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Dublin: 4 °C Tuesday 12 November, 2019

Because they're worth it: goalkeepers creeping towards relative parity with outfield players

It took 16 years for Gianluigi Buffon’s transfer record to be broken but things seem to be changing, slowly.

THE WORLD TRANSFER fee has been smashed four times in the last eight years by Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Paul Pogba.

But, up until last week, Gianluigi Buffon’s 16-year-old transfer between Parma and Juventus was still standing as the most expensive goalkeeper deal of all time.

However, in recent days, there have been two new entries in the top three.

Brazilian Ederson’s £34.7 move to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City is the new record, while Jordan Pickford’s switch from Sunderland to Everton for an initial £25m makes him the most costly British keeper in history.

Finally, it appears, the most under-valued position on a football field is starting to gain some new-found respect.

With David de Gea continually linked with a transfer away from Manchester United and Italian teenager Gianluigi Donnarumma now refusing to sign a new deal with AC Milan, there’s a distinct possibility that the goalkeeper record will be broken again sooner rather than later.

Italian Soccer - Coppa Italia - Final Second Leg - Inter Milan v Lazio Source: Matthew Ashton

It is baffling to glance at the list of the most expensive goalkeepers of all time and seeing the likes of Angelo Peruzzi’s move from Inter to Lazio in 2000 still making the top-10.

Further digging is even more revealing. Despite the goalkeeper’s position being so undeniably individual (no one helps him/her make a save, unlike with the process of scoring a goal), only the Russian – Lev Yashin – has ever walked away with the Ballon ‘d’Or award. Bad enough as it is for defenders to get a look-in, it’s pretty much impossible for goalkeepers.

It’s an odd aspect to the game, particularly as economics has played such a crucial role at clubs over recent years. Goalkeepers – well, the better ones – are a no-brainer investment. For the most part, they don’t bounce between teams as much as outfield players. There’s a good reason why Ederson and Pickford have signed five-year deals with Man City and Everton respectively – they’ll more-than-likely stay for the duration of the contract. De Gea has already been at United for six seasons, the same as Manuel Neuer at Bayern Munich. Discount deals at the time (bafflingly cheap at £18.3m and £15.7m), they now look like the steals of the century.

Manuel Neuer Manuel Neuer cost Bayern Munich just £15.7m when he joined from Schalke in 2011. Source: Andreas Gebert

Of course, the dysfunctional side of sport sees goalkeepers punished the most – something that probably leads to a wider flippancy towards them. They are remembered more for the errors they make than the miraculous saves they conjure.

If a goalkeeper errs, more than likely it results in a goal. The reaction is rarely, ‘Well, he/she has already made three magnificent, goal-saving blocks so we really should have conceded earlier’. If a striker misses an open net, there’s annoyance and frustration but a wider optimism that there will be another opportunity. Also, there is the nature of the game to understand. When a goalkeeper makes an outstanding stop, the game doesn’t pause. It’s usually followed by an instant rebound or a set-piece. But once a ball has hit the net, the break in play is a obvious time for reflection and recrimination, particularly if a goalkeeper has dropped a clanger.

Still, when it’s announced Leicester City have signed a centre-back from Hull, who has one season of top-flight experience – for £17m, you can’t help but cringe a bit that it’s only one million pounds less than what United paid for de Gea.

Speaking to The42 in 2015, celebrated football journalist and author of The Outsider – a study of the history of the goalkeeper – Jonathan Wilson, gave this analysis:

“Peter Shilton was baffled that people were willing to pay £500,000 for someone who’d score 15 goals a season but he wouldn’t pay £300,000 for someone who’d save 20 goals a season. Again it’s the invisibility of what a goalkeeper does. Nobody remembers goals that aren’t. Generally speaking, goalkeepers are undervalued and with the statistical approach comes the realisation that goalkeepers are actually bargains and that if you’re investing big, it makes more sense to invest big in a goalkeeper than a centre-forward.”

We’re getting there, it would seem. At long last.

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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