Cech, De Gea and beyond, Premier League goalkeeping talent is rich
Sunday's action felt somehow typical of this season's Premier League.
First, Manchester United won 1-0 at Liverpool, with goalkeeper David De Gea keeping his side in the game with some impressive stops, before Stoke and Arsenal played out a goalless draw, in which Jack Butland and Petr Cech were the standout performers.
The standard of goalkeeping this season has been exceptional and the Premier League arguably boasts as many as five of the top 10 in the world: De Gea, Cech, Thibaut Courtois, Joe Hart and Hugo Lloris. While the quality of the league's top sides has unquestionably declined in recent years, no other division in Europe can boast five such outstanding No. 1s.
This is the third spell of outstanding goalkeeping in the Premier League era, and surely the best so far. The first came in the mid-1990s. Peter Schmeichel was the outstanding individual, with David Seaman, Tim Flowers, Mark Bosnich and Shaka Hislop also impressive.
The mid-2000s, meanwhile, saw the arrival of Cech along with Pepe Reina. Jens Lehmann was excellent in his first couple of seasons with Arsenal, while Edwin van der Sar returned to top form when he moved to Manchester United.
Modern goalkeeping is, put simply, extremely difficult. In an age of meticulous scouting, weaknesses are exploited by the opposition like never before. Dodgy on crosses? Expect high balls and physical pressure. Susceptible to long-range shots? There'll be plenty of attempts coming your way.
The constant evolution of the ball itself also makes goalkeeping extremely difficult. Keepers are mocked when they complain about the new model ahead of major tournaments, but footballs today often swerve and dip quite unpredictably. Keeping them out of the goal is a more difficult job than ever before.
Of the five standouts, the elder statesman is 33-year-old Cech, who recently become the Premier League's record holder for clean sheets. Of all the goalkeepers on this list he is the most traditional, the calmest and most level-headed.
It's a cliché that goalkeepers are crazy but Cech somewhat disproves this. He is intelligent, ultra-professional and a leader, despite being relatively quiet. For Arsenal, whose recent goalkeeping icon was the composed, understated Seaman, Cech feels particularly appropriate.
Chelsea's decision to sell Cech to Arsenal last year has been questioned by many but we know exactly how the situation unfolded. They understandably wanted to put their faith in Courtois, who is a decade younger and (at least) equally as talented. He has been poor by his standards since returning from a knee injury earlier this season, but remains exceptional.
Courtois' height -- 1.99m or six-feet-five-inches -- is unusual even by goalkeeping standards, but in addition to being an excellent shot-stopper he's also the best of these goalkeepers in one-on-one situations.
The key is the timing of the Belgian's dart forward: he always starts his sprint just as the striker takes a touch and forces his opponent to rush the shot. Courtois usually smothers the effort because of his positioning rather than his height and a late stop from Kevin Mirallas in Saturday's 3-3 draw against Everton was a good example of this.
De Gea, meanwhile, is the best pure shot-stopper in the league. His reactions are incredible and his agility is equally as impressive. His save from Jose Fonte's point-blank header in a 3-2 win at Southampton in September is probably the best of the season so far, but also sort of thing we've come to expect.
The Spaniard has also improved his weaknesses, particularly the inability to cope with crosses that was evident in his first season at United, but then goalkeepers are probably judged too much according to their weaknesses anyway.
Lloris is another type of goalkeeper entirely. By far the shortest on this list at 1.88m (six-feet-two-inches), the Tottenham man compensates for his relative lack of height by playing a much more proactive role.
This was most noticeable under Andre Villas-Boas, as Lloris regularly took up a position seven or eight yards ahead of where you would expect a goalkeeper to be and launched himself forward when the opposition hit a pass over the top. Headed clearances outside his own area weren't uncommon, but the Frenchman very rarely made errors.
Things have calmed down since Mauricio Pochettino took over as manager, although Lloris remains the best of these goalkeepers for playing behind the high defensive line favoured by his coach.
Finally, there is Hart. After a noticeable dip in form a couple of seasons ago, he is now back at the top of his game and has no obvious weaknesses. One of his traits sees him rely more upon physicality and intimidation than the others.
It's difficult to imagine Cech or De Gea, for example, using the approach Hart opted for when facing a Scott Sinclair penalty four years ago, repeatedly yelling "Don't wait for me [to move]!" to put his opponent off, before producing a fine save to his right.
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The outstanding Butland's first Premier League season has been remarkable, although it takes consistency over a longer period before he can be considered one of the best around. Besides, as he observed himself when interviewed alongside Cech on Sunday, the true mark of an outstanding goalkeeper is making a crucial save having had little to do previously in a game.
"What stood out for me, in the first half [Cech] had no saves to make but in the second half when we did turn on the pressure he was there when they needed him," Butland said. "That is what a good 'keeper is all about. It is not just the save, but it is about relieving the pressure and making them feel comfortable in front of you."
Butland has made 81 saves this season -- the most in the league -- but being constantly involved is, in a way, much easier.
The difference between these goalkeepers and the rest is significant and two traditionally big clubs without a top goalkeeper, Liverpool and Everton, have clearly lost points directly because of Simon Mignolet and Tim Howard's respective poor form this season. Both have particularly struggled to cope with crosses and their sides have consequently conceded far too many set-piece goals.
In part, the drop-off is partly because major clubs often now have top-class goalkeepers as mere back-ups. David Ospina (Arsenal), Asmir Begovic (Chelsea), Willy Caballero (Man City), Victor Valdes (Man United) and Michel Vorm (Tottenham) would probably all start for either of the Merseyside clubs, but have instead accepted reserve roles elsewhere. This stockpiling is understandable but frustrating: If the best goalkeepers were spread evenly across the league, the standard would be truly exceptional.
The entertainment value of the Premier League is often expressed by referring to the goals-per-game ratio and, after five consecutive seasons of it hovering around the 2.8 mark, it's down to 2.6 this season and last. While this might be evidence of a more defensive style of football, it's also surely also about fine goalkeeping.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.