NOTE: All abbreviations used in the statistics tables are explained in the legend at the bottom of this article. Stats are accurate up to Jornada 35 and are taken and/or derived from nbcsports.com, whoscored.com and transfermarkt.com
On a beautiful January afternoon, out of the blue above Zubizarreta’s office, a bomb dropped. It dropped, crashed through the roof and landed smack dab in the middle of his negotiating table. Our goalkeeper is not renewing.
Victor Valdes. Hero of Paris. Weatherer of a ten-minute hurricane in Rome. Pillar of Barcelona.
Few blaugrana players have divided opinion as much as our man from L’Hospitalet. Victor started in the Masía as a nine-year old, and although he moved to Tenerife within three months, he came back when he was twelve and progressed quickly through the youth ranks. He made his debut during one of the more chaotic periods our club has experienced in the 21st century, the 2002-2003 season, and soon after that became our first choice to guard our net.
When I was growing up it was hard to imagine an F.C. Barcelona before or after Zubi. By the time Cruijff had famously opted for his son-in-law, Carles Busquets, in goal after the debacle in Athens, Andoni Zubizarreta had been our first goalkeeper for eight seasons. Sergio’s dad lasted exactly sixty-nine games. Over the next seven seasons Vitor Baía, Ruud Hesp, Richard Dutruel, Pepe Reina, Roberto Bonano and Rüstü Recber all jumped on the great blaugrana goalkeeping caroussel, but none managed to hang on for very long. Valdes came and made the position his own.
A record five hundred games and one. Six league titles. Two Copa del Rey trophies. Three Champion’s League medals. Five Zamoras awarded for being the least scored upon goalkeeper in the Liga, a record he shares with another Barça legend, Antoni Ramallets. Heck, we brought in another Zamora winning goalkeeper just to be his back up. Our undisputed number one for ten seasons running. During the same timespan, only three other goalkeepers have come close to obtaining the same trust and longevity at a European powerhouse as Valdes: Gianluigi Buffon, Petr Cech and Iker Casillas. Yet when asked who are the best goalkeepers in the world, Victor is never mentioned in the same breath.
Most football fans will agree on the brilliance of Messi, Iniesta and Xavi. Dani Alves and Jordi Alba are counted among the best full backs in Europe. Busquets is widely lauded and Puyol admired by many. Our goalkeeper? Not quite. Culés consider him at the very least among the top 5 of the world – an opinion that is met by disbelief and sometimes ricidule when brought up for discussion with partisans of other clubs. Ten seasons between the goalposts of one of one of Europe’s most complicated clubs should, together with the accumulated accolades, be enough to earn him acclaim and respect from followers of the beautiful game worldwide, regardless of tribal loyalties.
So where does he rank? It is impossible to tell. At times Valdes has been the best keeper in the world. Yes, better than the sainted one, who later became the Mourinhoed one, before Jose became the Ikered one. He has inevitably had his lesser moments as well. The goalkeeper position is different from any other. Unlike most players, keepers only get a couple of chances every 90 minutes to do their job. One mistake can mean a terrible game. A couple of those can mean a bad season. And two or three every season can earn you the everlasting reputation of being flaky. Unreliable. Error prone. Chicken catcher. The bigger the howler and the bigger the game, the longer the memory. It is not fair, but life seldomly is. It also makes it more difficult to rank goalkeepers, since consistency over seasons is a lot harder to maintain.
The general consensus is that Victor Valdes will prove hard to replace. His strengths include good shot stopping, strong at one-on-ones and excellent passing skills. The fact that the latter is invariably quoted as one of the most important reasons why we can’t let our Victorian Secret out the box proved catalyst for this article. I started looking up his passing stats and became hungry for more. In the 2009/2010 season I was convinced that Victor was the best goalkeeper in the world. However, over the last two seasons I felt he has slipped somewhat. So I looked up his save percentage to see if my feelings and observations would stand up to cold hard facts.
He went from averaging an astonishing save percentage of over 80% down to a lowly 68.2 % last season, and then on to an obviously less than elite 64.4% this season. While I expected the stats to back up my suspicions, I was quite frankly shocked by how far the mighty Victor had fallen. Adding insult to injury is the fact that we gave up less shots on goal per game in 2012/13 than in 2009/10/11. He also kept only seven clean sheets while giving up more than a goal per game.
Then again, there are no cold hard facts. Just lies, damned lies, and statistics. The shots on goal per game stat does not show us what kind of shots he faced. Were they easy, difficult, or impossible to save? I found no statistics of goalkeeping errors, if such a thing could be objectively recorded anyway. How many of those goals were penalties? How often was he left alone to face hordes of striking finishers because the ten players in front of him screwed the pooch? So I looked at all the goals Victor conceded in 2009/10, 2010/11 and 2012/2013. I skipped the 2011/12 season because I was primarily interested in the difference between awesome (avg 82.5%), and its polar opposite (64.4%).
In 2009/10 he was simply excellent. He committed one super gaffe against a less than super Depor and he let Zaragoza score a goal that in my opinion he could have stopped. All other goals were either very hard to blame on VV or simply unstoppable.
In 2010/11 he gave up an unfortunate rebound for Hercules’ opening goal (remember that game?). He made a mess out of an Atletico corner. Against both Sevilla and Levante he came out of his goal awkwardly and on Jornada 37 he let in an imminently savable long distance shot.
For this season I went a step further and compiled a video. Yes, let God and the patron saint Jordi forgive me, because I compiled a video of goals that Victor Valdes either could have saved or simply should have saved.
Not taking into account the Supercopa blunder against Di Maria, Ronaldo’s Supercopa goal that was shot straight at Victor Valdes and the goal that prompted an ex-Barça player to text soccer journalist Gabrielle Marcotti that PSG only drew because of an offside Ibrahimovic and a goalkeeping mistake, Victor has not been in lockdown mode in the league either. Against Osasuna he was found cross-watching until it found the wrong player to volley the ball into the net. The first goal we conceded against Sevilla was not exactly a mistake, but it was definitely savable. Against Depor he made two mistakes: the first one quite obvious, the second by not covering well the area of the goal he supposedly covered in anticipation of the free kick. Against Celta de Vigo he gave up a rebound to a fairly weak shot. Against Valladolid he also gave up a rebound, although alternatively off of a fine save. And although I would not call them mistakes, had he been on top off his game both he could have stopped Valencia’s and Athletic’s goals.
Of course you can debate any of my choices of what is or is not savable (and you are welcome to it), but in my opinion VV let in more goals he could have prevented in his 64.4% season than in both of his 80+% seasons combined. Was he given a hard job this season by a team that did not press and defend well as in years past? Undoubtedly. Yet I was surprised by how many goals came from opponents finding space behind our high back line in the 2009/10 and 2010/11 seasons as well – a complaint we seem to have only started to voice consistently this year. I admit it would have been even better to watch all of the shots on goal we conceded over three years, but for that kind of research I would have had to quit my day job. So I did the next best thing.
How does Valdes compare to other goalkeepers? Here is where it becomes scary.
Across Europe’s four elite leagues (Liga, EPL, Serie A and Bundesliga) Valdes’s save percentage ranks seventh lowest. We can argue until we’re blue in the face about how Barcelona’s team defense have let their keeper down, but let’s get real. Wigan’s Ali Al Habsi has faced 149 shots (more than 2 more shots on goal per game than VV). Greuter Fürth (GF) are Germany’s cannon fodder and they are about to get relegated. Deportivo La Coruña and Mallorca have conceded 136 goals between them. You get my drift. The only other team who you could be surprised to see here is Schalke 04. If Valdes had saved even two of the shots seen in the video above, he would not star in this list of shame.
Now let’s see how some of Europe’s other top keepers have been doing.
Apart from his heroics in the Copa Del Rey final for which I am sure you are all grateful, Thibaut Courtois’ save percentage of over 75% and 18 clean sheets would back up all the positive press he has been receiving. Of course it might also be indicative of how Simeone’s team has tightened up at the back, a fact further underlined by allowing 0.5 shots per game less than the previous season.
Iker’s performance seems to have dropped in comparison to his usual consistent self. While M*drid gave up a lot less shots than the three seasons before, opponents scored at pretty much the same rate as ever. His save percentage was only a tad higher than Victor’s. No wonder the Evil One felt emboldened to make his move against the White Knight.
I am not an avid follower of Italian football, but I now know this: three of Italy’s top goalkeepers have consistently saved more than 70 percent of the shots they receive over the past three seasons, while both Buffon and Abbiati reached the dazzling heights of the eighties.
David De Gea, the one goalkeeper I would dream to see at the Camp Nou, has scored two consecutive 78% seasons to start his career in Manchester, an achievement made even more impressive by his young age. Note how his team conceded less than Barça this season while allowing 1+ shot per game more.
Pepe Reina, who can’t seem to keep his name out of the Barcelona dailies these days, was made to look a winner by Rafael Benitez’s stifling tactics but has grown less impressive with the years. And of course Petr Cech is the picture definition of consistency.
Germany’s top two goalkeepers are looking pretty good as well. Regular Champion’s League followers should be well familiar with Manuel Neuer, while Marc-Andre Ter Stegen, a reported Barcelona target, has apparently followed a spectacular season with a merely solid one. I will put my hand up to say that I have never watched a complete game featuring the latter, although he carries the reputation of being one of Europe’s top talents.
All in all I have two key observations. First, of the established goalkeepers (I am not counting Reina) only Buffon (09/10) and Iker Casillas (12/13) dropped to a saving percentage under 70%. Courtois dropped below 70 in his debut season defending the mattresses, and Bill Gentleman (props to Isaiah) was a couple of percentiles below 70 as well last season. Curiously enough only one of those goalkeepers is outside of Spain. Victor Valdes has now had two consecutive seasons in a row in which he saved less than seventy percent of the shots. Secondly there are only three teams that allow less shots on goal than Barcelona: Real M*drid, Juventus and Bayern Munich. Make of that what you will.
Do penalties count as shots on goal? I think so, but I’m not sure. But since you mention it…
I counted all the penalties these goalkeepers faced throughout their careers, and whether they were scored or not. Keep in mind that for lack of accurate information I did not take any penalty shootouts into account, nor do I know whether the ones that were not scored were saved or missed completely.
Sammy Hands has a well deserved reputation of being the world’s leading penalty killer. David De Gea and Manuel Neuer are not that far off. Apparently Neuer stands at 34% including shootouts. Again, Victor Valdes shows up in the bottom of this particular list.
As for the passing skills…
How our future goalkeeper’s lack of this apparently irreplaceable skill set will effect us is at the root of what originally prompted me to write this post. Well, both that and the fact that it is fair to say that this particular season Victor has left several culés underwhelmed with his passing of the ball. Perhaps as a result of the error that set up Di Maria to score in the first Supercopa leg at the Camp Nou – the second time in less than 12 months Real M*drid profited from a mistake made with the ball at his feet – he no longer looked as confident with passing the ball season. In various games I could have sworn that his passing hurt us more than helped us, so I decided to take note of what happened whenever we passed our goalkeeper the ball during our last game at the San Mamés.
My tally over ninety minutes:
Lost possession, long ball… Put Abidal in a complicated position near our own corner flag, lost possession… Long ball, lost possession… Awesome one-time pass, tiki taka, wow, nice… Long ball over the ground which Cesc could not control… Long ball, loss of possession… Long ball under pressure.
Barcelona lost possession six out of seven times our goalkeeper played the ball with his feet. Definitely not good. So again I pulled down some stats.
Gianluigi Buffon has the highest completion percentage. Victor Valdes is somewhere in the middle. David De Gea’s passes reach a teammate only a bit more than half the time. Note how the distinction was made between passes and long balls. I take it that they counted long balls to be those passes where the keeper has the ball in his hands before kicking it forward. To be clear, a long ball and a long pass is not the same.
To be honest I find it hard to interpret these statistics one way or the other. It is striking that the keepers of the lowest ranked teams (Liverpool and Borussia Mönchengladbach) make more passes per game than any other, but then the reasons are fairly obvious. It is not surprising to see that we rank fairly low when it cames to retaining possession of long balls, although curiously the difference between our midgets and teams like Real M*drid and Chelsea is minimal.
More telling is the drop in Victor Valdes’ completion rate between this season (63%) and the previous seasons (averaging about 80%). Then again one has to keep in mind that this does not reflect a sudden loss of skill, but rather a change of tactics (both ours and our opponents’) and perhaps a loss of confidence after the two high profile errors against M*drid. After all, few goalkeepers make passes like the ones Valdes made against Real Valladolid two weeks ago, a game in which his completion rate was 100%
Beautiful, isn’t it? It is not his skill that stands out, though.
Most All players can make those passes, whether they wear gloves or not. You don’t spend your entire life on a football pitch without knowing how to pass a ball over twenty yards. What stands out is the willingness to play the ball to a defender who has opponents breathing down his neck. The confidence that your teammate will know what to do with it. The field awareness to know that he in turn has options to pass to. The risk that mishitting the ball only slightly is a goalwards invitation.
So how much will we miss this specific skill? Time will tell. A more pertinent question could be how important it is for Barcelona to have a ball passing keeper? In the specific games I tallied VV passed the ball three times against Valladolid and seven times against Athletic Bilbao. I will go out on a limb here and say that yes, I want our keeper to be able to pass the ball but I care a great deal more about whether or not he stops it from going into the net. A new goalkeeper can learn how to pass. Noboy’s asking him to be Iniesta. But it will take time. Maybe a season or two. Or three. The truth is that judging by this season, Barça will have to adjust this particular facet of our tactics anyway. Most interestingly Victor himself has indicated that the most important part of his job is the one-on-one, of which he receives 25-30 per season and which can often end up deciding the game.
And how much will we miss Double V? Another difficult question and again, time will tell. Like most culés, I have supported him throughout the years. In the beginning because he was young and “ours”. We got vindicated soon enough by his heroics in Parc des Princes. We got laughed at one year later against Liverpool. Under Guardiola he reached the very top of his game. Tellingly it was Pep who made him enjoy himself on the pitch and it was during those years in which at times he could be considered as the best goalkeeper in the world. Who knows, perhaps it is that lack of joy which makes him want to leave.
A lot of culés are predicting doom. Victor Valdes is irreplacable; Pepe Reina will provide weekly comedy capers (he might); Ter Stegen is too young (entirely possible). But think about this: rightly or wrongly, Iker Casillas has been considered by many soccer fans and pundits to be the best goalkeeper on the planet. And though he is a declared Saint among merengues, not many of them would argue if Diego Lopez remained first choice in the Bernabeu.
The above research, statistics and videos should not convince you that Valdes is a bad keeper. He is quite the opposite. It does suggest that he is not is not as irreplacable as some would have us believe. And although it is entirely possible that we will spend years in agony before finding one as reliable as Valdes, the void can be filled if we choose well and stick with our choice. Just like we stuck with our choice ten years ago.
The best remaining option might be what Victor himself hinted at during today’s press conference: to stay until his contract ends. That way we can use what is left of this summer’s transfer kitty to either go all out on another CB without worrying about the goalkeeping position just yet, or we can get that young buck everybody has been talking about and take this season to groom him for the top job in years to come.
The next month should tell whether our man will still be defending the sticks or not come 2013/2014. Whatever his choice, he will forever be hailed as a Barça legend, and most deservingly so! Visca Barça! I Visca Victor!