The Surprising Struggles of Europe's Top Goalkeepers

The Surprising Struggles of Europe's Top Goalkeepers

Tuesday, 4 December, 2018 - 07:30
David de Gea, Thibaut Courtois, Manuel Neuer and Marc-André ter Stegen have all let their high standards slip. Composite: AMA/Getty; Real Madrid via Getty; EPA; NurPhoto via Getty
London - Martin Laurence
The weekend threw up another series of shock results around Europe. Real Madrid suffered a humiliating defeat, losing 3-0 at Eibar; Bayern Munich could only manage a 3-3 draw against Fortuna Dusseldorf, the bottom team in the Bundesliga; and Manchester United were also held at home against Crystal Palace. José Mourinho’s team are now a point closer to Fulham at bottom of the table than Manchester City at the top.

The one upside for United was that David de Gea kept his first clean sheet in nine league matches. He pulled off a brilliant save against Young Boys as United progressed to the last-16 of the Champions League but it has been a tough season for the Spaniard in the league – and he is not the only big-name keeper who is struggling.

De Gea’s record has been phenomenal over the last few years. He has won the Manchester United player of the year award in four of the last five seasons and he also picked up his first Premier League golden glove award last season, having kept 18 clean sheets in 37 appearances. However, he is stuttering this season, having kept just two clean sheets in the league. To put that in some context, he kept clean sheets in 49% of his league appearances last season and that figure is now down to just 15%.

Of course, every keeper relies on the defence in front of him, but that hasn’t held back De Gea in the past. In fact, the United keeper boasted a sensational save success rate last season, saving 81.5% of the shots on target he faced – a figure only Jan Oblak could beat in Europe’s top five leagues. This season De Dea has saved just under 69% of his shots on target. Incidentally, that figure of 69% is the average for every regular keeper in the big leagues across Europe.

De Gea is not the only high-profile keeper enduring a tough start to the campaign. Even Oblak has suffered a marked dip at Atlético Madrid, although his save success rate of 76.9% (down from a remarkable 85.8% last season) is nothing to be sniffed at. His counterparts at the top clubs in La Liga are faring substantially worse, with Thibaut Courtois having already faced criticism at cross-city rivals Real Madrid.

Courtois’s save success rate of just 62.5% is a lot lower than the average across the continent and his own average of 70.4% from his final season at Chelsea. Marc-André ter Stegen has suffered an even greater drop off at Barcelona, with his save rate in the league falling from 76.6% last season to 64.2% this time around.

However, it is, Ter Stegen’s esteemed countryman Manuel Neuer who is having the worst season of all. Of the 105 keepers with at least five appearances in Europe’s top leagues this season, the 32-year-old props up the pile. His statistic isn’t so much a success rate as a fail rate. The Bayern captain has saved just 43.8% of the shots on targe the has faced, which puts him among a group of three keepers who have let in more goals than they have made saves – along with Tomas Koubek (Rennes) and Fabian Bredlow (Nuremberg).

It is difficult not to blame Neuer for Bayern’s poor form this season. The team has conceded the fewest shots in the league by a distance yet they have still conceded 17 goals – the same as 14th-place Schalke. Neuer – like De Gea – has kept just two clean sheets in the league this season, but the United keeper has faced five more shots per game. Neuer isn’t facing many shots; he just isn’t saving them.

Neuer’s ineptitude has contributed to Bayern falling to fifth in the league a full nine points behind Borussia Dortmund. Their once great goalkeeper looks a shadow of his former self. He has had a long time out of the game through injury, but the way his save success rate has dropped by more than 35% since his last full season in the Bundesliga (79.7% in 2016-17) is inexcusable.

When it comes to saving shots on target, the evergreen 40-year-old Gigi Buffon leads the way, having made 90.9% of his saves. Though the fact that his closest challenger across Europe on that statistic is Alphonse Areola – the goalkeeper with whom Buffon has been rotated at PSG – suggests they have been relatively untested. PSG have scored 46 goals in Ligue 1 so far this season, while their two keepers have only been called upon to make 37 saves between them.

PSG have conceded just seven goals in Ligue 1 all season – one for every two games they play – but Liverpool can beat that record in the Premier League. Alisson has been in fine for the club, conceding just five goals in 13 appearances in the league. The Brazilian is rivalling Oblak as the best in the business right now, with his save success rate of 83.9% up on an already superb 80.1% from his final season at Roma.

His performances, coupled with Liverpool’s strong start to the campaign, highlight just how important it is to have a top keeper between the posts. Manchester United will be hoping to sign someone as effective if De Gea moves on this summer. If Neuer’s form doesn’t improve drastically, Bayern Munich may also be in the market for a new No 1 far sooner than anyone would have expected.

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