Goalkeepers in the game of football always seem to occupy the best of all worlds and the worst. They can be heroes or villains, saviors or goats. They can be front page or completely ignored. In a game where 6’2” is considered tall for outfield players, it’s short for keepers. In a game where field players get most of the recognition, goalkeepers get hardly any. In a game where an error by a field player is overlooked, an error by a goalkeeper is criticized and costly.
Age is another differentiator. Where many outfield players experience a decrease in their productivity after their 25th birthday, goalkeepers see their 25th birthday as a point where their best football is yet to come. And with all that, goalkeepers wouldn’t have it any other way. They are the last man standing, the difference between win or lose, the gatekeeper and the players who have the games in their hands—literally and figuratively.
Here is a look at the best “young” goalkeepers age 25 and under to keep an eye on in 2013 and beyond. Let the debate begin.
Hugo Lloris (Tottenham Hotspur)
Spending €10 million on a goalkeeper likely signifies the need for a change in net, but for English Premier League club Tottenham Hotspur, it might have been a case of having too much of a good thing. Spurs were keen to sign the 25-year-old Lloris after the Frenchman had a brilliant four-year run with Lyon, and inked his signature in August to be the goalie of the future at White Hart Lane. Unfortunately for Lloris, age-defying American goalie Brad Friedel had other ideas.
While the 41-year-old Friedel is certainly not the “future” for Tottenham between the posts, Friedel got most of the playing time at the beginning of the season under new boss Andre Villas-Boas. Lloris got his first chance to play in the league for his new club on October 7 against Aston Villa, when he ended Friedel’s historic run of 310 consecutive Premier League games played. While the playing time between the two goalkeepers has alternated consistently since that point and figures to remain that way for the rest of the season barring injury, there is no denying the skill and potential that Lloris possesses.
Lloris made almost 150 appearances for French-side Lyon before his move to London and has been a key member of the French national team with 42 caps already. Known for his saves in one-on-one situations, Lloris has been the top French goalkeeper since his days at Lyon began in 2008, and has three Ligue 1 Goalkeeper of the Year Awards to prove it.
With quite the resume already at only age 25, Lloris has accomplished a great deal at the goalkeeper position that many can only dream about. The next steps for Lloris figure to come on the club and international levels. He still has Freidel to contend with, but the future is bright for this keeper from Nice. The Frenchman will want to prove to his critics that his summer signing was no fluke, while he continues to help France on their quest for qualification in the 2014 World Cup.
Joe Hart (Manchester City)
While Hart has not accomplished as much as Lloris on the club or international level, his talent and potential puts his name up with the Frenchman as two of the best young goalkeepers in the game. At 25, Hart seems to be entering his prime.
A first-choice goalkeeper for Manchester City week in and week out, Hart was a big key in helping the Citizens win their first Premier League title in nearly 45 years in 2011, as City allowed a league-low 29 goals in 38 games. With one title drought now behind him, Hart will look forward to helping end another, and that one comes on the international stage.
England has had their fair share of goalkeeping problems on the international stage, but they seem to have found an answer in Hart. After settling into the starting goalkeeper role for the “Three Lions” after the 2010 World Cup, Hart was a key piece to the England Euro 2012 squad. He started every game for his country in the group stage at Euro 2012, and was included in the team sheet for England’s knockout stage loss.
Seen as a piece of the “future” of English football, fans are hoping that Hart and England can right the ship and make some noise at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Questions always surround the English team in terms of player selection, but don’t count on that happening anytime soon in the goalkeeper position with Joe Hart providing the heart for the English.
Wojciech Szczesny (Arsenal)
While Arsenal continues to struggle to find its groove back in league competition, the 22-year-old Szczesny is showing the football world why he was tabbed starting goalkeeper for the Gunners at the ripe age of 20. With 60 first-team appearances already and his self-professed claim that he wants to stay at Arsenal for his entire playing career, Szczesny is on his way to becoming a foundation at the back for the Gunners.
Coming from a goalkeeping family in which his dad and older brother played goalie professionally (Dad Maciej for a number of top-tier polish clubs including Legia Warsaw in the late 80s and brother Jan currently for seventh tier Polish team Gwardia Warsaw), it’s easy to see how Szczesny learned the position at a young age.
Add that well-honed expertise to his 6’5” athletic frame, and on the one hand, you can see why Szczesny has emerged as one of the brightest young stars in the Premier League. On the other, Szczesny has had his fair share of goalkeeping blunders, which resulted in many fans asking if he is just another one of Wenger’s youth brigade that didn’t develop.
While that debate may continue, after consistent play last year on the club and international levels, Szczesny proved that he belonged. While injuries have held Szczesny to only a few league games so far in 2012, the man from Poland figures to be a key piece of Arsenal’s fight for Europe in the second half of the season, and Arsenal’s push for Premier League glory in years to come.
Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea)
It doesn’t look like Chelsea is going to have to look far to find the next Petr Cech. Scrolling down their own roster, they can find the name “Thibaut Courtois.” The 6’6” 20-year-old Courtois has the height, the footwork, and the reflexes to rival the current Chelsea goalie, and, in a few years, might turn out to be the same type of game changer that Cech has been for “The Blues” for years. That’s clearly why Courtois is being groomed and, of course, it never hurts to learn from a master like Cech.
Courtois got his professional start with Belgian-side Racing Genk in 2009 and helped them to a league title during the 2010-2011 season as a teenager. He was awarded Goalkeeper of the Year and Genk’s Player of the Year after allowing only 32 goals in 40 league matches. That campaign got him noticed on the world stage, and Genk agreed to sell him to Chelsea in the summer of 2011. With Cech still in the prime of his career in the Chelsea net, Courtois was sent out on loan to Atletico Madrid. Since his arrival in Spain, the young Belgian keeper has not disappointed.
He earned first-team status for the Europa League Champions and has made almost 50 starts for Madrid in less than a year. His success on the club level has transferred over to the international stage. The 20-year-old became the youngest goalkeeper to ever play for Belgium when he started in net in a friendly against France last year. Now with seven caps, Courtois promises to be a force at the back for Belgium for years to come.
Courtois understands that he is going to have to wait for Cech to finish his great career at Chelsea before he can become a dominant force in the squad. Given that Cech signed a new deal with the club this past summer, his chance to shine for Chelsea may not be coming anytime soon. Don’t let that take Courtois off of the list of top young goalies. Whether his future is with the London club or not, Courtois will make an impact for any team he plays for.
Marc-Andre ter Stegen (Borussia Monchengladbach)
It’s not often that a teenager helps bring a club to safety and avoid relegation, but that’s exactly what Marc-Andre ter Stegen did for Borussia Monchengladbach during the 2010-2011 Bundesliga season. After having only 16 points from 22 games, ter Stegen was called up from reserves to replace Logan Bailly in net, and the young German did not disappoint. The then 18-year-old keeper played inspired football, and Borussia Monchengladbach turned their season around and avoided the relegation zone to stay in the top flight.
Marc-Andre hasn’t looked back since his prominent debut and has taken over the reins of the Monchengladbach goal, making 45 appearances for the club since his initial season. He might only be 20 years old now, but ter Stegen has already taken over the responsibilities of team leadership. Many compare him to German legend Oliver Kahn with his aggressive decision-making and his emotional reactions on the field to errors that his defense commits.
In two years as the full-time starter, ter Stegen has not only helped his team solidify its place in the top division, but has earned them a place in European competition. His knack for top level performances in big games hasn’t gone unnoticed, as he can add Bundesliga shutout victories over top German clubs Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich to his growing resume.
After working his way up through the German national team youth squads, ter Stegen was called up to the German provisional squad for the Euro 2012 championships. But, beating out Manuel Neuer for the top German goalkeeping spot is going to be tough as German National Team Manager Joachim Low has made Neuer a first-choice keeper game in and game out. While ter Stegen is still young enough to compete for Germany at the youth national team levels, expect the 20-year-old to become a regular in Low’s squads leading up to the World Cup in 2014.
David de Gea (Manchester United)
Replacing a legend at any position is a tough feat to overcome, but that’s what David de Gea was asked to do when he signed with Manchester United in 2011. Looking for a keeper to fill in the big shoes left by the retirement of Edwin van der Sar, United paid a British record transfer fee for a goalkeeper to get the Spaniard to come to Manchester. After 57 appearances with both a UEFA Europa League title and a UEFA Super Cup Championship in two years with Spanish-side Atletico Madrid, de Gea made the jump to England hoping to make his name known on the world stage.
It has been an up and down ride for the Spaniard since his arrival at Old Trafford. While his 37 appearances in a year and a half make it seem like de Gea has solidified his spot in Manchester, the 22-year-old has been occasionally benched for Danish keeper Anders Lindegaard. His 2012 campaign got off to a slow start after missing preseason for United due to his Olympic involvement over the summer, but de Gea seems to have regained his form heading into the new year. Still, his aggressive decisions and numerous gaffes in goal have led many to question de Gea’s focus on the field, but no one has questioned the talent and potential the young Spaniard possesses.
At 6’4”, the 22-year-old brings outstanding range in net and has shown the ability to make game-changing saves. Although de Gea doesn’t have a high shutout count as the starting goalkeeper, he finished the 2011-2012 season with the best saves-to-shots ratio in the Premier League at nearly 80%. Don’t be surprised to see de Gea continue to lead that category for Premier League goalkeepers as he continues to expand his knowledge of the game and his decision-making as his career progresses.
Salvatore Sirigu (Paris Saint-Germain)
While many Italian fans don’t want to think about it, the international career of legendary goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon is nearly at an end with the Italian National Team captain nearing his 35th birthday. Naturally, Buffon’s successor would be the second-choice national team keeper. But, with Napoli keeper Morgan De Sanctis getting ready to turn 36, the reins of goalkeeping for Italy in the future figures to fall on 25-year-old Salvatore Sirigu.
Sirigu, Italy’s third-choice keeper at Euro 2012, hasn’t gained much attention worldwide to date as a world-class goalie. His €3.5 million move to PSG from Italian-side Palermo in the summer of 2011 gained little press at the time, but has turned out to be one of the more impressive transfers of the last two years.
At the time of his signing, Sirigu was expected to be the backup to Frenchman Nicolas Douchez, who was also purchased by PSG that same summer. But since the two goalies entered the Paris-based club, it has been Douchez who has dealt with backup duties. Sirigu has made 52 appearances for PSG in his brief time at the club so far, and has become a fan favorite among the “demanding” supporters in the French capital.
With Sirigu just now entering the prime of his career at age 25, PSG seems to have found their keeper of the future as they enter a new age with higher expectations. Sirigu might not be the highest-paid player at the club, but he has unquestionably been an important part of their recent rise and will be a key part of their future going forward.
Rui Patricio (Sporting Lisbon)
There might not be a club in the last ten years that has had a better goalkeeping tandem than Sporting Lisbon. From 2003-2007, the Portuguese club featured national team first-choice keeper Ricardo as their anchor between the pipes.
After Ricardo’s departure, the team handed the torch off to Rui Patricio, who has been nothing short of spectacular in his five full seasons in net for the historic Portuguese club. Only 24, Rui Patricio has already made over 150 appearances for the Green and White and was named club captain for the 2012-2013 season.
After starring on the Portuguese youth national teams, Rui Patricio has climbed his way up the ladder en route to becoming the first-choice goalkeeper for his nation. While Rui Patricio and former first-choice goalie Eduardo split time in net during Portugal’s Euro 2012 qualifying campaign, it was Patricio who starred in all five games for his home country during their semifinal run during the tournament finals over the summer.
With the 30-year-old Eduardo falling out of favor under current manager Paulo Bento, it seems like Rui Patricio has the manager’s faith going forward as the nation’s top-choice goalie. With a 6’3” frame and outstanding foot skills for a goalie, this up and coming star will only get better as his career progresses. He clearly has a chance to carve his name in stone as one of the best goalkeepers to ever come from Portugal.
So as we said, let the debate begin. There is no lack of future stars in the nets throughout Europe. These goalies—from Lloris to Hart to Szczesny to Courtois to ter Stegen to de Gea to Sirigu to Patricio—will be making an impact at their respective clubs and on the international scene for the next decade to come.
But don’t be surprised if there are other young stars that will appear ostensibly from nowhere to expand the debate. The U.S. has been a hotbed of goalies from Friedel to Tim Howard to Brad Guzan, and while there may be no real young standouts at this time, don’t expect this to last for very long. Keepers are the backstop for their teams, and the future looks bright for the next generation.