitely less goalkeepers in the market but with the one position out of eleven on offer, it then creates a market of inactive goalkeepers. Number two’s in others words, who are, in some cases, just as good but unable to command themselves for whatever reason. Wenger argues he has four good goalkeepers and if Almunia fails, which the Frenchman finally accepts has, either one can step up. (In this case, first Łukasz Fabiański was promoted to the club’s number one before injury allowed the number four at the start of the season, Wojciech Szczęsny, to jump to the top of the order). It also happened with Shay Given at the start of this season but although not necessarily because he was worse than Joe Hart; but because there was a danger Hart would fulfil his potential at another cub. Given has now got to make do sitting on the bench or move to a less ambitious side.

Goalkeepers have less bargaining power; they could either sit on the bench and train hard therefore trying to force their way into the reckoning or search for games elsewhere. “Most top keepers are not transient – they don’t float from team to team,” said former Arsenal goalkeeper John Lukic who had two spells at the club but the most notable was between 1983 and 1990 where he made 223 appearances at Highbury. “They go to a team and stay there. Their services are retained because they are that good – it’s as simple as that. Myself and Dave Seaman spent the best part of 20 years at the club, but look at the number of keepers they have had since then.” Age is another important factor as ‘keepers can have a career up to forty at the highest level and that is a reason why Arsenal were interested in signing veteran Mark Schwarzer, now 38.

Wenger’s problem with identifying a top quality goalkeeper is that he demands an all-rounder and for the sake of having a jack-of-all-trades, he is willing to skimp on the essentials. With the outlawing of the back-pass in 1992, goalkeepers have had to be more technical and in that respect Almunia excels. His kicking under pressure is excellent and is fantastic at rushing off his line to clear with his feet (although this season, the pressure is evidently getting to him and his mistake against West Bromwich Albion highlighted his serious lack of form). The Arsenal style means that it is essential to have a “sweeper-keeper” in goal because they play a high line that is susceptible to a pass or a run behind the defence and the goalkeeper being the last line of defence, they have to be alert to sweep up the danger. A ‘keeper like Given who has proven himself in the Premier League, may not be mobile enough to deal with that much of a responsibility because he has spent all his career standing on his own goal-line. The British culture of goalkeeping has been about safety first, so every high ball contested must be a catch otherwise it mustn’t be contested at all. Punching had usually been frowned upon, especially in regards to shots, but with the globalisation of the English League, it is now starting to become accepted. Nevertheless, the ball at the feet of an English goalkeeper still looks an an alien proposition.

As ever, goalkeeper is about mentality and that perhaps more than anything, determines their success. “Today, because of the athleticism, tactics , pressing and overused offside trap, many games are decided by a single goal scored on the break,” says legendary Italian Dino Zoff. “For the keeper to hope to make a difference in these kind of situations he must be strong mentally.”

Wenger talks of the “negative stress” on goalkeepers; that people tend to only focus on the bad things, the mistakes until a good save – but who knows when that will next happen? And what are the chances that, by the next shot, the negativity has not already eaten them up? Strikers are bound to get another chance. A keeper’s best efforts are determined by the defence in front of him – another factor which helps explain Wenger’s intransigence when it comes to the goalkeeping position. If you don’t trust your centre-forward there’s always someone else capable of scoring. But if you don’t trust your keeper, a nervousness will seep throughout the entire team and they start to overcompensate. To some degree, Almunia’s mistakes have come to grate Wenger and he realises the knock on effect this has on the unit. The failure to guard his near post in the 3-2 defeat to West Brom last September ultimately cost him his place in the team and gave a sluggish Arsenal too much to do. His mistake in the corresponding fixture last month knocked Arsenal’s title challenge back a bit as a potential turnaround at 0-1 became very quickly, 0-2 and thus a draw was the best outcome as opposed to a gettable win.

Manuel Almunia is in his thirties now, the age where goalkeepers are supposed to find their peak and most importantly, their sanity. It may be that he does although maniacal doesn’t necessarily account to insanity if Jens Lehmann is the case. However he’d probably have to find it somewhere else; the unpolluted air of Pamplona may be his calling or the sea breeze of Malaga but at the end of the season, he is set pack his bags, passing the gloves onto rookie Wojciech Szczęsny. But you’d never have guessed it if only you spend a second in his presence of the 20 year-old wearing Arsenal’s number 53. Szczęsny has the charisma that exudes success and being so assured at a young age has an added bonus for Arsenal. Feasibly the Pole can be The Gunners’ main man for 20 more years and he has hardly cost a penny having moved to the club from Legia Warszawa at the age of 15. Pepe Reina was 27 when Wenger “tried like mad” to sign him for what would have been a record £19million in the summer. That’s £2m every 10 years as opposed to next to nothing for 20 years with Szczęsny. Manchester United have also been using the same logic in their courtship of Atletico Madrid’s David De Gea, who is at the same age of Szczęsny, for when Edwin van der Sar retires.

It seems like Szczęsny can answer Arsenal’s goalkeeper problem for years to come but perhaps most of all this heavy scrutiny on the club’s goalkeeping situation indicates, is that there is now a greater realisation of the importance of goalkeepers – a fact made more apparent by the string of key goalkeepers unlikely to leave their clubs for less than £15million. It seems finally parity can be achieved in terms of wages and transfer prices for the men between the sticks.

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