If you want to know why my opinion isn’t right or wrong, nor is yours, and possibly not even his, read Kevin’s wonderful Nietzschean guide to being a football fan. If you want to know who’s Barça’s best goalkeeper, read this opinion piece.
It is said there are lies, damned lies and statistics. It is also said that people use stats as a drunk man uses lamp posts: for support rather than illumination. The stats gathered and / or calculated for this article pretend neither to present a complete picture nor were they selectively chosen in order to prove a preconceived point of view. If anything I did my best to find data that contradicted my gut feeling as much as possible. Having said that, I have a pretty good gut.
BETWEEN THE STICKS
Once upon a time not too long ago there was a man deemed irreplaceable. Irreplaceable? Well, there was one culer with balls of brass and a heart of ice who pointed out that during his last two seasons, Victor Valdes’ best days seemed behind him.
To make a long story short, VV suffered a horrible injury, went to Manchester, clashed with an object that is unmovable until it’s fired and before long, our former goalkeeper was plying his trade in Belgium. This coming season, the man who is arguably the greatest number one in the history of the most beautiful club in the world will try and help keep newly promoted Middleborough in the Premier League.
In the meantime, Barça replaced Victor with not one but two goalkeepers. First in came a young German demigod with broad shoulders and velvet feet. He arrived with the keys to the Camp Nou between his thumb and index finger and the illusion of, yes indeed, replacing the irreplaceable. Little did he know, newly appointed Luis Enrique had other ideas and insisted on a streetwise (pitchwise) Chilean, grizzled from countless battles in La Liga for La Real and on the international stage for his country.
Fast forward to their third summer at the club and after two seasons locked in an awkward equilibrium in which one plays La Liga and the other plays most of the rest, neither goalkeeper can be sure of their place. Both are competitive, and Marc-André Ter Stegen in particular has made no secret of the fact that he is uncomfortable with the arrangement. Rumors have it that if there are no plans on making him a starter this season, he will want out.
Knock, knock, said Bravo’s agent, I just want to make sure my client is still playing next season.
Knock, knock, said MATS, give me my due or sell me to City.
Skapow! Said Barça, if somebody wants to pay your release clause, you can go.
Sell no one! Say fans, Bravo will be old soon and MATS is the future.
Sell MATS! Say fans, Bravo is the better goalkeeper.
Sell Bravo! Say fans, MATS is the better goalkeeper even now.
Opinions abound, so let’s take a closer look. The last two seasons’ worth of Liga, Copa Del Rey and Champions League matches offer the following:
Ter Stegen turns in a very respectable 75% and 76%, although if we included the Super Cup games against Sevilla and Athletic Bilbao, that 2015/16 figure would drop below 70%. Claudio Bravo, meanwhile, gives us a whopping 80% and 81%. How impressed should we be? Let’s look at a cross section of the top leagues in Europe over the last three seasons:
As you can see, 80% is kind of a big deal. The only goalkeepers to reach this figure more than once have been Gianluigi Buffon (living legend) and Manuel Neuer (considered by many to be the world’s best). The other stat line that jumps out is the following, especially when fleshed out with two additional seasons:
Courtois 2011/12 – 69%
Courtois 2012/13 – 76%
Courtois 2013/14 – 77%
Moya 2014/15 – 69%
Oblak 2015/16 – 82%
Defenses don’t get much meaner than Diego Simeone’s merry band of stingy bastards. Atletico Madrid will do pretty much anything short of stabbing your eye out with a rusty screwdriver to prevent you from creating a quality scoring opportunity. Yet even counting back from the start of the reign of el Cholo, Jan Oblak was the first to break 80%. This suggests that as well as an excellent (team) defense in front of him, a goalkeeper needs to have an almost perfect season to reach that number. Bravo is coming off the back of two of those.
Stats-based website whoscored.com calculated our goalkeepers’ average performance ratings, strengths and weaknesses throughout the last season as follows:
While you’re at it, take a look at other goalkeepers as well:
As you can imagine, with an average rating of 6.92, Claudio Bravo outperformed most of his peers last season. Among his main strengths, shot stopping and concentration are arguably the most important attributes for a goalkeeper to have. Barça generally give up only a select few shots per game: I hate to kick in an open door, but the keeper must be ready to stop them.
When examining Ter Stegen’s attributes, the quality that all top goalkeepers possess, shot stopping, is conspicuous only in its absence. The crux of the matter is that, based on what we know so far, Marc is not a very good shot stopper. It’s not that he never makes good saves. He does:
However, in a low-scoring sport where one goal can mean the difference between life and death, you really want your number one to stop attempts like:
Even at the pathetic level at which I play football, getting nutmegged from that distance would earn me a mixture of sighs, nervous grins and wide-open eyes that look at each other in disbelief (and that’s because I play with very nice people).
Of course, Ter Stegen’s one attribute that sets him apart from all others is also what makes him such an attractive option for a club with our playing style, his skill of passing the football. It’s what defines him as a footballer and on most days, his distribution is a wonderful sight to behold, with ball control and passes that range from the sublime:
to the ridiculous:
to the one-moment-you’re-scratching-your-ear-and-the-next-Neymar-almost-scores-on-your-ass:
Yes, it’s easy to see why culés have fallen in love with Ter Stegen. A reliable outlet to receive the ball when defenders are under pressure, his passes serve to keep the ball moving and give the opponent the least amount of time to reset. It’s not a stretch to say that when it comes to this aspect of the game, Ter Stegen is a better player than more than a few central defenders out there. But how much better is he than Bravo? I pulled up the passing charts for six games of each and did my best for my picks to be fairly representative. However, before we get there, I want to show you this:
This is what a passing chart looks like when goalkeepers boot it up the pitch, a prominent occurrence in primitive football cultures (just kidding, I love the Premier League!). Obviously the chances of successfully reaching a teammate are less than optimal. It also makes it difficult to interpret how much of the pass completion percentage is down to the passer and how much is down to the recipient. Czech can lump high balls in the general direction of Olivier Giroud, and even Alexis Sanchez is quite apt at using his body to receive a difficult ball. Joe Hart, however, simply doesn’t have the personnel for this, as the charts seem to confirm quite clearly.
An FC Barcelona goalkeeper passing chart certainly makes for a change of scenery. Last season Bravo completed an impressive 84% of his passes. A look at the charts confirms he usually plays the ball either short or he boots it up the field. Naturally his short passes have a very low chance of being intercepted by an opponent. When he resorts to long balls, the success rate lowers significantly, especially in games where he goes long often. Thankfully, whether through design or circumstance, these games are very rare, and in matches where he picks his long balls more carefully, the long ball completion percentage rises quite a lot.
Perhaps surprisingly to some, Ter Stegen completed a slightly lower percent of his passes, but his charts look quite similar to Bravo’s. Comparing them closely, he employs the long ball less often. The rare game in which Claudio boots 15 balls upfield simply does not exist for Marc-André. One of the big differences is the amount of medium-long passes he places, mostly to the flanks. Mats is quite possibly the only keeper in the world who consistently makes these, with either foot, and they look gorgeous:
Now on more occasions than he gets credit for, Bravo shines by picking out his man through traffic or jumpstarting a counter attack. Still it would be foolish to claim he is as impressive as his rival. Not only can the Chilean be described as decent with his feet, good even, after two years at this club, but he knows his limits and takes no risks, which is an excellent quality for a goalkeeper. Yet Ter Stegen is simply amazing. Ronald Koeman comes to mind, in the way he routinely places 40-plus yard passes into the feet of its targets. Now he still needs to learn that sometimes – just sometimes – it is better to clear the ball away as hard as you can possibly kick it than to try a fancy curler to an under-pressure teammate. Once he understands that, his passing game will be the textbook definition of perfect.
The definition of perfect. So how important is a perfect passing game for a goalkeeper? The attack starts with the very first pass, there is no doubt about that, but when comparing a goalkeeper with excellent feet to one who is merely “good enough”, how much of a difference does a difference make? Let’s generously say that 15 times per game Ter Stegen plays a pass that affords its recipient more time and space to make the next move than the pass that Bravo would have played. Again, the advantage is clear. But even when a goalkeeper plays the perfect pass, it still takes an average of five, ten, fifteen, whatever – quite some passes before that first perfect pass leads to a goal scoring opportunity, and of course most of the time it won’t lead to a goal scoring opportunity at all and often goal scoring opportunities are created regardless of that perfect first pass. The advantage might be clear, yes, but it’s as subtle as it’s clear.
On the other hand, when it comes to defending the goal there is no 5/10/15 pass margin. You either stop the shot or you don’t and if you don’t, your team’s chances of winning the game decrease dramatically. There’s no subtlety about it. If you drop a cross, give up a rebound that might have been avoided, fail to stop a shot or, I don’t know, head the ball to an opponent while standing five yards out of your box, that’s it. There’s no mystery why goalkeepers are judged by their errors a lot more than say, midfielders. They only get a couple of opportunities per game to make a difference and the margin of error is close to zero. Before leaving, culers were in panic thinking about how on earth the club could replace Victor Valdes, one of the few great passing goalkeepers in the game, and essential to Barça’s style of play. Perhaps with this in mind, a journalist asked him what the most important attribute was for a Barcelona goalkeeper. His answer was stopping one on ones. Not passing, not ball control. Shot stopping.
We talked about shot stopping and passing. Concentration is barely worth discussing. Ter Stegen is young and he has made a myriad of unforced errors during his tenure at the club. Yes, I said it, he has made a myriad of unforced errors. Anybody who disputes this can go stand in the corner with the global warming deniers and the flat-earthers (oh, and while you’re at it don’t forget to vote for Donald Trump). It’s not as if Bravo never makes any mistakes, but he certainly makes a lot less of them despite playing more games. However, Ter Stegen is young and this is the attribute which, along with its close cousin, decision making, we can be most confident he will improve. And if not confident then at least hopeful.
In hindsight, it would have been better had Ter Stegen been loaned out for a couple of years after signing him. However, Zubizarreta brought him under the pretense of starting at the Camp Nou, so they could hardly send him packing. Had Zubi known Luis Enrique would insist on getting Claudio Bravo, who then performed better than many had foreseen, things might have been planned differently. As it happened, Luis Enrique chose the second-best option: rotation.
Unless you want to argue against one treble and one double over two years, Luis Enrique’s decision has been the perfect compromise so far. Undoubtedly playing more matches would have been beneficial for Ter Stegen’s development, but then the two consecutive Liga titles would have been unlikely. On the flip side, fans can count the lucky stars in the culerverse that Marc-André’s gaffes against City and Juve didn’t stand in the way of the 2015 Champions League trophy and, although his mistake that led to Arsenal’s equalizer the last CL campaign was always unlikely to impede a QF birth, who knows what would’ve happened had he not led in Torres’ shot at home against Atletico? Be that as it may, young goalkeepers need playing time to grow and Ter Stegen simply had (has) too much potential to be limited to seven Copa games per season.
So if MATS is not the present, is he the future? This remains to be seen since, after all, the future is conditional. First of all, we don’t know when Bravo will start to decline nor how fast his skills and powers will diminish once the inevitable sets in. He might have five more years at the top in him, or he might have five weeks. He might even get better before he gets worse. Who can tell the future? Buffon is 38 and he still has his reflexes, while Casillas had become a liability at the age of 32.
Perhaps more importantly, Ter Stegen’s projected growth is based on various conditions as well. Put his passing game aside and despite periodical hints of class, lingering doubts remain:
How much will his decision making improve?
How much will his concentration improve?
How much will his shot stopping improve?
If he makes strides in all he can become one of the world’s elite and, coupled with his passing skills, the perfect goalkeeper for F.C. Barcelona. It’s a clear if, though, and do you sacrifice the present for an if?
It doesn’t look like any club will cough up the transfer fee for either goalkeeper so the smart money is on Luis Enrique to keep the rotation going. He might compromise and switch Ter Stegen to the Liga games and Bravo to the Copa and CL. That way one gets the game time he needs for his development and the other gets to finally experience a Champion’s League campaign for a big club. If the past two seasons are any indication, this would jeopardize the league title defense.
Thankfully the future is unknown.