Why the Idea of the No. 1 Goalkeeper Could Soon Be a Thing of the Past

Alex Dimond@alexdimondUK Lead WriterAugust 26, 2014


It was one of the subplots of the summer, a selection dilemma that many had been speculating about for months. Who would Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho name as his starting goalkeeper for the 2014/15 season, Petr Cech or Thibaut Courtois?

The 22-year-old Courtois, returning from an educational and impressive three-year loan spell at Atletico Madrid, had youth and long-term considerations on his side. Cech, the all-time leader in Premier League clean sheets, had the greater experience, along with an established relationship with his manager and the benefit of being the Blues’ incumbent No. 1.

For those reasons, plus a few others, there seemed to be an almost 50-50 split on the topic—with even the supposed experts unsure whom Mourinho would eventually pick for the season opener against Burnley at Turf Moor.

Whoever was chosen, one of the finest goalkeepers in the world would be left to sit on the bench.

"The best way for me work is to think in a pragmatic way," Mourinho said of the decision, just days before the season started, as reported by The Independent's Sam Wallace. "Forget all the emotions around the situation and just decide what I think is best for the team."

On Monday, we finally got our answer. Courtois started the game, with Cech consigned to the bench, perhaps pondering the possibility that, still only 32, this is the future that awaits him if he stays at Stamford Bridge for the two remaining years of his current contract.

Cech may wear the No. 1 shirt at Stamford Bridge but, based on the evidence of one game, it is Courtois—who wears No. 13—who is now the starter.

"Ten years ago I had a very difficult decision to make when I had Carlo Cudicini giving fantastic performances in Chelsea's goal for many years," Mourinho told reporters in the aftermath. "This situation is similar. We have to think about the future of the club, and I made a decision to give the goal to Courtois."

Many of the newspapers subsequently suggested that, while Courtois would be given a run of games to impress, it would be too simplistic to suggest Cech’s time at the club has effectively come to an end.

"Obviously a goalkeeper is not a player you are changing match after match," Mourinho conceded. "You must give a bit of stability, but this is about performances."

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - AUGUST 2: Joe Hart #1 of Manchester City looks on during the International Champions Cup match against the Olympiacos on August 2, 2014 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Just over 24 hours earlier, Mourinho’s contemporary at Manchester City, Manuel Pellegrini, had made a similar decision.

After naming summer signing Willy Caballero in goal for City’s Community Shield defeat to Arsenal the previous week, speculation was rife as to whether he would restore last season’s No. 1, Joe Hart, to the starting line-up for the start of their Premier League title defence against Newcastle United.

Hart ultimately got the nod, although, as at Chelsea, Pellegrini seemed reluctant to define his first selection of the year as an indication of his goalkeeping hierarchy.

"I have two number one goalkeepers," the Chilean told reporters. "I am sure Willy will be very important for us, but I also continue thinking we have the best goalkeeper in England in Joe Hart."

Goalkeeping competitions have cropped up occasionally over the years (as Mourinho alluded to with his Cudicini-Cech battle a decade ago), but perhaps not at the frequency we have seen this summer.

Beyond City and Chelsea, Arsenal added David Ospina to provide Wojciech Szczesny with genuine competition, while Barcelona signed both Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Claudio Bravo following the departure of Victor Valdes.

Tottenham signed Michel Vorm, despite having a reliable No. 1 in place in Hugo Lloris, as Bayern Munich brought in the experienced Pepe Reina to back up Manuel Neuer.

Real Madrid, meanwhile, added Keylor Navas to compete with Iker Casillas—briefly bringing the number of top ‘keepers to three before Diego Lopez (who will now compete with Christian Abbiati at AC Milan) was offloaded.

Why? According to Pellegrini, for the same reason City have four strikers in their squad: "Top teams need two players for each position because we have to play so many games during the year."

24 Mar 1999:  Robbie Fowler of Liverpool is brought down by Arsenal goalkeeper David Seaman during the FA Carling Premiership match at Highbury in London. Liverpool were awarded a penalty despite the striker's admission that no contact had been made. Seam
Gary M. Prior/Getty Images

The notion of a team’s starting goalkeeper being the "No. 1" is one firmly entrenched in football’s conscious, particularly English football’s.

The origins behind it are not especially hard to trace—until the early 1990s, shirt numbers in almost all competitive fixtures went from Nos. 1-11, regardless of who was playing. As goalkeepers rarely came in and out of the team, they invariably retained the No. 1 shirt.

Over time, as individuals were increasingly able to choose their squad number, the wearing of the No. 1 remained prevalent but far from unilateral (Pepe Reina, for example, has long preferred No. 25), but what it serves to represent has remained largely the same.

When the terraces chant, "England’s No. 1, England’s, England’s No. 1" at their team’s goalkeeper, there is no doubt about what they are getting at—even if the player in question is wearing the No. 13, No. 25 or, indeed, any number he pleases.

The idea of a goalkeeper being a team’s "No. 1" was a literal fact that became easy shorthand to explain something more; it remains the latter even if not every goalkeeper now insists on wearing the number.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - AUGUST 23: Tim Howard of Everton reacts during the Barclays Premier League match between Everton and Arsenal at Goodison Park on August 23, 2014 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

"When I came here, I wore 24 as No. 1 wasn't available," as Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard, who wears No. 24 despite long being the club’s starter, told club fanzine The Blue Kipper in 2010. "[It] is a number I've always loved, and I have a number of different reasons, and it's just kinda stuck. It's really grown on me.

"The 'No. 1' keeper is the one that's playing, and that tradition of wearing No. 1 doesn't matter to me, so 24 is mine."

On the other side of that, being the back-up goalkeeper to an established No. 1 can be one of the most demoralising roles in football. Unless the player has mentally adjusted to the situation, it can see a promising player waste what could be the prime of his career—potentially creating a whole host of regrets and "what ifs" further down the line.

"Over time you're going to have some regrets," Steve Harper, who was back-up to Shay Given at Newcastle United for many years, told the BBC last year. "The period Shay was playing year in, year out, in the early 2000s, that's when I should have done something about it."

Considering the stark differences between being the starter and the understudy, it has always surprised many why any ambitious and established player would willingly move to take up the latter role.

LISBON, PORTUGAL - MARCH 20: Ezequiel Garay of SL Benfica heads his sides opening goal past Brad Friedel of Tottenham Hotspur during the UEFA Europa League Round of 16 2nd leg match between SL Benfica and Tottenham Hotspur at Estadio da Luz on March 20, 2
Michael Steele/Getty Images

Last season, a total of 41 goalkeepers made at least one appearance in the Premier League. Only three clubs—Aston Villa, Liverpool and Norwich—relied on one goalkeeper for the entire campaign, while Hull City, Southampton and West Brom were at the opposite end of the spectrum, using three. A few of those 41 goalkeepers were only used in meaningless end-of-season contests, but the majority were employed through necessity.

A small sample size it may be, but with on average more than two goalkeepers used by the 20 top-flight teams, the numbers alone suggest that almost all teams can now expect to be required to use their back-up goalkeeper at some point over the course of a season.

The reasons for that are simultaneously obvious and hard to predict—injury, loss of form or red-card suspensions can strike any goalkeeper at almost any time, like any outfield player.

But the underlying question those variables pose remains the same: If your starting goalkeeper is almost certain to miss games at least once during the season, does it not make sense to ensure the back-up is of the highest possible quality?

Judging on the summer business alone, that appears to be the view of many of Europe’s top sides, where finances perhaps allow for the pursuit of players that less fortunate teams might consider luxuries.

But even that is changing.

Due in part to the greater finances available to Premier League sides (through television revenue), it is now easier than ever to justify the financial outlay (in wages as much as transfer fees) required to sign a quality player for a role that, in a best-case scenario, will see him never play.

Crystal Palace, for example, spent more on back-up goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey last January than they have so far in the entirety of the current summer window (at the time of writing), ensuring they have a competent replacement should something befall No. 1 Julian Speroni.

Statistics show that a clean sheet is far more valuable than scoring a goal in securing points, and the goalkeeper is one player who can most obviously make an impact on that dynamic (an organised back four arguably has a bigger role in keeping a clean sheet over time, but swapping a good goalkeeper for a poor one will have a more instant and obvious negative impact in any one game).

With that being the case, having a reliable option in reserve is worth the opportunity cost of potentially paying him not to do anything in a competitive environment for months or even years at a time.

There are further benefits.

A quality back-up increases the pressure on a starting goalkeeper, in theory ensuring the No. 1 does not rest on his laurels and remains near the peak of his form.

The concrete evidence for this assertion is hard to find but has nevertheless become accepted as something approaching fact—whenever a high-profile shot-stopper loses his form, the lack of adequate competition is often stated as a probable cause.

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 10: Goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny of Arsenal competes against Aleksandar Kolarov of Manchester City during the FA Community Shield match between Manchester City and Arsenal at Wembley Stadium on August 10, 2014 in London, England.
Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

Wojciech Szczesny, for example, professed himself unsurprised when Arsenal added Ospina in the summer, seemingly accepting that competition at the position was part of the modern landscape.

"I was expecting someone to come because Lukasz [Fabianski] has left for Swansea, and I wish him all the best," the Pole said to the official club website (h/t Charlie Scott of the Daily Mail). "I knew someone would come in.

"I'm just going to do the same thing over again, I'm going to try my best in every game and every week in training. Hopefully that will be enough [to remain the No. 1]."

This lack of competition was cited as an underlying cause when Joe Hart struggled last season, for example, with the Englishman eventually replaced by his back-up, Costel Pantilimon, for seven league games.

Hart eventually returned to the starting XI and his form improved, leading most pundits to (quite reasonably) state that some combination of the rest (both mental and physical) and shock of being dropped refocused him sufficiently to return to his best.

Pantilimon was then released in the summer (moving on to be the back-up at Sunderland), with Caballero acquired as a more formidable rival.

Again, the veracity of those assertions is hard to measure. But it has become accepted that outfield players need to be rotated and rested to enable them to retain their best form, so why should that not hold true for goalkeepers?

Yes, they do not run anywhere near as far over the course of the game, but the need to be able to focus and react after long periods of inactivity will still put a different type of strain on both body and mind.

A recent Grantland article from Chris B. Brown, for example, revealed the extent the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles monitor their players, even withdrawing them from practice if their heart rate or other biometric signs indicate they are beginning to flag.

It seems logical that such measurements could and are being applied, perhaps indicating that goalkeepers need rest and motivation like any other position.

NORWICH, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 17:  Anthony Pilkington of Norwich City scores his opening goal past goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard of Manchester United during the Barclays Premier League match between Norwich City and Manchester United at Carrow Road on Novemb
Christopher Lee/Getty Images

In recent years, that has led to back-up goalkeepers invariably playing in domestic cup and (if applicable) Europa League matches, competitions less likely to be the manager’s priority. For example Fabianski, Arsenal’s back-up last season, played in the club’s successful FA Cup campaign last season, but his only Premier League appearance came in the final game of the season.

It is this practice that has been used this summer to explain why there have been examples of first-choice goalkeepers at some clubs leaving to become the back-up at higher-profile sides—Michel Vorm’s move from Swansea to Tottenham is an obvious example.

"Every top club has two top goalkeepers," as Vorm himself said when the signing was announced, per FourFourTwo. "It suits the club’s philosophy that there is a broad selection [of players]. Especially when we see that Tottenham is active in a lot of competitions."

Playing in the fringe competitions is not an option for every back-up goalkeeper, however. Pepe Reina, for example, has likely gone from being No. 1 at Napoli (while on loan last season) to a regular bench-warmer for Bayern Munich, where Manuel Neuer—widely lauded as the best goalkeeper on display at the World Cup—will play every Bundesliga and Champions League contest.

"I want to win, work hard and push Manuel as hard as I can," Reina said after his move, according to Marca, essentially admitting his secondary role. "My aim is to help the team whenever I'm needed."

Andres Kudacki/Associated Press

That is not to say a second—or "No. 1a"—goalkeeper would never start in the Champions League. Last year Real Madrid played Iker Casillas in Europe and domestic cup games but Diego Lopez in the league, although it should be noted that the situation was created partly due to political posturing behind the scenes that would not be a problem at most other clubs.

Nevertheless, Lopez has now left—only to be replaced by one of the best players at the World Cup, Keylor Navas.

After Casillas endured a horrible World Cup with Spain (following on from a Champions League final where he made a noticeable error), it will be interesting to see whether head coach Carlo Ancelotti continues with a similar arrangement this season.

"I'm available to the manager and hope to take my chances," Navas told the club's website this month. "I’ve arrived at Iker's club, he's someone who has given a lot to Real Madrid. I play in the same position, but ultimately we're all people and we try to get on well. I'm trying to learn from him to improve as a footballer."

While Navas’ words are doubtless platitudes rather than a real insight into the battle that is unfolding, it nevertheless perhaps hints at the ideal scenario for any elite coach: To have two (happy) goalkeepers to chose from, both pushing each other to be the best they can be.

If this summer has seen most clubs accept and embrace the need to have two great goalkeepers on the books, then it is interesting to wonder what the next evolution at the position will be. After all, coaches are always innovating and re-evaluating how they approach any given situation, and having such options surely will lead to some trying to exploit that to gain a competitive advantage.

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 23:  Mark Schwarzer (L) and Thibaut Courtois of Chelsea prior to the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Leicester City at Stamford Bridge on August 23, 2014 in London, England.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
Paul Gilham/Getty Images

If most top teams look to have two goalkeepers of comparable quality on their books to cover most eventualities, how might managers adapt to handle that new scenario?

This summer, most media outlets have framed the various competitions as head-to-head battles where only one can land the knockout blow—"Will Courtois or Cech get the nod?" "Hart the one for Pellegrini"—but perhaps over time this will come to look like a naive interpretation, even an antiquated one.

Perhaps, as with any other position, goalkeepers will come to be chosen on the same basis as any outfield player: Their current form and fitness, their specific tactical and technical attributes, and how they might match up against their next opponents.

For example, if two goalkeepers are otherwise equal in most departments, perhaps the taller, more aerially dominant one might be given the nod against opponents that likely to try and put crosses into the box, while a more organisationally astute sweeper-keeper could get the nod against teams who prefer to play through balls in behind the defence.

Managers make such decisions with almost every other outfield position on a game-by-game basis, so why not the goalkeeper one as well?

After all, few goalkeepers are alike—all have their unique attributes and weaknesses.

Dutch coach Louis van Gaal demonstrated this most clearly at the World Cup in the summer, when he made the almost unheard-of decision to replace his goalkeeper for the quarter-final penalty shootout with Costa Rica.

No. 1 Jasper Cillessen made way for Tim Krul in the 118th minute, with the Newcastle United 'keeper making two fine saves as the Netherlands progressed to the semi-finals.

While Van Gaal welcomed the plaudits for the decision in characteristic fashion afterward, it was perhaps his goalkeeping coach who had as much say in the decision.

The veteran Frans Hoek has long spoken of his belief that there are two different types of goalkeepers, most notably "reaction" and "anticipating" stoppers, and that understanding which category a goalkeeper fits into and how those traits affect his playing style are key to getting the best out of him.

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - JULY 08:  Goalkeepers, Tim Krul (R) and Jasper Cillessen warm up during the Netherlands training session at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil held at the Estadio Paulo Machado de Carvalho Pacaembu on July 8, 2014 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  (P
Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

"In situations where they need to react, or direct shots on goal, they are very capable," Hoek told Soccer Coaching of the usual "reaction goalkeeper." "At the other extreme of the spectrum is the A-goalkeeper, the anticipating goalkeeper. Generally speaking they are more athletic: with an athletic posture and less muscle tone."

To generalise: A-type goalkeepers read the game well and are calm decision-makers, whereas R-types respond more emphatically and clinically to the danger of clear goalscoring opportunities.

Hoek, seeing Cillessen as a classic A-type and Krul as more of an R-type, suggested to Van Gaal that the former, with his composure in marshalling the defence and awareness of danger, would be a preferable option to start games throughout the tournament. Krul, on the other hand, would be a superior option in the specialised world of the penalty shootout, where reflexes and decision-making can be key.

It was a decision that would be fully vindicated, even if Cillessen’s feelings became collateral damage.

"Frans Hoek told the manager my qualities and he believed in me," Krul confirmed, according to Simon Hart of The Independent. "We discussed it before the game. He [Van Gaal] said if we had one more substitution he would use me.

"To make a decision like this with two minutes to go is incredible."

SALVADOR, BRAZIL - JULY 05:  Goalkeeper Tim Krul of the Netherlands celebrates after making a save on a penalty kick by Michael Umana  of Costa Rica (not pictured) to defeat Costa Rica in a shootout in the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Quarter Final match be
Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

While the substitution was roundly (and rightfully) praised, there was understandable concern that Cillessen had been somewhat emasculated in the process. A penalty shootout is one of the few opportunities a goalkeeper has to be the hero of the hour; not only was Cillessen denied the chance, a message may have been inadvertently sent to the world that Van Gaal did not have full faith in his No. 1.

In the cold light of day, however, perhaps that interpretation can be seen as a reflection of old attitudes. If substituting goalkeepers for penalty shootouts becomes a common sight, no one will bat an eyelid.

Like bringing in a designated hitter at the end of a tight baseball game, or substituting on a specialist short-corner finisher in hockey, it will become simply a part of the game, something managers do to gain a marginal advantage.

This might be an evolution in the thinking about goalkeepers that extends to their role and responsibilities more generally. The idea of a "No. 1" might increasingly become a memory of the past, with the biggest clubs using two (or more?) goalkeepers in combination over the course of a campaign.

If it makes sense, and offers an advantage, teams are going to do it.

MADRID, SPAIN - APRIL 22:  Jose Mourinho manager of Chelsea speaks to Petr Cech of Chelsea as he leaves the field after injury during the UEFA Champions League Semi Final first leg match between Club Atletico de Madrid and Chelsea at Vicente Calderon Stad
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

That might still be a few years away, however—it remains to be seen if Petr Cech is even still a Chelsea player at the end of this current transfer window. Financial fair play considerations (and Champions League squad rules) persuade the club to let the Czech depart in this window, but if he stays it will be interesting to see how Mourinho keeps him "stimulated."

Could there be a scenario where he plays upward of 10 league games a season, replacing Courtois whenever the Belgian appears to be flagging?

With the improvement in health-monitoring technologies that many professional sport teams use, it would not be hard to spot whenever a goalkeeper is beginning to falter, mentally and/or physically.

Similarly Cech, who might arguably be a better organiser of the defence than Courtois (who is perhaps a better shot-stopper), could start in games against sides that try to play the ball into the box (although predicting the types of shot you are likely to face on a game-by-game basis is probably a difficult proposition in what is an inherently unpredictable game).

Such a situation could also play out at some of the other clubs with two top goalkeepers, although in the short term that seems unlikely.

Hart and Caballero (like Szczesny and Ospina) will likely challenge each other until their manager settles on a No. 1, while Michel Vorm has perhaps gambled that his back-up role may eventually become something else if another club comes in for Hugo Lloris next summer.

Nevertheless, it remains a long-term possibility. If clubs are now adamant they need two elite goalkeepers to sustain all their ambitions, then it makes sense that they would eventually look at ways to better use them both.

Attitudes may need to change further, and the circumstances will need to be right, but we could soon reach the point where the concept of a No. 1 goalkeeper, like 1-11 shirt numbers, is a thing of the past.