If you are a goalkeeper for one of the top clubs in Europe, the action doesn’t as much ebb and flow for you as much it punches you in the face. Tall, powerful strikers head the ball at you from close quarters while diminutive, lithe midfielders strike it towards you with all the viciousness of a mule’s kick. Some days you catch or parry the ball away; on others, you pick it up from the back of your net.
Except what if you’re not the number 1 choice at your club? What if most of your days are spent suited up waiting for a chance which will come all too infrequently? That, unfortunately, is the state of the many goalkeepers playing for the elite clubs of the world.
However as the top clubs in each country play across multiple competitions both domestically and abroad, there is a glimmer of hope for even the backup keepers and most of them will end up playing at least in the cup ties. If a manager loses faith in his first choice, then the backup’s playing time can increase staggeringly like it did for Willy Caballero at Manchester City.
The following is a look at the playing times goalkeepers got across Europe last season. As goalkeeper substitutions are extremely rare, only starts have been taken into account. For purposes of brevity (and the author’s sanity), the analysis will be restricted to the top three clubs in each country.
The champions Chelsea are the footballing equivalent of a squirrel with its cheeks full of nuts. While their loaning system has been talked about, the squad that they keep in London isn’t too shabby either. The undisputed No. 1 was the Belgian Thibaut Courtois. He started 36 of the 38 premier league games and three FA cup games. The remaining two league games and three FA Cup games went to his understudy Asmir Begovic. The Portuguese Eduardo played no part in Chelsea’s campaign.
Second placed Tottenham Hotspur were kind enough not to have a third-string keeper as Hugo Lloris started 34 league games, one FA Cup tie and all eight of the Champions League games that the Spurs played. That left backup Michael Vorm with four league starts and four FA Cup ties.
Third ranked Manchester City were much more even than their rivals as lack of confidence in first choice Claudio Bravo meant Willy Caballero started more games than he would have expected. While Bravo made 22 league starts to go with four appearances each in the FA Cup and the Champions League, Caballero made 16 league starts, two appearances in the FA Cup and six in the Champions League. Third choice Angus Gunn played no games for City while former first-choice Joe Hart squeaked in a Champions League appearance in the playoffs.
After the infamous non-transfer of David De Gea, league winners Real Madrid seemed settled on Keylor Navas as their last line of defence last season. This showed as the Costa Rican made 27 league appearances and 12 Champions League appearances (both competitions which were won by Real Madrid). Backup Kiko Casilla could hardly complain as he made 11 league starts to go with six Copa del Ray appearances and one appearance in the Champions League. Even third-string Ruben Yanez got game time, albeit only in a single game in the Copa del Ray.
In the 2015-16 season, FC Barcelona had used the rotation policy as Claudio Bravo and Marc-Andre Ter Stegen split the matches. However, after selling Bravo fairly early in the 2016-17 season, they made Ter Stegen their first choice keeper as he played 36 league games, nine Champions League games and one Copa del Ray game. In contrast, Jasper Cillessen started one league game, eight cup games and one Champions League game. Bravo too managed to start a league game before he left. Third-string Jordi Masip got no game time for the Catalans.
Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid gave the majority of time in goal to Jan Oblak, who started 30 league games and 11 Champions League games. Backup keeper Miguel Angel Moya played eight games each in the league and the cup with an appearance in the Champions League too. Unsurprisingly, third-choice Andre Campos Moreira saw no game time at all.
Other than perhaps Gianluigi Buffon, there is no other keeper who is as sure a lock-in at the position than Bayern Munich’s Manuel Neuer. The German is the best keeper in the world and played a huge chunk of his team’s games – 26 league starts, four DFB Pokal starts and nine Champions League appearances. Backup Sven Ulreich played five league games and had an appearance each in the cup and the Champions League. Surprisingly, Tom Starke, the third choice, made three league appearances towards the end of the season when the trophy was secure.
Surprise package RB Leipzig stormed to second in the Bundesliga with eye-catching performances and financing which was less than kosher. They did it on the back of fine performances by Peter Gulacsi, who started 33 league games and one cup game. The second goalkeeper Fabio Coltorti made just the one league appearance.
Borussia Dortmund have seen a change of guard over the last few years as Roman Weidenfeller has dropped to second choice. He only played seven league games and made two appearances each in the cup and Champions League. His namesake Roman Burki held fort for the majority of Dortmund’s games as he started 27 league games, four cup games and eight Champions League games.
Gigi Buffon has been number 1 at Juventus for close to two decades now and last season was no different as the sprightly 38-year-old saw game time in 30 league games and 12 Champions League matches. Backup Neto got decent time on the pitch as well with seven league games, five cup games and one Champions League appearance. Their third choice Emil Audero started the remaining league game.
AS Roma came second in the Scudetto race heavily relying on Arsenal discard Wojciech Szczesny, who started all 38 league games in addition to one European match. Backup Alisson played all four cup games and the remaining 11 European games as Roma played in both the Champions League and the Europa League. Bogdan Lobont played no games for the Giallorossi.
Third-ranked SSC Napoli played Liverpool legend Pepe Reina in goal practically all the time as he started no less than 37 league games, three cup games and eight Champions League matches. Poor Rafael was barely seen as he started just a match apiece in the league and the cup. Luigi Sepe wasn’t used at all.
AS Monaco toppled Paris Saint Germain from the perch last season in one of the most devastating offensive seasons in recent memory. They needed four goalkeepers to do that, all of whom got game-time even if Loic Badiashile and Seydou Sy split just a league match between them. Badiashile got to come off the bench in a Champions League match so his season was marginally better.
The first choice for Monaco was Danijel Subasic who started 36 league matches, 14 Champions League matches and four Coupe de la Ligue matches. Backup Morgan De Sanctis played a league match, five cup matches and two Champions League matches.
A Zlatan-less Paris Saint Germain lost out in the race for the league but managed to keep its top two keepers happy. Kevin Trapp started 23 league games, two cup matches and a solitary Champions league tie. Alphonse Areola started lesser league games with 14 but played six Champions League games and one cup match too. Remy Descamps did not get game time.
OGC Nice were the leaders of the remaining pack and relied mostly on Yoan Cardinale, who played 36 league games and five Europa League games. The remaining two league games, one cup game and one Europa League game all went to Walter Benitez while Simon Pouplin — one imagines — looked on forlornly.
Different folks, different strokes
It is actually hard to pin down a pattern across Europe as far as goalkeeping situations are concerned. While the likes of Napoli and Monaco relied very heavily on their number 1 choice, there were also Manchester City and Paris Saint Germain who split the matches fairly evenly between two keepers. Generally, the trend was to use one keeper heavily in the league and another for the cup matches. Squads normally had three goalkeepers but some teams used just two keepers as well. The exception was Monaco.
Coaches also tended to rotate the squad towards the end of the season so Bayern Munich and Juventus’ backup keepers got games after the title was sewed up.
There was one conclusion which was unshakeable though, being a third-choice keeper ensures that you will get virtually no game-time. However, many would kill for an opportunity to get money just to train with the top footballing talent in the world so maybe it’s not all bad.
Updated Date: Aug 11, 2017 17:12 PM