By Jay Jaffa
It might seem strange in a World Cup blessed with goals and scintillating attacking play to be reading a piece dedicated to the men between the sticks, but with Tim Howard practically taking over the internet in the aftermath of a staunch display against Belgium, it must be time to give goalkeepers their moment in the sun.
Oddly enough, given the level of praise and coverage Howard received, it’s worth reiterating that the USA were actually eliminated by Belgium, with the Everton keeper conceding twice despite also setting a record for the most saves in a single World Cup match (16). He did just about everything that was asked of him in Salvador but tellingly this World Cup has already seen more eminent displays.
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But why have goalkeepers been so good in Brazil? There doesn’t appear to be one sole reason, rather a collection of theories.
In last year’s Premier League it was difficult to name a poor starting goalkeeper. Domestically we have an inordinate number of talented keepers and the global stage seemingly runs parallel. There are glovesmen appearing from all manner of footballing backwaters making a name for themselves - Keylor Navas and Rais M’Bolhi to name but two.
Before looking at too many individual cases it is worth considering the conditions in Brazil, where high humidity and baking hot kick-off times have led to flurries of goals and opportunities. Inevitably in this climate, players tire quicker and spaces open up, leading to more chances. Right?
Well the stats don't back this up. Considering every World Cup dating back to 1966, this summer’s edition has yielded fewer shots on goal per game (20.8) than any other. Surprising, then, to see more goals per game (2.75) than in any World Cup since 1982 (2.81) isn't it?
Logically, the high number of goals scored could be attributed to the type of chance created - ie. clearer goalscoring opportunities - while our opinion that goalkeeping standards are high could be attributed to more impressive and noticeable shot-stopping.
If the chance is better there is a higher percentage chance of it ending in a goal, while it is also true that a save from such a chance is more memorable and extraordinary - ironically in amongst all the Howard hype, it was Thibaut Courtois's plunging block on Clint Dempsey that ultimately won the tie for Belgium.
If there is no obvious reason behind this flourish of goalkeeping, the beauty perhaps is that we’ve been given a taste of a the full spectrum of goalkeepers. From Manuel Neuer’s extraordinary example of the sweeper keeper (or “libero” as Hugo Lloris described it), exceptional shot-stoppers like Navas (who has the highest save to shot ratio: 87.5%), M’Bolhi and Memo Ochoa, precise distributors like Chile’s Claudio Bravo and penalty box leaders like Vincent Enyeama - we’ve been spoilt.
Another pleasure has been to witness the quality steadily improve as the tournament has progressed. Stipe Pletikosa’s harrowing display in the opening game of the World Cup and Igor Akinfeev’s shambolic fumble against South Korea seem an age ago, while Casillas’s overall showing for Spain as fleeting as a cruel nightmare. And even with the pressure increased as we entered the knockout phase, the likes of Courtois, Julio Cesar and David Ospina excelled and goals conceded dropped (2.83 per game in the groups, 2.2 in last 16).
There is still time for this golden age to fade of course. For as great as Enyeama was in Nigeria’s run to the last 16, some will choose to remember his error as he flapped at a French corner, allowing Paul Pogba to open the scoring. It’s always been the most unforgiving position. You can be a hero for three-and-a-half matches, make one mistake and leave as the guy who lost a game. Fortunately given Enyeama's prowess throughout the tournament, this won't necessarily be the case with the Lille man.
And so we return to the 'goalkeepers will win the World Cup' statement. It's a risky prediction, granted. Hugo Lloris might mistime a lunge outside his box and see red, Cesar could parry a ball back into play and watch on horrified as Arjen Robben plunders home the World Cup-winning goal. It is, and has always been, a job for the sadist.
Yet, goalkeepers are increasingly becoming a part of a team’s style of play and not just left to their own devices in the penalty area. We now have a pool of teams and nations relying on their goalkeeper to play from the back and orchestrate the rhythm of their side.
Germany can only get away with their high defensive line and furious midfield pressing knowing Neuer is on the blocks, ready to sprint as far as the centre circle to see away danger. Indeed, no keeper has completed more passes (76) than the Bayern man, nor at such high accuracy (82.61%), while his heat map against Algeria tells you all you need to know about his value to the Germans.
His manager Joachim Low was suitably effusive in his praise on Thursday, stating: "We know that Manuel Neuer is an extraordinary player and there is nobody better in the world than him. He’s a goalkeeper who plays with the team and plays as an 11th outfield player."
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Crucially perhaps, there are no excuses for keepers. The Brazuca has been roundly praised, particularly in comparison to the disastrous Jabulani used in South Africa. Conditions have been goalkeeper-friendly too - no wet surfaces, wind at a minimum. Variables are almost absent in Brazil and the keepers are profiting.
And maybe it's just as simple as that. Perhaps the world's top goalkeepers are shining because of an aligning of the stars - a mix of sloppy finishing and prime conditions. Will a goalkeeper be the defining player for the World Cup winners this year? There may not be an answer just yet - that might transpire over the final nine days - for now just a nod of appreciation to those they call mad seems appropriate.