Inside the weird world of soccer's unique breed: reserve goalkeepers
Ask any coach what the two most important positions on the pitch are and chances are most will say a striker, to put the ball in the net, and a goalkeeper, to keep the ball out.
With that in mind, it's been a strange start to the Premier League season given that Manchester United has no fixed No. 1 goalkeeper while Tottenham Hotspur has a clear starter, but it's not the 25-year-old €10 million new signing who happens to be France's captain -- Hugo Lloris. Rather, it's still 41-year-old American Brad Friedel, coach Andre Villas-Boas said.
Meanwhile at Arsenal, No. 3 goalkeeper Vito Mannone has kept three clean sheets in a row and told the No. 1, Wojciech Szczesny, that he wants his jersey for keeps; Manchester City bought a new No. 3 keeper, Richard Wright, who used to be Arsenal's No. 2; while Reading just bought City's former No. 3, Stuart Taylor, who was Arsenal and Aston Villa's No. 2. Confused yet?
If the world of goalkeepers is one unlike any other, the world of reserve goalkeepers is even stranger. On the whole, reserves fall into two categories: a young player waiting for his chance in the big time, like Villa's Brad Guzan (who joined the club at age 23 four years ago and could now be set for a run, sending Shay Given to the bench); or an elder statesman figure happy to sign one last contract, like Spurs' Carlo Cudicini.
Sometimes that young tyro becomes the elder statesman, as happened to Newcastle's Steve Harper and Lloris' replacement at Lyon, Remy Vercoutre. For 10 years, Vercoutre had been the reserve goalkeeper, during which time he started only 37 games for the club (a figure boosted by a 19-game run in 2007-08, when Gregory Coupet was injured), and now, at 33, he is the starter. Unused to the pressure brought on by his new status, he made a mistake in his first match after Lloris left.
"For me, the best thing is to have a No. 1 who knows he is No. 1," said Jacques Crevoisier, a former Liverpool assistant coach and qualified psychologist who carries out psychological and motivational tests on players at Arsenal and Ligue 1 clubs. "That doesn't mean the No. 2 can't become the No. 1, but the worst thing is when you don't know who the No. 1 is."
United coach Sir Alex Ferguson has two goalkeepers who both believe they're good enough to be No. 1. Last season, David de Gea started 29 games and Anders Lindegaard eight (Ben Amos started the other). Lindegaard came in last week after De Gea made an error in United's win over Fulham. It seemed a harsh decision, but perhaps it was the nature of the error that forced it: De Gea failed to communicate with his defense and a mix-up with Nemanja Vidic left the Serbian deflecting the ball into his own net. A handling error may be forgivable, but to Ferguson, an organizational error like that is a droppable offense.
"The danger of having two goalkeepers who both play a lot is that often they will have different styles and the defenders will have to get used to that," said SI.com's Jonathan Wilson, whose book, "The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper" will be published later this year. Wilson pointed to Ray Clemence and Peter Shilton, England goalkeepers who alternated (except at tournaments) under coach Ron Greenwood in the late 1970s. Clemence, used to playing at Liverpool, was almost a sweeper and liked his defense to play high; Shilton preferred to stay back and react to shots.
It was a similar story between Cameroon pair Joseph-Antoine Bell (the sweeper-goalkeeper) and Thomas N'Kono (the shot-stopper) in the 1980s. Bell tells Wilson of his frustration that N'Kono was rated as the better goalkeeper because he made better saves; Bell's argument is that his starting position ensured attacks were snuffed out before a save had to be made.
"[As a coach] You have to be more focused on the goalkeeper's personality than with any other position," Crevoisier explained. "I have conducted over 5,000 personality tests with some of the best players in the world, and I'm telling you, the best profiles are always the goalkeepers. Their responsibility is massive, but because of that, they need the confidence of the coach more than anyone else."
When Crevoisier was at Liverpool, alongside Gerard Houllier, the club had some goalkeeping issues of its own. In week three of the Premier League season in 2001, Sander Westerveld let a shot from Bolton's Dean Holdsworth squirm past him to concede a late winning goal. The next day, Westerveld went from first-choice to third-choice: Houllier signed Jerzy Dudek and Chris Kirkland as his backup. "That worked out OK in the end - I seem to remember Dudek had a good game in Istanbul in 2005," Houiller joked, referring to Liverpool's Champions League penalties win over AC Milan.
The ideal No. 2 is one who accepts his status and is prepared to work hard and push the No. 1 to be better. "It's about mentality, even if they're in competition with these guys, they can be happy to be with each other and work well together," Crevoisier said. The obvious example of that is Pepe Reina's role within the Spain national team; he is not first-choice but is a crucial part of the dressing room, there to lighten the mood if necessary but also to work hard when required.
Taylor and Harper, and even Wright, who played twice for England (and saved a penalty on his debut in a 2000 friendly in Malta), would not have set out to spend most of their careers as a reserve. But if you're on a good salary, have a good relationship with the No. 1, and your family is settled, why move at all?
"I know some goalkeepers who are very happy not to play," Crevoisier said. "They get good money, more than if they drop down a level, they work hard, and they are not in a situation to be criticized, so there is less pressure on them. These profiles exist at some clubs."
It remains to be seen how the situations at United and Spurs will play out. If De Gea finds his form, he will probably get another chance. Friedel, now 41 but in the form of his life, will take some dislodging to leave the Spurs lineup.
"It's a tough one for Villas-Boas: he must have a precise idea what he wants to do and has to explain it to the guys," Crevoisier said. "But if Lloris shows that he is better than Friedel in training, then he has to pick him."
If only it was that simple. The world of the reserve goalkeeper rarely is.