Make Goalkeeping Great AgainSeptember 12, 2016
For a while now, Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect by The Decemberists has been playing back and forth in my head. Not that I ever harboured such dreams to wade into the architectural pool, far from it. Well, maybe for a fleeting moment back in 2008 when we were filling in our university course choice forms. But I did dream of being a footballer. A little boy can dream, right?
From the moment I became conscious of the beautiful game, I was fascinated by the goalkeeping position. Whether it’s because I shared a first name with the France great World Cup-winning custodian Fabien Barthez, or because I was overawed by the fact that this type of footballer could wear a differently coloured kit, with gloves and the number 1 on their backs, I’m not entirely sure.
Word gets round rather fast, especially among family, no matter how trivial the matter is. In no time my footballing uncle (whom I’ve alluded to here on so many occasions) would send me the Liverpool keeper’s jersey and thus kick started by goalkeeping career. Yeah, I know, Liverpool. Bleurgh! Then again, a gift is a gift. Anyway, I was decent at the job, and was always picked by my peers for the role, be it during just a friends’ match at home, my class team at school or in the catechism class games. I did well, but I got bored pretty fast. For one, I detested the fact that I never really played a lot with the ball…and also when you’re rooted on a spot for a long time under the sweltering sun, you kind of get fed up with the more than generous share of Vitamin D that you’re getting. The most annoying thing for me at the time though has to be the fact that I was never referred to as a ‘player’ or a ‘footballer’ or a ‘football player’, but rather as just ‘goalie’. I would be the goalkeeper while my friends played football.
That is why I understand and appreciate Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola’s preference for a keeper who is good with his feet and can actually play football. Of course much has been said and will still be said of his ostracizing of Joe Hart due to his ball-playing deficiencies but I have always found it rather funny that a coach would be called out for preferring a goalie who can pass accurately to another team mate and start a move.
Watching the Manchester derby at the weekend, as much as I was mesmerized by City’s slick passing and movement that at times threatened to take the contest beyond Manchester United’s reach, I was drawn to their new shot stopper Claudio Bravo’s debut which was more that eventful…even for comfort. Whenever he got the ball, he wanted to take another touch then feed it to one of his back four. At times he took very huge risks and of course one of those has been the subject of controversy since then. Bravo took a touch too many and the ball ended up too close to the charging United captain Wayne Rooney. The City debutant had to dive in with a tackle, got some of the ball and took out Rooney too in the process. It was a late challenge, and of course a bad one that he shouldn’t have to be making in the first place. Normally that should have warranted a penalty and at least a yellow card. Luckily, neither materialized and Bravo got away with it. Maybe next time he won’t. Many people at the place we were quickly dismissed him as a fraud who would duly be exposed time and again in the Premier League, but I was impressed.
I figured out that if I were Claudio Bravo, I would do the same thing – use my feet as much as possible. The role of the goalkeeper has changed. The ‘sweeper keeper’ is not just a football hipster’s thing anymore. It is quite becoming the norm and possibly with time, a mandatory requirement for anyone with ambitions to stand between the sticks for a big team. I remember many times in the past me rushing out of goal to clear a ball, or, to ‘defend’ before the attacker got any closer. I don’t know if that’s clear enough, but oh well, that’s how I could describe it. Bravo’s fault on the day obviously was in United’s goal scored by Zlatan Ibrahimovic. As eccentric as a keeper is, or however quick his feet may be, he is still first and foremost and goalkeeper, whose fundamental role is to stop the opponent from scoring. Now what happened is that a free kick was floated by Rooney with the ball going across goal at a considerable distance off it. Bravo went for the catch and completely missed it, ending up in a clash with his defender John Stones and the ball falling kindly for Ibrahimovic to volley home. Bravo is a 106-capped international with Chile who has won titles including back to back Copa Americas and the Champions League, thus experienced enough to know that as a keeper when you go for the ball you either claim it or punch it far away from danger. That goal is solely on him.
The problem with being a goalkeeper and which I have alluded to above is that you’re seldom appreciated yet any error you make is magnified a thousand times over. Amid all the noise and furore of Bravo’s colourful showing, only very few people can point out the significance to City’s play and subsequent domination especially in the first half as a result of him starting the moves from his goal with a pass to one the his defenders, almost every time he had the ball. It takes a lot of balls to constantly do that even after such a bad mistake and with the opponent having singled you out as a soft target to have a go at. At the end of the match his manager Pep gushed about Bravo’s ‘personality’ and you can understand why. A huge part of being a top class goalkeeper is having that kind of personality with an unshakeable belief and letting it show again and again.
Hart is a City legend who is assured of special affection eternally from the blue half of Manchester and you probably must feel for him. I do too. Sometimes though, as it should be all times, much is required from those to whom much has been given. It’s a challenge to him to reinvent himself if he still wants to be in the reckoning for the Man City number 1 spot. Debuting for Torino in the Serie A at Atalanta with an 83% pass completion rate certainly is one way of doing that, though his clanger off a corner for one of the opposing side’s goals doesn’t really help his cause.
It feels like the dawn of a new era in goalkeeping. Truth is, it isn’t, but it really does feel like it, doesn’t it? Manuel Neuer has been doing whatever Bravo did and Hart is trying to do for a while now and at the same time being a premier shot stopper. He is the best in the world and not just because he keeps the opponents at bay, but also because he is an integral part of Bayern Munich’s and Germany’s build ups and in essence gives them an invaluable extra man and a numerical advantage in some situations. It is the way to go, and not just for football hipsters like me.
Maybe Joe Hart must feel what The Decemberists said; “But the angles and the corners, even though my work is unparalleled, they never seemed to meet. This structure fell about our feet and we were free to go.” I just wish time would roll back and I’d be a goalkeeping footballer yet again, because the time seems ripe for that.