Luis Enrique hasn’t made many mistakes as the head coach of FC Barcelona, but the goalkeeper situation is one of them.
Irrespective of whether Sport and MD are stirring crap up with the latest spate of stories about ultimatums, and Ter Stegen marching into the club offices with his agent, brandishing an offer from Manchester City, or Bravo saying he would leave if he isn’t the No. 1 keeper, Bravo vs Ter Stegen should never have been allowed to happen by a coach who should know better.
Competition improves the breed, everywhere except the keeper position, where a team needs to have a clear No. 1. You give him the shirt, and roll with it. Barça decided on Victor Valdes, back when people called him “Exxon Valdes,” and other nicknames that described his tendency toward errors. But there was no question who the top man was.
The club later acquired Jose Manuel Pinto as the No. 2, a keeper whose errors were, like everything at Barça, overblown. He was a more-than-fine backup keeper, who played Cup matches and other times that Valdes was injured. And until Valdes decided to leave, there was no question who the No. 1 was.
The club bought Ter Stegen with a clear eye that he was the keeper for the future. Then the club bought Claudio Bravo, and there was lots of speculation as to why. Bravo was named the No. 1 keeper by Luis Enrique, with Ter Stegen playing all Cup matches. The difference in this scenario, compared to Valdes/Pinto is that Pinto stepped aside for Valdes when Champions League got serious, in the later rounds. Ter Stegen played all the way through, including the semis against Bayern and the final against Juventus. Perhaps Ter Stegen could be thought of as a No. 1.5, rather than a No. 2.
Ter Stegen made a couple of “errors” that, typically, were overblown. He was caught out on a couple of goals from distance, one that a midfielder should never have allowed to happen, the other a spectacular golazo — the goal of a lifetime for Florenzi. Then, suddenly, the culerverse talked of Ter Stegen not being trusted and being susceptible to goals from distance, which was the most profound nonsense.
Last season, Ter Stegen showed off his fluency in Spanish, as seemingly the last plank in his assumption of his birthright, so to speak, the No. 1 shirt. Of this, there shouldn’t even be a question. It’s unfortunate that there is. The goalkeeper position is about stability. In every other position on the field, a coach wants competition, pressure on the incumbent to keep that player from slacking off. There were a few positions in which Barça lacked that important factor, which have been rectified in the off season. Lucas Digne has come in to apply some heat to Jordi Alba, and Samuel Umtiti is an heir-apparent CB while Andre Gomes will have people looking over their shoulders in midfield. This is all as it should be.
But the keeper, for a team that builds play like Barça, should be a constant. Keeper is also a confidence position, in that you don’t want him to feel anything except the complete and full confidence of his coach and teammates. Pinto never lacked for confidence. Pinto did, however, lack a fully competent defense in front of him that allowed us to see why he was the No. 2. Barça’s defense is good to the point where you could probably put Masip back there and he would be okay. That’s good. But the difference a keeper makes is in building play from the back, and it’s here that the difference between Bravo and Ter Stegen is clear.
A player such as Busquets or a deep-lying Messi have to do less work with Ter Stegen in the nets. The play after the keeper possesses the ball also starts more quickly with Ter Stegen, as Bravo will usually catch, cradle, run around yelling at defenders, then put the ball back in play. In that time, the opponent defense is set. Ter Stegen catches and clears. Ter Stegen is also a better passer out of the back, and more accurate with those passes. That anyone can see that means that there is something going on that we can’t see.
Bravo is a reassuring keeper, one who stays home more than Ter Stegen. Bravo will never, ever get caught out too far from his net. Bravo is a great reflex keeper and a top-quality shot stopper. He’s a legit No. 1 net minder. The problem for Barça, created by a coach who wants it all, is that the team now has two No. 1 keepers, with the attendant problems.
Nobody can blame Ter Stegen for being impatient. He’s 24 years old, and ready to take over. He has the quality to be a No. 1 keeper, something noticed by more than a few teams. His buyout clause is EUR80m, which no club is going to pay even if he would ultimately be worth it. Bravo’s clause is EUR40m, which again, no club is going to pay, even if it’s a fair number in today’s money-mad transfer market. If press reports are to be believed, the club has told both that they aren’t going anywhere, even IF someone is willing to pay their clause, which is something that strains belief, because that isn’t how buyout clauses work. If a player wants to leave and someone pays his clause, he can leave. Done.
A coach wants the best options at every position. Ideally, a coach would have two fully competitive XIs ready to do, with players who can slot in at any position with no drop in quality, at a moment’s knock or pause. For a coach such as Luis Enrique, that includes keeper. The danger in that scenario is that keepers never get injured, so a No. 1 keeper is essentially built to stay that way, all else being equal. Yet that position is different, for all the reasons listed above.
When Chelsea committed to Thibaut Courtois, Petr Cech was sent to Arsenal. The emergence of Keylor Navas meant that Iker Casillas had to go. There isn’t a team in club football that, to my knowledge, has two No. 1 keepers and whose coach “settles” things by letting one play all the Cup matches while the other plays all the league matches. Neither player is satisfied. Bravo was pissed watching Ter Stegen in nets in the Champions League final, while Ter Stegen had 35 Liga matches in which to get pissed. Only a fool or a greedy coach would think that such a situation would be workable, long-term.
Make a decision. Make one of them the No. 1, and tell the other one that he is free to leave if someone is serious about buying him. It’s fair to both players and lets the team build toward the future with a clear conscience. If the promoted keeper from B isn’t up to snuff, find a forever home for him and grab a quality veteran who is clear about his status.
This isn’t even about a choice, even as most culers have a preference. It’s about resolving a question about a crucial position on the team.