File image of David James. (Getty Images)
File image of David James. (Getty Images)

The art of modern goalkeeping according to David James

  • Elaborating on the polarisation aspect, James cited the examples of quality goalkeepers on display in the Champions League knockouts.
UPDATED ON MAR 12, 2021 08:32 AM IST

Everyone watched in awe as Manuel Neuer left the comforts of the penalty box to defuse a number of Algerian counter-attacks during the round of the 16 match of the 2014 FIFA World Cup. The German goalkeeper’s performance went a long way in his team winning the tie 2-1 in extra-time.

Since that epic night at the Estadio Beira-Rio in Porto Alegre, where Neuer had 19 touches outside the penalty area, the role of modern-day goalkeepers - or sweeper keepers as they are referred to - has changed as well.

As years have passed since that Neuer masterclass, goalkeepers are expected to be good with both their feet, besides being solid shot-stoppers or having quality aerial skills to tackle the corners. They are required to not just whack the ball long but also play short passes and dash out to kill the counter.

As more top teams look to hire managers with attacking intent, the more demanding it has become for goalkeepers. Some have delivered while others have perished. Manchester City’s Ederson, Barcelona’s Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Liverpool’s Alisson all fit the bill of a modern-day goalkeeper. On the flipside, someone like Claudio Bravo wilted under pressure of the demands put forth by Pep Guardiola. The confidence of Joe Hart, then City and England No. 1 keeper, was also left shattered.

When Juergen Klopp joined Liverpool, he replaced Simon Mignolet with Loris Karius before finding a goalie that suited his template in Alisson. Chelsea manager Frank Lampard saw enough bloopers from Kepa Arrizabalaga before bringing in Edouard Mendy, who was good with his feet besides doing what a goalkeeper is expected to do.

David James, who played for more than two decades in the English top-flight, felt that will be the way most goalkeepers will be moulded in the future.

“What we are seeing in this part of the evolution is the idea that they can be someone who does everything…being able to control the ball and getting integrated into the passing routine (is one of them),” said James, who was the England No. 1 for close to a decade and also stood below the goalpost for Liverpool and Manchester City. “Now, when you look at the top goalkeepers, it has become so polarised. There was a time when goalies were quite the same,” he added.

Elaborating on the polarisation aspect, James cited the examples of quality goalkeepers on display in the Champions League knockouts. “Jan Oblak (Atletico) is a phenomenal shot-stopper. He isn’t the most comfortable when he is under pressure (with the ball) at his feet. At the other end of the scale you have ter Stegen. He doesn’t mind (to pass it around) under pressure but sometimes it doesn’t work. He is fantastically gifted with his feet, though. He is not as good as Oblak at saving shots or taking crosses. The happy middle is Ederson. He can do everything. He can make saves, he can pass under pressure, he will come for crosses,” James said.

Ask James to pick his top-three goalkeepers on current form, he shortlists Ederson followed by ter Stegen and Oblak.

What about Neuer and Allison? “Neuer has let in a lot of goals, (which is) not his fault though. At the same time a few years ago Neuer wasn’t letting goals in but he is still up there, very close to those three. Allison also falls into the Neuer category. Six months ago he was the best goalkeeper in the world. At the moment he has suffered a dip in form and has some personal issues. But I think he is capable of being right there,” James, who works as an analyst during the Champions League for Sony’s sports channels, said.

James is in awe of the Brazilian Ederson, who was signed for £35 million from Benfica at the start of 2017-18 season as Guardiola was craving for someone like Neuer to execute his plans.

“When you look at Ederson, if the guy makes a mistake, which everyone does, he is not worried. He carries on; he still takes calculated risks because the manager wants him to do so. He has got a wonderful personality, he is not frightened and that’s the key,” says James.

James is upbeat about the chances of his former club finally breaking the Champions League jinx. City were on a 21-game winning streak in all competitions before they were beaten 2-0 by Manchester United in the Premier League on Sunday. They have one foot in the Champions League quarter-finals, having won the last-16 first leg 2-0 against Borussia Monchengladbach. The second leg is on Tuesday.

James believes City have “the best defence than they ever had”. “City have won six-games 1-0, so they are capable of grinding it out. The beauty of the City setup at the moment is that it doesn’t matter who they are playing, their defensive unit is so good and they score every game. Because of that they only need one goal to win the game - they don’t need four or five.

“This, in the past, probably let City down where the expectation was that they are going to score four-five goals and the frustration was that they can’t get the first one. Now they are quite patient. If they score early they can hold the game for another 80-90 minutes. It’s a formidable machine at the moment. I think teams left in the Champions League wish they don’t draw City,” James said.

However, he added that the in-form City will need to guard against a drop in performance because they can wrap up the Premier League with plenty of games in hand.

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