We’re under a week away from the turn of the decade, and for goalkeeper enthusiasts, the 2020s could be one of the best we’ve seen from an elite goalkeeping perspective.
For starters, most of the world’s top goalkeepers today — Marc-André ter Stegen, Jan Oblak, Alisson Becker, Ederson, and David de Gea — are on the right side of 30, with some of them as young as 26 years old. Given that goalkeepers tend to experience longer careers than their teammates, it’s fair to assume that the aforementioned goalkeepers could still be playing (and maybe even dominating) the sport by the turn of the 2030s.
Furthermore, there are several young goalkeepers just waiting to break out. Consider the likes of 23-year-old Alexander Nübel, 20-year-old Gianluigi Donnarumma, 22-year-old Alex Meret, and 20-year-old Andriy Lunin (who have all experienced significant periods of top-flight football), as well as 19-year-old Christian Früchtl, 19-year-old Alessandro Plizzari, and 20-year-old Iñaki Peña (who are currently representing reserve teams or lower division clubs). And that’s not even taking into account the talents representing non-European clubs, such as 21-year-old Wuilker Faríñez.
Case in point, we’ve got a lot to look forward to in the 2020s.
But with that said, the 2010s weren’t too shabby for goalkeepers either. This decade saw the perfection of the sweeper ‘keeper style of play, in which a goalkeeper takes on the role of a sweeper and breaks up offensive plays (intercepting long passes, clearing loose balls before an attacker can get to it, etc.) while also starting their team’s own attacks. This style was roughly introduced by Victor Valdés, improved upon and made mainstream by Manuel Neuer, and since adopted by several later ‘keepers.
We also saw the emergence of several ball-playing goalkeepers; goalkeepers who were so comfortable with handling the ball that they’d open themselves up to receiving passes and calmly deliver the ball (both short and long) to open teammates. Gone are the days of goalkeepers simply booting the ball downfield when faced with even an ounce of pressure. Now, teams such as FC Barcelona, Manchester City, and Liverpool expect their goalkeepers to be as good at handling the ball and delivering accurate passes as the rest of the team.
This decade also featured some firsts for goalkeepers. For example, two different goalkeepers (Iker Casillas and Hugo Lloris) captained their countries to FIFA World Cup titles in the same decade for the first time ever. This decade also saw the first (and only) goalkeeper to win the FIFA World Player of the Year award (Nadine Angerer in 2013). And had it not been for Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s era-long dominance of the accolade, we likely would’ve seen Manuel Neuer win the Ballon d’Or in 2014 (which would’ve made him the first goalkeeper to win the award in over 50 years).
Goalkeeping has evolved a lot in this decade, probably more than any other position, and much of its growth has to do with the fantastic, era-defining ‘keepers that graced the 2010s.
To celebrate these icons and goalkeeping as a whole, let’s look back at some of those male goalkeepers (10, to be specific) who caught our attention throughout the 2010s. These are goalkeepers who found success (be it statistically or through silverware), who displayed a level of consistency throughout the decade, and who were just a joy to watch between the sticks.
Hugo Lloris: Is he susceptible to making mistakes? Yes, but Lloris also has an uncanny ability to make big saves at key moments. His performances vs. Uruguay and Belgium set France up for their 2018 World Cup victory, & his key stops vs. Manchester City and Ajax inspired Tottenham to the 2019 Champions League Final.
Joe Hart: He may be Burnley’s reserve goalkeeper today, but Hart was legitimately considered to be one of England’s top ‘keepers between 2011 and 2016. The former Manchester City number one is a two-time Premier League champion and the joint-record holder for most Premier League Golden Glove wins (4, tied with Petr Čech).
Kasper Schmeichel: The son of iconic Premier League goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel, the younger Kasper was one of the heroes behind Leicester City’s improbable 2015-16 Premier League championship win. Internationally, he’s also been one of Denmark’s top performers. Crazy to think that exactly a decade ago, Schmeichel was playing in England’s fourth division.
Víctor Valdés: Often overlooked when the great FC Barcelona sides of the early 2010s are being discussed, Valdés was an undoubtedly integral part of their success. His confidence on the ball allowed them to play their excellent tiki-taka style, and his trophy cabinet — which includes three Spanish league titles — proves his worth.
10. Thibaut Courtois (Multiple clubs, Belgium, 2010 – PRESENT)
Thibaut Courtois’ recent controversies — going AWOL to force a move away from Chelsea, the multiple mistakes he made during the 2018-19 season, etc. — are all most people think of when the Belgian is brought up. But if you look past these recent events, you’ll find that Courtois has actually been a very solid goalkeeper for the better part of the decade.
After backstopping Genk to the 2010-11 Belgian league title (in his debut professional season, no less), Courtois joined Chelsea on a five-year deal. He was immediately loaned to Atletico Madrid, with whom he won two continental titles, a Champions League runners-up medal, a Copa del Rey, and a Spanish league title (Atleti’s first since 1996).
After three seasons, Courtois returned to Chelsea in 2014 as a two-time Zamora Trophy winner — the award’s first non-Spanish European recipient in 60 years — and a member of UEFA’s Champions League Team of the Season for 2013-14.
Courtois won the Premier League in his debut season in England, and in 2016-17, after backstopping Chelsea to their second Premier League title in three seasons, he was awarded the Premier League’s Golden Glove award for keeping the most clean sheets.
2018 was by far Courtois’ peak year, though. After keeping a clean sheet in the final of that year’s FA Cup, he backstopped Belgium to a third-place finish in the FIFA World Cup a few months later. It’s the highest ranking Belgium ever achieved in the tournament, and for the key role he played in the achievement, Courtois was awarded the FIFA World Cup Golden Glove as the competition’s top goalkeeper. Months later, FIFA recognized him again for his efforts, this time with the inaugural The Best FIFA Goalkeeper award.
Now representing Real Madrid, Courtois is closing the decade off by making a strong case for himself as the 2019-20 Spanish league’s top goalkeeper.
Top moment: Nine saves vs. Brazil, 2018 World Cup quarter-finals.
Brazil were arguably the better side when they met Belgium in the quarter-final of the 2018 FIFA World Cup; they peppered 10 shots on the Red Devils goal. Unfortunately for the five-time champions, only one of those attempts found its way past Belgium’s Thibaut Courtois.
The then-25-year-old turned aside nine Brazilian attempts in that match, capping everything off with a stunning top-hand save on an effort from Neymar in the game’s dying moments. Belgium won 2-1 as a result of Courtois’ performance, and they’d go on to finish third in the overall standings — their best-ever finish in a World Cup.
9. Iker Casillas (Real Madrid / Porto, Spain, 2010 – 2019)
Arguably the 2000s’ best goalkeeper, Casillas continued his spectacular play in the first quarter of the 2010s. He captained Spain to their first World Cup title in 2010, keeping five clean sheets in the process and earning Golden Glove honours. Two summers later, he backstopped Spain to a successful defence of their 2008 European Championship by keeping a clean sheet in the 2012 final. In doing so, Casillas became the first player in Spanish national team history to win 100 games, and his clean sheet streak of 510 minutes broke Dino Zoff’s record in European Championship play.
At the club level, Casillas captained Real Madrid to a historic 2011-12 league championship, in which they became the first side in Spanish league history to record 100 points in a season. Two years later, he led Los Blancos to an iconic UEFA Champions League title win over derby rivals Atletico Madrid. He conceded just once in 120 minutes in the final as Real Madrid became the first club ever to win 10 Champions League titles.
Unsurprisingly, Casillas was recognized by the IFFHS as the World’s Best Goalkeeper three times in a row between 2010 and 2012.
Unfortunately, Casillas’ decade will most likely be remembered for the controversy he was involved in. Whether it was his managerial spats with José Mourinho and Vicente del Bosque, the various times Real Madrid and Porto benched him, the accusations of him leaking information to the press (through his journalist girlfriend), or just his inconsistent performances which made some fans think of him as more of a liability than a reliability (take the 2014 World Cup, for example), Casillas never looked like his vintage self post-2012.
Still, given his handsome trophy cabinet and the collection of records he broke in the 2010s, it would be ridiculous of any list like this one to exclude Casillas from the top 10.
Top moment: Toe-save vs. Arjen Robben, 2010 FIFA World Cup final.
In the 61st minute of the 2010 FIFA World Cup final, Holland’s Wesley Sneijder played a through ball to Arjen Robben. The Dutchman eluded Spain’s defenders and zoned in on his opponent’s box.
Iker Casillas, Spain’s captain and goalkeeper, edged towards the penalty spot and got set for the attempt. Despite diving to his left as Robben shot to his right, Casillas got just enough of the shot with his trailing right foot to deflect it wide.
60 minutes later, not long after Andrés Iniesta’s extra-time winner, Casillas and Spain were world champions for the first time ever.
8. Samir Handanović (Udinese / Inter Milan, Slovenia, 2010 – PRESENT)
He may not be the decade’s best goalkeeper, but Samir Handanović could stake a claim in being its most consistent.
It all started with Udinese. In the 2010-11 season, Handanović backstopped the Little Zebras to fourth in the Serie A table; the club’s highest finish in six years. Handanović appeared in 35 of 38 matches and earned a mention in the league’s Team of the Season. The following campaign, Handanović and Udinese improved on their record from the previous season by finishing in the top three for the first time since 1998.
That was enough to convince Inter Milan that he was the perfect heir to the departing Júlio César. The Nerazzurri snapped Handanović up for just under €20 million and trusted him to guide them into the depths of the decade.
Since his move, Handanović developed into not just Inter’s best player of the 2010s, but possibly even their greatest goalkeeper ever. The Slovenian made over 315 appearances for the Nerazzurri, including four seasons with 40 or more appearances. He set or broke several records, including stopping six consecutive penalties between 2013 and 2015 (an Italian record), matching Júlio César’s single season Inter clean sheet record in the league (17, which he matched twice, in 2017-18 and 2018-19), and being the first European goalkeeper of non-Italian descent to win the Serie A Goalkeeper of the Year award (which he clinched three times).
Unfortunately, Handanović (who now captains Inter) doesn’t really get the credit he deserves from an international audience. Be it his lack of team trophies, Inter’s lack of presence in European competitions (he didn’t make his Champions League group stage debut until the 2018-19 season when he was 34 years old), or the fact that he’s Slovenian, Handanović is often unfairly overlooked in “best goalkeeper” discussions.
That’s not the case for my list; he was an easy selection for this top 10.
Top moment: Performance vs. Empoli, final matchday of 2018-19 Serie A season.
With AC Milan leading SPAL 3-2 on the final matchday of the 2018-19 Serie A season, Inter Milan needed to hang on to their own lead — a 2-1 lead over Empoli — to clinch the league’s final Champions League qualification spot. Anything less and their rivals would overtake them.
The players didn’t make it easy, but Handanović bailed them out. He made a big last-minute save from the edge of his six-yard box to preserve the win and Inter’s qualification. It was one of three massive saves the Slovenian — who was recognized as the league’s Best Goalkeeper prior to the match — made that day.
7. Marc-André ter Stegen (Borussia Mönchengladbach / FC Barcelona, Germany, 2011 – PRESENT)
For a guy who’s only 27 years old, Marc-André ter Stegen has been through a lot in the 2010s.
The German goalkeeper made his professional debut for Borussia Mönchengladbach in 2011. The club were in the midst of a frustrating relegation battle, but they still trusted Ter Stegen enough to give him the reigns as an 18-year-old.
Ter Stegen would win his debut — a 5-1 victory over Cologne — and wouldn’t look back. He conceded just twice in the last five games of the season and backstopped Mönchengladbach to survival through the playoffs.
By the time his Mönchengladbach career ended in 2014, Ter Stegen had represented his boyhood club over 125 times and was recognized by kicker as the 2011-12 Bundesliga’s top goalkeeper.
Ter Stegen’s career really took off with FC Barcelona, though. After joining the Catalan club in the summer of 2014, Ter Stegen backstopped Barcelona to the 2015 Copa del Rey — their first since 2012 — and the 2015 Champions League — their first since 2011. He was only the club’s cup goalkeeper initially, but by the start of the 2016-17 season, Ter Stegen had taken over as Barcelona’s undisputed number one.
Since then, Ter Stegen established himself as one of the world’s top goalkeepers. He won two Spanish league titles as a number one, and he’s been included in two Champions League Squad of the Seasons and a UEFA Team of the Year.
Despite being Manuel Neuer’s backup for the German national team, Ter Stegen also found international success when given the chance. He backstopped Germany to a title in the 2017 Confederations Cup — it’s first ever championship in the competition — and earned Man of the Match honours in the final.
Known for his sweeper keeping and his confidence when handling the ball, Ter Stegen is largely considered to be Barcelona’s most important player not named Lionel Messi.
Top moment: Second leg vs. Bayern Munich, 2014-15 Champions League semi-final.
Despite winning the first leg of their 2014-15 Champions League semi-final tie with Bayern Munich 3-0, FC Barcelona were not considered to be the indisputable favourites going into leg two. That’s because Bayern Munich had scored a combined 14 goals across their last two Champions League home games. Barcelona, despite being in the lead, were at the Bavarians’ mercy.
Cue Marc-André ter Stegen’s best performance up until that point. The young German pulled off several stupendous saves, including the UEFA Save of the Season on Robert Lewandowski. His performance saw Barcelona win 5-3 on aggregate. A few weeks later, they were Champions League champions.
6. Jan Oblak (Multiple clubs, Slovenia, 2010 – PRESENT)
In 2009, Robert Volk, one of NK Olimpija Ljubljana’s first team goalkeepers, noticed a 16-year-old Jan Oblak training with the club’s youth team. After catching a few of Oblak’s training sessions, Volk declared to his teammates that “this kid is better than me” and retired to open up a spot for Oblak on the first team.
10 years later, it’s easy to see what Volk saw in the young Oblak.
Oblak is not what I like to call a “YouTube goalkeeper”; he doesn’t make a lot of crazy reflex saves like David de Gea or Keylor Navas (sometimes a result of poor positioning), nor does he rush out of his box and sweep like Manuel Neuer or Marc-André ter Stegen (which can fail spectacularly when executed incorrectly), nor does he perform flicks and tricks with the ball like Alisson Becker (some of which are unnecessary).
No, Oblak is a very simple goalkeeper. He’s calm when collecting crosses, well-balanced when moving across his goal, and accurate when positioning and repositioning himself. And because he gets all of these simple things correct — positioning, footwork, mentality, etc. — Oblak makes goalkeeping look as straightforward as eating a bowl of cereal.
It’s why Oblak has been very successful wherever he’s gone. From winning the 2013-14 Portuguese Primeira Liga with Benfica as the league’s best goalkeeper to backstopping Atletico Madrid to two continental titles in 2018 as the Europa League’s goalkeeper of the season. Wherever Oblak goes, the Slovenian dominates. Just ask Navas and Ter Stegen, who have seen Oblak win four-straight Zamora Trophies and four-straight La Liga Best Goalkeeper awards since taking over as Atletico Madrid’s number one goalkeeper in 2015.
It’s a testament to Oblak’s quality that he has kept a clean sheet in over 50% of his appearances (club and country) since the 2013-14 season.
Top moment: First leg vs. Arsenal, 2017-18 Europa League semi-final.
Although an honourable mention must be given to Oblak’s three successive saves vs. Bayer Leverkusen in the 2016-17 Champions League knockout stage, the honour of Oblak’s most iconic performance of the decade goes to his showing vs. Arsenal in the 2017-18 Europa League semi-final.
Oblak turned aside seven Arsenal attempts in the first leg, most of which came after the sending offs of teammate Šime Vrsaljko and head coach Diego Simeone. Off the back of Oblak’s performance, Atleti held on to a 1-1 draw, then won the second leg. This set them up nicely to win the Europa League a few nights later.
To read the other part of this list, which covers the decade’s top five male goalkeepers, click on this link.
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