*With the 2018-2019 European club seasons having come to a close, Between the Sticks is honouring the best goalkeepers from the top five European leagues (Bundesliga, La Liga, Ligue 1, Premier League, and Serie A). Bronze, Silver, and Gold Gloves will be awarded to the top three goalkeepers from each league. You can access the pieces on the other winners by clicking on the embedded hyperlinks.*
Bronze: Wojciech Szczęsny
Games played: 28
Clean sheets: 11
Saves made: 72
Save percentage: 66.7%
Goals allowed: 20
This is an unpopular choice, and a strong case can be made against Wojciech Szczęsny. After all, AC Milan’s Gianluigi Donnarumma, who (*SPOILER ALERT*) didn’t make my list, showed great maturity this season by swallowing the ego he built from his last contract extension, taking pressure head-on, and improving his distribution and footwork.
But while I think Donnarumma deserves a shout, I’ve given the edge to Szczęsny.
From a statistical standpoint, Szczęsny and Donnarumma are almost equal. Although Donnarumma appeared in eight more Serie A matches than Szczęsny last season (36 vs. 28), the two ‘keepers have kept the same number of clean sheets (11), boast very similar save percentages (66.7% for Szczęsny vs. 67.7% for Donnarumma), and have kept saves-made-per-game rates that are almost equal to one another (2.6 for Szczęsny vs. 2.9). The only massive difference comes in goals-conceded-per game; Szczęsny conceded 20 goals in 28 appearances (0.71 goals-allowed-per-game), while Donnarumma allowed 31 goals in 36 appearances (0.86 goals-allowed-per-game).
Statistics aren’t everything though, and they do not factor in important things such as shot quality. Ultimately, I didn’t choose Szczęsny because of his numbers; I chose him because of who he used to be and who he was replacing.
When Gianluigi Buffon said goodbye to Juventus in 2018, all eyes turned to Wojciech Szczęsny. The 2018-19 season was going to be Juve’s first in 17 seasons without their iconic goalkeeper, and Szczęsny’s previous performances with Arsenal left some viewers convinced that he wouldn’t be up for the role. It didn’t matter that Szczęsny’s last Arsenal appearance came in 2015, or that Szczęsny had developed into one of Italy’s top goalkeepers while at AS Roma. Szczęsny still had his doubters.
After another successful season in Italy, just how many of those doubters are left?
In his first full season as Juve’s number one, Szczęsny erased all doubt about his worth. His consistency and reliability intimidated the newly-acquired Mattia Perin, once dubbed the “next Buffon”, into accepting a back-up role at the club, and it’s his performances (plus the return of Buffon) which has led to Perin looking for a move away from Turin.
Through his passionate performances, Szczęsny won the hearts of Juventus’ faithful, and for overcoming the suspicion of haters and the pressure of replacing a goalkeeping gargantuan like Buffon, Szczęsny has solidified his spot among the Serie A’s top goalkeepers.
Silver: Samir Handanović
Games played: 38
Clean sheets: 17
Saves made: 103
Save percentage: 67.8%
Goals allowed: 33
Why don’t people include Samir Handanović in top-class goalkeeper talks?
Is it because he used to represent Slovenia, a country that never received much international attention?
Is it because he plays for the Inter Milan of the 2010s, a team that failed to emulate even a smudge of the success their ancestors achieved?
Is it because some of the club’s own fans look for things to blame him for?
Whatever the reason, it’s clear from yet another fantastic season that Handanović is unfazed by the lack of praise.
For the second season in a row, Handanović started in all 38 of Inter Milan’s Serie A matches. He kept a league-leading 17 clean sheets in those games; nearly a clean sheet every other game. That feat tied his personal bests from the 2011-12 and 2017-18 seasons, and tied the Inter Milan club record. Handanović posted a 0.87 goals-against-average; the second-lowest among Serie A goalkeepers with 30 or more appearances. He also kept a save percentage of 67.8%, despite the fact that he faced over 150 shots. His save percentage edged out those kept by Wojciech Szczęsny (66.7%), Salvatore Sirigu (66.9%), and Gianluigi Donnarumma (67.7%).
Of the 103 saves Samir Handanović made last season, the three most important ones came on the final matchday of the season. On May 26, Inter Milan hosted Empoli at the San Siro. The Black and Blues came into the match involved in a very tight Champions League race, and a win would be the most desired outcome if they were to clinch a UCL spot. They needed a hero to step up for them; someone to play the biggest game of their life.
Fortunately, they had captain Handanović between the sticks.
From a statistical standpoint, the 35-year-old Slovenian may have have been overshadowed by his opposite number Bartłomiej Drągowski, who made 12 saves as opposed to Handanović’s three. But those three stops were worth the world to Inter Milan.
When Francesco Caputo found space in the box in the 31st minute, Handanović cut down the angle and absorbed a shot very close to his face. When Diego Farias was played through on goal in the 70th minute, Handanović timed his approach perfectly, kept his body up just enough so that he wouldn’t be rounded, and swiped the ball off the Brazilian’s feet. And when Salih Uçan avoided a defender and neared the six-yard box in the 91st minute, Handanović sped off of his line, spread himself like peanut butter, and secured Inter Milan’s win and UCL qualification with a save worthy of a kiss.
Handanović’s heroics didn’t go unnoticed; he was awarded the Lega Serie A Goalkeeper of the Year award, becoming the first ever recipient of that specific honour. It was the first time in over half a decade that he was recognized as the league’s best goalkeeper for a season; a nice reminder that, despite the criticism, there are people out there that appreciate his performances.
Gold: Salvatore Sirigu
Games played: 36
Clean sheets: 14
Saves made: 111
Save percentage: 66.9%
Goals allowed: 35
When Kevin Trapp overtook Salvatore Sirigu as Paris Saint-Germain’s starting goalkeeper during the 2015-16 season, it looked as though the latter’s career as a goalkeeper at a big club was all but over.
Although Sirigu was only 28-years-old at the time (far from old for a goalkeeper), he wasn’t receiving much attention. Trapp’s emergence as the club’s number one goalkeeper in Ligue 1 and the UEFA Champions League limited Sirigu to domestic cup appearances. He only appeared in 12 matches in 2015-16; his lowest total since 2006-07. Short loan stints at Sevilla and Osasuna the following season proved fruitless, and by the end of the 2016-17 season, Sirigu was shipped to Torino via a free transfer.
Moving to Turin proved to be a blessing in disguise for Sirigu. In his first season, Sirigu showed why he was recognized as Ligue 1’s Goalkeeper of the Year just a few years before. He appeared in 37 matches during the 2017-18 Serie A season — the most league games he’s participated in since 2011-12 — and he kept 10 clean sheets. He averaged 3.05 saves per game, and his overall play helped il Toro concede 20 less goals than they did the season prior.
It was in his second season where Salvatore Sirigu really shined, though. The 32-year-old goalkeeper appeared in one less match, but he saw an improvement in his numbers. The Italian kept 14 clean sheets last season, a tally that was bested only by Inter Milan’s Samir Handanović. He turned aside 111 shots — the most by a starting goalkeeper (30+ appearances) for a top 10 club — and his 35 goals conceded were the lowest by a goalkeeper who made 30 or more appearances.
Sirigu’s shining moment of the 2018-19 season came during a stretch between January 27 and March 3. Through six games with Torino, Sirigu kept six clean sheets. He shut out the likes of Inter Milan, Napoli, and Atalanta, and he made 22 total saves during that stretch. These included Man of the Match performances vs. Udinese and Napoli, the former against whom he stopped a penalty. At the end of the streak, he surpassed Luciana Castellani’s club record of consecutive minutes without conceding a goal, and set the Torino record with 599 consecutive minutes (added time not included).
Sirigu’s consistency saw Torino challenge and secure a non-automatic European spot. He guided il Toro to a seventh place finish; their highest since the 2013-14 season. They also conceded nine less goals than they did the season prior (37 vs. 46 in 2017-18), and they were the only team outside of the top five to have conceded less than 40 goals.
Sirigu may not be the sexiest name on the market, but the 32-year-old has once again earned the right to be included in the Serie A’s “best goalkeeper” conversation.