Welcome to the 2019-20 season!
With the Trophée des Champions, DFL-Supercup, and Community Shield all having kicked off this weekend, the new season of European football is officially underway.
This season promises to provide viewers with a healthy dose of goalkeeper stories to follow. From David de Gea and Alban Lafont’s chances at bouncing back from disappointing seasons to the confusing futures of Keylor Navas and Mattia Perin, there’s an exciting goalkeeper chronicle to follow for every fan of every European league.
But, I believe some of the best goalkeeper stories are yet to come.
To celebrate the new season and the multiple storylines that could come out of it, here are four bold, brazen goalkeeper predictions for the 2019-20 season.
Jan Oblak will not win the Zamora Trophy.
Jan Oblak has had a monopoly on the Zamora Trophy since assuming Atletico Madrid starting duties in 2015. The award, which is given to the goalkeeper with the lowest goals-to-game ratio in La Liga, has had the Slovenian’s name on it for four consecutive seasons between 2015 and 2019.
In 2015-16 — Oblak’s first season as Atletico’s number one goalkeeper — the Slovenian conceded just 18 goals in 38 matches, giving him an average of less than a goal conceded every two games. That mark matched a record set by Deportivo’s Francisco Liaño in 1993-94. In 2016-17, Oblak conceded 21 goals in 29 matches; an average of 0.72 goals conceded per match. In 2017-18, he conceded 22 goals in 37 games; just one more goal in 8 more appearances. And in 2018-19 — the most recent season — Oblak conceded 27 goals in 37 games, giving him an average goals-to-game ratio of 0.73. That average is nearly 0.2 goals less than the next best goalkeeper, Barcelona’s Marc-André ter Stegen.
Only two goalkeepers — Antoni Ramallets and Victor Valdés — have ever won five Zamora Trophies, and neither goalkeeper ever won it five times in a row. With Oblak still in the prime of his career, what’s to stop him from achieving el quinto?
Why the prediction will come true
There’s a cliché in football that a goalkeeper is only as good as their defenders, and while I think that statement is bogus for the most part, the quality of a goalkeeper’s defenders will have some impact on a goalkeeper’s statistics, particularly with shots faced. The better the defenders, the less shots a goalkeeper is likely to face, and vice versa.
With that in mind, Atletico’s defensive line has taken a hit in the summer transfer window. This summer alone, the Rojiblancos have had to say goodbye to their influential captain Diego Godín, as well as Filipe Luís, Juanfran, and Lucas Hernandez. Three of those four players appeared in 30 or more matches last season (Lucas Hernandez missed most of last season due to various injuries), and they’ve all made 40 or more appearances in a season at least once within the last four seasons.
Granted, Atleti have shopped for replacements. They signed Brazilian centre back Felipe — who’s coming off of a 53-appearance season — from Porto, 21-year-old left back Renan Lodi from Athletico Paranaense, and 28-year-old right back Kieran Trippier from 2019 UEFA Champions League finalists Tottenham. 2018 World Cup finalist Šime Vrsaljko is also back, although he won’t be available until November due to knee surgery.
All of these reinforcements are (for the most part) younger than those defenders Atleti let go; the average age of the four new arrivals is 26.5 years, as opposed to the average age of 30.75 years for the departures. With modern, top-level football favouring youth over experience, these additions should benefit Atletico Madrid.
Still, Godín, Filipe Luís, Juanfran, and Hernandez are some critical players the club has had to part ways with. Whether reinforcements were brought in or not, their departures will not be easy pills to swallow. As world-class as Jan Oblak is, when you lose some of the defenders that Atleti lost this summer, your job as a goalkeeper becomes a little bit tougher.
It’s not as though Oblak’s shots faced statistics haven’t been rising either. In the 2016-17 season, Oblak faced 84 shots in La Liga. A season later, he faced 131 shots in the league, albeit in seven more appearances. A season after that, Oblak faced 132 shots in La Liga.
Case in point, the amount of shots Oblak has faced in La Liga has increased in each of his last two seasons, and with the departures of some well-respected Atleti defenders, it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that those numbers will increase again this season. And if the numbers increase, it’s possible that the goals allowed tally will also increase.
Given that only five goals separated Oblak from last season’s Zamora Trophy runner-up Marc-André ter Stegen, those extra shots could result in the 26-year-old losing out on the award for the first time in his career.
Alisson Becker will win the 2019 Ballon d’Or.
Alisson Becker is coming off of one of the most accomplished seasons we’ve ever seen from a European goalkeeper.
After securing a then-record-breaking €72.5 million move from AS Roma to Liverpool in the summer of 2018, the Brazilian goalkeeper showed Anfield and the world why he’s one of football’s elite ‘keepers. He played a key role in Liverpool’s 97-point season; the greatest ever season by a Premier League runner-up. He also backstopped the Reds to their sixth Champions League title, delivering match-winning performances against Barcelona in the semi-finals and against Tottenham in the final. A month later, Alisson was a champion again when Brazil won the Copa América. Along the way, he picked up the Golden Glove award in all three competitions, becoming the first goalkeeper in football history to win three Golden Gloves in one season.
Given all that he’s accomplished, could Alisson become the first goalkeeper in over 55 years to win the Ballon d’Or?
Why the prediction will come true
The cynics among us will point to the fact that goalkeepers, as important as they are, very rarely win the Ballon d’Or. After all, only one goalkeeper has ever won the Ballon d’Or (Lev Yashin in 1963), and only five other ‘keepers have even managed a top three finish since.
Nonetheless, it’s hard to think of a goalkeeper who has had as successful of a season as Alisson Becker just had with Liverpool and Brazil, at least in the 21st century.
At the club level, Alisson’s resume is complete with Europe’s elite competition, the Champions league. Considering the fact that he was arguably Liverpool’s MVP of the competition — they would not be European champions without his save vs. Napoli in the group stage, his positional stop vs. Bayern Munich in the round of 16, his multiple saves in Liverpool’s second leg comeback vs. Barcelona, or his eight-save performance vs. Tottenham in the final — the Champions League will be a key argument in his case.
Furthermore, unlike some Ballon d’Or favourites such as Lionel Messi and Virgil van Dijk, Alisson won silverware at the international level. He backstopped Brazil to their first Copa América in over a decade. He appeared in all six of Brazil’s matches, keeping fellow Premier League ‘keeper Ederson Moraes on the bench. He kept five clean sheets and didn’t concede a single goal from open play; a testament to his reliable, proven goalkeeping.
Alisson’s case isn’t made by just trophies, though. What makes Alisson a worthy candidate for the 2019 Ballon d’Or is the playing style which has made Liverpool such a difficult opponent to play against. The Reds love to play a high defensive line, and the goalkeeper is often left exposed to aerial passes and through balls because of that. But Alisson, being the sweeper ‘keeper that he is, is comfortable acting as an extra defender and clearing those threatening deliveries. It’s why he finished in the top three in Premier League sweeper clearances last season.
Alisson’s contribution also comes offensively. Coach Jürgen Klopp wants his players to play a quick, counter-attacking style, so he encourages Alisson to deliver long passes to the Reds’ speedy attackers in order to exploit the defensive lines of opposing defenders. This focus on Alisson being the play-making goalkeeper — the quarterback of the team — led to the Brazilian finishing in the Premier League’s top five in passes and touches by a goalkeeper, with over 1,000 recorded for each. These include the most accurate short passes in the league.
Of course, with Alisson being a goalkeeper, the odds are still stacked against him. But given his accomplishments, I wouldn’t shy away from putting money on an Alisson Ballon d’Or win.
Jasper Cillessen will finish the season as Valencia’s back-up goalkeeper.
It was no secret that Jasper Cillessen wanted to depart Barcelona this summer. Following three seasons as Marc-André ter Stegen’s back-up, the Dutch goalkeeper decided that now was the time to search for greener pastures. On April 28, Cillessen told Ziggo Sport that he would like to move to a new club.
Two months later, he got his wish.
On June 25, Cillessen signed a four-year deal with Valencia. The move cost Valencia €35 million, but it was part of a larger deal that saw Neto leave the Mestalla-based club for Barcelona two days later. It was an awkward way to conduct a swap deal, although it was done as such so that Valencia could comply with Financial Fair Play rules.
With the move now official, Cillessen achieves his desire at being a team’s number one goalkeeper. But given his lack of appearances over the past three years, what’s the chance that he still holds Valencia’s starting spot by the end of the season?
Why the prediction will come true
The most glaring numbers which point towards Jasper Cillessen not cutting it as Valencia’s starter are his appearances.
From 2016 to 2019, the 30-year-old made just 32 appearances for Barcelona. These include just five appearances in La Liga, with his 2018-19 total of three league appearances being his career high. Granted, most of his starts were limited to the Copa Del Rey; a cup competition which he won twice. Nonetheless, the most matches he’s ever appeared in in that competition is nine; the maximum number of appearances he could’ve made in the tournament in one season.
Granted, Cillessen was an elite back-up ‘keeper. His performances in the Copa Del Rey gave him a significant following among Culers and even earned him some shouts to start over Marc-André ter Stegen.
But, there’s a significant difference between being a back-up goalkeeper and putting in good performances at a sporadic rate and being a starting goalkeeper and performing at a high level on a weekly basis. Playing ~10 games a season does not adequately prepare a goalkeeper for 30-/40-game seasons, and there’s a possibility that Cillessen, at a demanding club like Valencia, fails to stretch his couple of good games into a full season of play.
What about his Ajax stint, though? After all, prior to joining Barcelona, he was the Amsterdam-based club’s number one goalkeeper for three years. He played in 30 or more games in each of those three seasons, and he was recognized as the Ajax Player of the Year twice, in 2015 and 2016. That’s surely evidence enough of Cillessen’s capabilities as a number one goalkeeper?
The problem is that his Ajax stint happened three years ago, which is a considerable amount of time away from now. A lot can change over a three-year period, and given that Cillessen arguably spent most of his prime years (27 to 30-years-old) at Barcelona, I think saying that Valencia are not getting the same Cillessen that won Ajax’s Player of the Year award in 2016 is a credible statement.
Granted, Neto is no longer at Valencia, so Cillessen’s competition for the starting spot is slim. But I wouldn’t discount Jaume Doménech. He played in every Copa Del Game during the 2018-19 season, besting Cillessen in the final. Jaume is a long-time servant of Valencia — he’s been involved in the club’s system since 2013 — so there is a loyalty factor as well. Given the uncertainty surrounding Cillessen’s chances at being a number one goalkeeper, Jaume will likely be motivated to make the starting spot his own.
There’s no denying Cillessen’s place as one of the top back-up goalkeepers in football. But will it translate into success as a number one? We’ll find out by the end of the season.
Alexander Nübel will sign a contract extension with Schalke.
Heading into the 2019-20 season, the hottest goalkeeper prospect on the market is undoubtedly Schalke’s Alexander Nübel.
The 22-year-old German has been the talk of the Bundesliga since taking over starting duties from Schalke icon Ralf Fährmann last season. Nübel made 22 appearances, most of which came in the second half of the 2018-19 season. Despite his age, Nübel has earned praise for his maturity, and his qualities were on display in key performances vs. the likes of Hannover 96, 1. FC Nürnberg, and VfB Stuttgart.
His youth, coupled with his composure in goal, has led to Nübel being dubbed the “next Manuel Neuer” by the media. It has also led to intense transfer links to RB Leipzig, Borussia Dortmund, and even Bayern Munich.
With his contract expiring in the summer of 2020, are Schalke destined to watch Nübel — one of the top German prospects on the market — leave for free?
Why the prediction will come true
It’s one thing for a club to let one of their best prospects see out their deal and enter free agency. It’s another thing for a club to let their prospect potentially walk to a historic rival for free.
Given the interest of Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich, it’s hard to believe that Schalke, a club with a history of hatred for those sides, would allow them to court Alexander Nübel without putting up a fight. At the very least, I’m sure Schalke would like to make some money off of Nübel.
If that’s the case, surely Schalke will do everything they can to sign Nübel to a contract extension, even if it’s a brief one. They’ve already reportedly offered him a three-year deal with an exit clause which would take effect in 2021.
Clearly, the possibility of seeing Bayern Munich or Revierderby rivals Borussia Dortmund get their hands on Nübel for the cost of nothing is a legitimate fear for the Gelsenkirchen-based side.
Given what clubs are paying for young goalkeepers these days, Schalke would be fools to let Nübel walk away for free. For reference, the five most expensive goalkeepers in football history — Kepa Arrizabalaga, Alisson Becker, Gianluigi Buffon, Ederson Moraes, and Jordan Pickford — were all signed when they were 25-years-old or younger. Three of them were transferred at the age of 23; the same age Nübel will be by the end of his current deal.
Selling young goalkeepers for high prices is a lucrative business these days, and even Schalke have dipped their toes into it previously. When Bayern Munich courted Manuel Neuer in 2011, they paid Schalke, his parent club at the time, a fee of just over $34 million. The fee made him the third most expensive goalkeeper in football history at the time. And Neuer’s age at the time of the move? 25.
Given the money they could make from selling Nübel as opposed to letting him see out his current contract, why wouldn’t Schalke try to extend his deal?
Of course, if a player refuses to renew his contract, there’s very little a team can do otherwise. But I think Schalke’s desperation levels are rising. The 22-year-old was named club captain for the 2019-20 season; a move which even their own fans have called “an act of desperation to keep him.”
This decision, coupled with Ralf Fährmann’s loan to Norwich City, is proof that Schalke are going all-in in on making Nübel happy enough to extend with the club. But is it all enough?
Keep in mind that a contract extension does not prevent Nübel from joining another team, nor am I arguing that it will. What an extension does prevent is a total loss on Schalke’s end, though. By extending Nübel’s contract, Schalke can now demand a substantial fee for their talented prospect, and they can have some matter of control over what they get in return.
The 2019-20 season is “all or nothing” time for Schalke and their bid to extend Nübel’s deal, and while I don’t think he’ll remain with the Gelsenkirchen-based club, the possibility of Schalke re-signing Nübel to a new contract still has some potential.