Thibaut Courtois is equally worthy of Manuel Neuer's Ballon d'Or honour
Goalkeepers rarely receive significant attention in terms of major individual awards, partly because of obvious difficulties comparing them to outfielders.
This, however, has been a good week for goalkeepers. Manuel Neuer was named on the three-man list for the Ballon d'Or alongside usual suspects Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Many would love to see Neuer triumph, partly because he won the World Cup, partly because he's a goalkeeper and partly because it would, frankly, make a nice change.
The reality, however, is that Neuer might not even be the best goalkeeper in the world. Chelsea's Thiabaut Courtois could be even better.
The peculiar thing about Neuer's nomination, of course, is that he's not being praised for his pure goalkeeping ability, and it's taken a goalkeeper to practically reinvent his position by showcasing outfield skills to be considered for the Ballon d'Or.
Neuer has been nominated primarily for his sweeping, in particular during Germany's narrow 2-1 victory over Algeria in the World Cup second round, where he was more of a sweeper than a keeper. His starting position was extremely high, and he took 19 touches outside the box. Usually, goalkeepers playing behind a high defensive line are expected to make interceptions, but Neuer was actually making tackles, such was his confidence in judging these situations to perfection.
At this point, it's worth outlining the fact that Neuer isn't the first goalkeeper to play in this manner. An 11th outfielder was Johan Cruyff's model and has been replicated by a variety of South American goalkeepers, such as Rene Higuita, who famously attempted to become an 11th outfielder in the 1990 World Cup with disastrous consequences.
With Neuer, it feels different, simply because he's such an intelligent player, and also a superb goalkeeper in the traditional sense. It's clever rather than crazy.
Compared to Neuer, Courtois is much calmer, more reserved. In fact, he's at the complete opposite end of the goalkeeping spectrum, but in his own way, he's equally as effective.
What is so good about Courtois? Well, for a start, he's absolutely huge. Most goalkeepers are big, but at 1.99 metres (6-foot-6) the Chelsea man towers over his rivals. He has six, seven and 11 centimetres over Neuer, David de Gea and Hugo Lloris, respectively, and if this seems a peculiar place to start, remember that goalkeeping is a profession in which "fingertip saves" are commonplace. Never mind the fingertips; Courtois' advantage over his major rivals is essentially equivalent to extra fingers.
Courtois is "tall" rather than "big," however. There's a difference: Edwin van der Sar was tall; his successor at Juventus, Gigi Buffon, is big, and it's no surprise that Courtois admires the Dutchman. "I'd watch Edwin van der Sar, and try and steal things with my eyes from how he played," he told the Guardian earlier this season. "Because he wasn't all muscles and was a similar build to me."
This extra height helps in two major situations: when it comes to shot-stopping, and taking crosses. Shot-stopping is a goalkeeper's bread and butter, although for the top teams, sometimes there's only one save per game to make. Nevertheless, Courtois has stupendous reactions, to the extent that "Thibuating," an internet meme involving outstretched, diving poses, went viral last year. It was perfect for the Instagram generation, but Courtois isn't one to make saves look spectacular for the cameras.
The latter quality, collecting crosses, has become underrated in recent years, because so many big, fashionable teams play with a high defensive line, and goalkeepers are therefore dealing with one-on-ones rather than a succession of crosses. When at Atletico, who play a much deeper defensive line than the likes of Barcelona or Bayern, Courtois' command of his box was exceptional. It's reminiscent of Peter Bonetti, one of the most famous goalkeepers in Chelsea's history, who helped popularise the art of coming to claim crosses in the 1960s and 1970s, at least in England. Bonetti, though, was only 1.77 metres (5-foot-10).
In this respect, Courtois is proactive, just not in the Neuer sense. "I think a goalkeeper has to participate at the back of the defence and come off the line to play," he said in his first interview for Chelsea TV earlier this year. "If you play away from the defence [on the goal line] then the opposition players want to cross the ball. If they see a goalkeeper close to the defenders they don't have the space to cross the ball into, or if they play a high ball forward and they see the keeper coming, the next ball they have to play far away from the goal so there is less danger."
Courtois is equally capable of saving in one-on-one situations. "Now here at Chelsea, it is really important [to come forward from the goal line] because the defence play higher [up the pitch] than Atletico," Courtois says. "There, the defence was lower and I didn't have to come out that much."
The goalkeeping textbook should point to Courtois when it comes to one-on-ones, as the Belgian has helped to redefine what it means for a goalkeeper to be "quick off his line."
"Quick off his line" is often interpreted as a goalkeeper starting his charge towards the goalkeeper immediately, as soon as it becomes apparent the striker is clean through. But how often do you see goalkeepers overcommit, be rounded by the striker or forced to concede a penalty and collect a red card? Some goalkeepers make the same error repeatedly.
Courtois is quick off his line, but he's quick off his line in a different way. For Courtois, "quick" refers to the sprint forward itself, rather than his reaction to the situation. Courtois' genius is that he moves as soon as the striker makes a decisive touch, for he knows strikers don't generally want to take multiple touches in those situations -- they want to knock the ball ahead of themselves, then shoot. Courtois lingers in his goal slightly, encourages the striker to take a heavy touch -- and as soon as that first touch comes, he pounces and sprints quickly forward.
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A fine example was in the 2-0 victory over Leicester, Courtois' first home Premier League match. At 0-0 at the start of the second half, Courtois made an excellent one-on-one save from David Nugent that epitomised his style in those situations: He didn't spring forward immediately, but instead waited deep, then darted forward at Nugent's penultimate touch, suddenly narrowing the angle and forcing a quick shot.
Time and time again, throughout his Atletico and Chelsea spells, it seems like strikers overhit their touch against Courtois. Eventually, like Pippo Inzaghi scoring so many "lucky" goals, you realise it's no coincidence, and that Courtois is simply supreme at one-on-ones. Neuer would be sweeping higher up, Courtois starts much deeper, but both are brilliant and worthy of comparison to the world-class attackers they repeatedly deny.
Amongst the comparisons to Neuer, it's another German goalkeeper that Courtois should be determined to emulate; Jens Lehmann was an "invincible" for Arsenal in 2003-04. Courtois is already performing at a higher level than Lehmann, and if he continues the fine form he's demonstrated so far this season, he and Chelsea have every chance of remaining unbeaten.