By Jay Jaffa
Every so often football writes stories for you. And then a spoilsport ruins it. As Tottenham were paired with Lyon in the first knockout round of the Europa League, dewy eyes were cast towards Hugo Lloris, the France captain and goalkeeper, set for an emotional reunion with the club he played 195 games for until his summer move to White Hart Lane.
Spurs recognised the romance of the links too, going as far as putting Lloris on camera for the first time to discuss the proposition of facing his former employers just five months after moving to London.
Unfortunately for Tottenham, Lyon, and headline writers across Europe, Andre Villas-Boas did not follow the script, revealing on Wednesday that he would be employing Brad Friedel, Lloris' back-up, between the sticks for the match at White Hart Lane.
There was another revelation though – the huge importance and value they place on their new No.1.
"I'm a bit like a mechanic with a Ferrari," Joel Bats, the Nice-born shot-stopper's coach at Lyon explained in 2010, before confidently placing his former student in the top three goalkeepers worldwide in September last year. Given his current form, it is no surprise to see Spurs protect Lloris. They simply cannot afford to be without him.
|% OF PL APPEARANCES WITHOUT CONCEDING
|HUGO LLORIS (TOTTENHAM)
JOE HART (MAN CITY)
PETR CECH (CHELSEA)
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY (ARSENAL)
S. MIGNOLET (SUNDERLAND)
ASMIR BEGOVIC (STOKE)
PEPE REINA (LIVERPOOL)
DAVID DE GEA (MAN UTD)
Make no mistake, Friedel is a very able deputy and could still play regularly for a number of Premier League clubs, but he has his weaknesses and his body is slowly stiffening as he approaches 42. The advice Lloris has gleaned from the American should not be underestimated though, as he attested to: “We talk about games, we talk about teams we play against and sometimes that’s good for me because I don’t know all the players in the Premier League.”
Lloris did have a chance to observe the pace, intricacies and key figures of the English game from the Tottenham bench as he sat as back-up to Friedel in his first three months at the club, but following French media pressure, private meetings with the goalkeeper and a war of words with Didier Deschamps, Villas-Boas eventually yielded and made Lloris his number one.
"You have to know when is the right time to be patient," Lloris said when moving to Lyon in 2008. By following his own advice he has built the foundations for a prosperous career in north London.
Judging goalkeepers is a much more subjective process than that of outfield players. There are fewer statistics to accompany an argument and often what you do have at your disposal can be restrictive (see “successful punches” as an example. That tells you nothing about the second phase).
Thriving in the second phase of the 2012-13 season, the £12 million summer signing has slipped under the radar a little – perhaps owing to the embarrassing goal he conceded when closed down on his goal line by Robert Beric of Maribor. But it is remarkable that in just four months of first-team football we are discussing arguably the best goalkeeper in the league.
Asmir Begovic and Petr Cech - who is nearing a return to his form under Jose Mourinho - are notable rivals to that label, though the Chelsea No.1's injury problems have seen him feature less often than Rafa Benitez would like, while Begovic often receives fewer plaudits as a product of playing for Stoke.
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But Lloris has not needed mere favouritism to climb to the upper echelons of goalkeeping. Sometimes the (useful) statistics speak for themselves. He has conceded an average of 0.87 goals per game for Tottenham in the Premier League – the lowest figure of any current No.1 in the division (Cech (1.04) and Begovic (1.19)) – and along with the Stoke shot-stopper and Julio Cesar, Simon Mignolet and Adam Federici, has yet to miss a cross*.
It gets better: Lloris has the highest percentage of games without conceding in the league (46.67%), leading Joe Hart (42.31%) as the only two members of the 40% category. Even when he does concede, he is still rescuing points - as Shola Ameobi will confirm after the Frenchman flew off his line to divert Newcastle's 90th minute chance around the post.
Of course, that particular statistic can also be attributed to the defence, but that footnote must carry the caveat that Villas-Boas likes to shuffle his defence frequently. Not only that, but his insistence on rotating the goalkeepers in cup competitions also has an unsettling effect on the cohesion between goalkeeper and defence.
Yet it is testament to the 26-year-old that he has adapted so swiftly to new surroundings and unfamiliar defenders. Dominique Baratelli, his coach at his first club Nice, said in 2008 that: "He had something special that you can't teach".
That special ingredient, that je ne sais quoi that Heurelho Gomes lacked - the presence and the exuding confidence of a man totally at ease with his surroundings marks Lloris apart from his predecessors and rivals. The black or white decision-making and command of his box, that Friedel lacks, all neatly combine to reveal a smooth, polished goalkeeper.
For £12m - not a fortune in today's game - Spurs look to have found their goalkeeper for the next decade. Meanwhile Villas-Boas' decision to rest his No.1 will no doubt leave Lyon manager Remi Garde grateful that their reunion will be in the bowels of White Hart Lane rather than on the pitch.
*All statistics taken from www.eplindex.com
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