When Juventus legend Gianluigi Buffon speaks, people listen. In a recent interview, when asked about the next generation of goalkeeping talent, Paris Saint-Germain’s Alphonse Areola was one of the names picked out.
"After a year on loan with Villarreal and Europa League football, he returned to PSG," the Ballon d'Or-nominated stopper recently told Perform Group (h/t ESPN FC's Jonathan Johnson). "Today, he is physically imposing and assured with a big presence. He will become an important goalkeeper."
It's a short quote, but enough to make it clear: Areola is the future. But if you are a PSG fan, you’ve known, or hoped, this would happen for a few years.
Signed from the INF Clairefontaine academy in 2009, Areola would make his debut in 2013, coming off the bench in the 3-1 win over Stade Brestois. The ‘keeper of Filipino descent would start the final game of the season against FC Lorient, playing 60 minutes in another 3-1 victory.
We had been given a teaser, just enough to know that the future was bright for the young "gardien."
That summer, he was the starting No. 1 as France would go on to win the Under-20 World Cup in Turkey. There’s no doubt he played his part. In the 2-1 win over Ghana, with the scores level, he made a number of outstanding saves, giving Les Bleus the platform and opportunity to win 2-1.
Three days later, the final against Uruguay had finished goalless, but there was still time for Areola to become the hero. Saving penalties from Emiliano Velazquez and Giorgian De Arrascaeta put his country in a commanding position, and they would win the shootout 4-1.
From that moment on, PSG fans have been waiting for the moment they would see Areola in their shirt, knowing he could potentially become a world beater.
Watching the likes of Kingsley Coman and Jean-Christophe Bahebeck fail to make an impact in the first-team—especially the former, who left for Juventus—there were worries when Salvatore Sirigu, then Kevin Trapp, joined the club, pushing the Frenchman down the pecking order.
However, it wasn’t until his spell in Spain, with Villarreal, that he finally convinced everyone that he could become a star at first-team level.
Only two goalkeepers, Jan Oblak at Atletico Madrid and Barcelona’s Claudio Bravo, kept more clean sheets than Areola. He would go 590 minutes without conceding a goal, breaking the previous record that Diego Lopez set during the 2007/08 season.
All of these exploits were performed under the watchful eye of Unai Emery. The Sevilla coach wouldn’t have been able to escape Areola’s performances, so it was expected that when he took over this summer, Trapp would make way.
Going into the Trophee des Champions game against Olympique Lyonnais, everyone was expecting Emery to make a decision. He picked Trapp, and the German would actually play the first four games of the season.
It was after the 1-1 draw with Saint-Etienne that Emery made the switch, using the UEFA Champions League fixture with Arsenal to install Areola between the sticks. The thinking was that the youngster would be the “cup goalkeeper” similar to the arrangement at Barcelona last season where Bravo and Marc-Andre ter Stegen would switch around.
PSG would go behind before Blaise Matuidi fired an equaliser before the break. Then, just after Edinson Cavani had put them 2-1 up, Areola was crucial in saving Cosmin Moti’s spot-kick. Seconds later, Cavani grabbed his second and the tie was won.
"Alphonse is a young goalkeeper and he plays very well with the ball at his feet," club-captain Thiago Silva told journalists after the win in Bulgaria, per ESPN FC's Johnson. "I have nothing negative to say about his ability with his hands either. I hope that he will continue like this, because he will be the next France national team goalkeeper."
When asked about his save, despite building a reputation as something of a penalty expert, Areola remained humble: "Did I know where he was going? These are things that I prefer to keep between the goalkeeping coach and I. I came out at the right moment and we went and scored. It was important It is up to me to continue working as I have done lately. I still need to work hard in order to perform well."
After the game against Ludogorets, French newspaper Le Parisien asked various legendary PSG goalkeepers who they thought was the best choice to be the No. 1 in Paris.
Former West Ham United ‘keeper Bernard Lama went for Kevin Trapp, saying that he didn’t understand why they were made to compete and suggesting the position requires stability and confidence.
Some would argue that Areola provides both, and despite helping PSG win the league and cup treble, the German ‘keeper had his shaky moments—especially in the Champions League against Real Madrid.
Former PSG stopper Dominique Casagrande was full of praise for Areola, saying that he was more active in his goal and has superb reflexes. The 45-year-old also said the young 'keeper seems to excel even more in the big, high-pressure games.
Jerome Alonzo called the young Frenchman a phenomenon, admitting that he liked Trapp but that Areola has all the tools to compete at the highest level.
Former PSG man Mickael Landreau, who won the league with Lille OSC in 2011, said Areola was a perfect example to other young players. With the 23-year-old given the chance to quietly grow while on loan at RC Lens, SC Bastia and Villarreal, Landreau said Emery should have picked Areola as his first choice from the start.
PSG are often criticised for their policy regarding youngsters. Coman's exit from the club is just one example of poor management. Promising right-back Youssouf Sabaly is now on his fourth loan spell in France, but the club continue to buy players in the same position.
It’s only this season that someone like talented centre-back Presnel Kimpembe is picking up important minutes. Plus, there are worries over the futures of both Jean-Kevin Augustin and Odsonne Edouard, as fans worry that the search for success and the willingness to continue to spend big will take away any chance for the promising duo to make an impact.
However, Areola is the one huge success story. Three loan spells, stepping up the level of difficulty at each stage, has set up his future perfectly.
Yet it is perhaps easier to do this at the goalkeeper position, where you are not tasked with scoring 20 goals a season—just limit your mistakes and be there when called upon, something that Areola has done with ease.
A France cap has to be the next step. He has been called up by Didier Deschamps for the fixtures against Belarus, Bulgaria and the Netherlands, and being part of the squad is the first stage.
If he continues to start for Emery’s team in both the league and Champions League, national domination is next, then…the world.