To celebrate the end of the 2010s, goalie journalist Mouhamad Rachini takes a look back at some of the top netminders to have kept the sheets clean this decade. To read the other pieces he has prepared for this project, click on this link.
5. Petr Čech (Chelsea / Arsenal, Czech Republic, 2010 – 2019)
In 2015, iconic Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon was asked about the top goalkeepers of his era. Unsurprisingly, he mentioned Manuel Neuer (for his aerial ability) and Iker Casillas (for his hands).
But the best overall? Buffon only had one answer; Petr Čech.
Despite Čech’s tall and rather lanky frame (he’s 6 ft 5), his footwork was smooth, his movement in goal was swift, and his aerial ability was tough to overpower. He had a strong positional sense, and he was equally adept at organizing his defence and commanding his area. And while he was far from being a sweeper ‘keeper, his ability to kick the ball over great distances with either foot was a positive.
Given these qualities, it’s crazy how often Čech’s been overlooked by this decade’s soccer historians.
Granted, Čech’s best years were in the first half of the 2010s. He opened the decade by winning the Premier League (as the league’s Golden Glove recipient) and FA Cup in 2010. Two seasons later, he made history by backstopping Chelsea to their first ever UEFA Champions League title as the final’s Fan’s Man of the Match. A year after that, he was a European champion again, this time by lifting the UEFA Europa League. For a brief period of time, Čech was the first starting goalkeeper to be the reigning champion of both titles simultaneously.
But Čech’s post-2015 career wasn’t too bad either. After winning the League Cup in 2015, Čech joined Arsenal and immediately captured his fourth career Premier League Golden Glove Award. He assisted Arsenal in their 2016-17 FA Cup championship, and he played 11 games en route to the club’s appearance in the 2019 Europa League Final.
Čech retired in 2019, as the Premier League’s all-time leader in clean sheets and the Champions League’s leader in save percentage for the decade.
Top moment: Penalty save vs. Arjen Robben, 2012 Champions League Final.
Picture this: It’s the final of Europe’s most important club competition. The score is tied in extra time, and your team just gave up a penalty. If the penalty is scored (which is the likeliest outcome), it’s practically game over and you lose. Also, you’re the goalkeeper, so faith is in your hands.
Feeling the pressure?
Amazingly, Čech didn’t when he experienced this scenario in the 2012 Champions League final. Čech kept his cool, dived to his left, and miraculously stopped the attempt. What a game-saving moment that was because not too long later, Chelsea clinched the title following a shootout.
4. Keylor Navas (Multiple clubs, Costa Rica, 2010 – PRESENT)
After five seasons with Real Madrid, Keylor Navas decided to test new waters when he joined PSG last September. He departed the club as their most successful goalkeeper this decade, with championships at both the national (2016-17 La Liga) and continental levels (three Champions Leagues and four Club World Cups).
Crazy to think that, had it not been for a 2015 fax machine malfunction, Navas might’ve followed a completely different path.
Although he was not wanted initially, Navas proved to be Iker Casillas’ most ideal replacement. He made 40+ appearances in three straight seasons between 2015 and 2018, and he won the Champions League in all three seasons. This achievement made him the only starting goalkeeper in the modern era to win the competition three straight times. And Navas was consistently a key player; he kept nine clean sheets during the 2015-16 campaign and was named the competition’s Goalkeeper of the Season for 2017-18.
Navas’ decade wasn’t entirely defined by his Real Madrid success, though. In the 2013-14 season, Navas singlehandedly guided Levante to survival in La Liga. Levante only scored 35 goals that season; less than bottom-of-the-table sides Real Valladolid and Real Betis. But thanks to Navas — who made 160 saves (the most in the top five European leagues) and kept a save percentage of nearly 85% — Levante finished in 10th place with the league’s fifth-lowest goals allowed record (43).
Immediately that summer, Navas backstopped Costa Rica (who were drawn in a “group of death” with England, Uruguay, and Italy — all former World Cup champions) to a quarter-final appearance in the 2014 World Cup. Navas was named Man of the Match in three of Costa Rica’s matches, including in both of their knockout round games. He was also a Golden Glove nominee.
Arguably football’s most beloved player today regardless of fanbase, Navas’ incredible highs are worthy of a top four spot.
Top moment: Penalty save vs. Atletico Madrid, 2015-16 La Liga.
Just over a month after David de Gea’s transfer to Real Madrid broke down due to a faulty fax machine, Keylor Navas proved to the Blancos that they didn’t need to fret — he was the quality goalkeeper they desperately needed.
The Costa Rican kept a clean sheet in seven of his first eight appearances, cooling some initial doubts. But his first big statement was that season’s initial Madrid Derby. In the match, Navas denied Antoine Griezmann from the penalty spot and preserved a 1-1 draw. This was the performance that introduced the world of elite-level goalkeeping to Navas.
3. David de Gea (Atletico Madrid / Manchester United, Spain, 2010 – PRESENT)
I don’t know about you, but I’m willing to bet that, from among this list’s nominees, David de Gea was the decade’s busiest goalkeeper.
You can see it in his quantity of saves. Per the Premier League, De Gea averages about 92 saves per EPL season. He made over 100 saves in three different seasons, including a career-high 122 saves in 2018-19. Many of these saves are off of high-quality scoring chances.
Given that De Gea plays behind a club defence that’s often described as poor, it’s fair to call him the primary reason behind Manchester United finishing in a European spot in all but one of his seasons there.
De Gea, who joined the club a year after winning the 2010 Europa League and UEFA Super Cup, is Manchester United’s best player from the 2010s. A 2013 Premier League champion, he won the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award four times, making him the only player in Red Devils history to win the award more than thrice (as well as the only goalkeeper to win the award). He’s also a three-time recipient of United’s Players’ Player of the Year award, and he appeared in five PFA Team of the Years; the most by a single player this decade.
Granted, De Gea had his weak moments. His debut Manchester United season was rough; he couldn’t handle the Premier League’s physicality due to his initial skinny frame, and he was getting beaten in the air by stronger opponents on a regular basis. Internationally, he also looked like a shadow of his former self, with his performance in the 2018 FIFA World Cup being the prime example.
Nonetheless, given his importance to the success of Manchester United — he practically coined the term “one-man team” — De Gea is a lock for the top three
Top moment: 14 saves vs. Arsenal, 2017-18 Premier League.
With a nickname like “Dave Saves”, you expect David de Gea to be pretty adept at stopping the ball. But on December 2, 2017, De Gea reached a whole different level of goalkeeping.
In a 3-1 victory over Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium, De Gea faced 15 shots on target and turned aside 14 of them. These included several save of the season candidates, including a sprawling diving block on Alexandre Lacazette, a goal-line save on a deflection from teammate Romelu Lukaku, and a double save on Lacazette and Alexis Sánchez.
De Gea’s 14 saves are a joint-record in a single Premier League match.
2. Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus / Paris Saint-Germain, Italy, 2010 – PRESENT)
It’s crazy to think that a guy who made his professional debut in 1995 is still playing top-flight football nearly 25 years later. Very few goalkeepers — let alone outfielders — can claim to have played first division football for as long as Buffon has.
Granted, Buffon’s form dropped over the past two seasons, to the point where he’s no longer his club’s starting goalkeeper. But remember; just two years ago, Buffon won the IFFHS World’s Best Goalkeeper award and nearly finished in the top three for both the Ballon d’Or and FIFA’s The Best Men’s Player award.
Those feats — which Buffon accomplished as a 39-year-old — are testaments to the fine work he’s done this decade.
After a rather dry 2000s at the club level, the Italian backstopped Juventus to seven Serie A titles between 2011 and 2018, including six as club captain. Buffon was recognized as the league’s best goalkeeper in five of those campaigns, including the 2011-12 season in which Buffon kept a Serie A record 21 clean sheets, conceded a personal best 16 goals, and kept a league-leading save percentage of 82%.
Those numbers don’t scratch the surface of Buffon’s trophy cabinet, though. Along with those league titles, Buffon won four Coppa Italias, three Supercoppa Italianas, a Trophée des Champions, and the 2018-19 Ligue 1. He also backstopped Juventus to two Champions League finals — in 2015 and 2017 — earning UEFA Champions League Squad of the Season nominations in both of them.
And on that note, don’t even get me started on Buffon’s individual accolades (which includes the 2017 The Best FIFA Goalkeeper award), achievements (being one of only two goalkeepers to earn two separate top 10 Ballon d’Or nominations twice this decade), or records (most clean sheets in the Serie A and for the Italian national team).
No wonder Buffon is considered by many to be football’s G.O.A.T. goalkeeper.
Top Moment: Performance vs. Olympique Lyon, 2016-17 Champions League group stage.
Father Time is undefeated, you say? Not if you’re Gianluigi Buffon! Despite being a 38-year-old at the time of Juventus and Olympique Lyon’s group stage clash in the 2016-17 Champions League, Buffon still put on his top performance of the decade.
Facing the French side away from home, Buffon kept a clean sheet in a 1-0 Juve win. Despite his club being down a player for a fair chunk of the match, Buffon turned aside all four shots he faced, including an Alexandre Lacazette penalty. His reflex stop on a deflected effort from Nabil Fekir was the best of the bunch.
1. Manuel Neuer (Schalke 04 / Bayern Munich, Germany, 2010 – PRESENT)
The 2010s were defined by the evolution of the goalkeeper’s role. We entered this decade with ball-playing goalkeepers really only limited to a handful of major teams, and we exit it with the style ever-present across multiple leagues and regions.
Sweeper keeping is no longer a rare niche; it’s what makes a good goalkeeper today. And Manuel Neuer was the key architect behind this advancement.
Neuer ticked all of the right boxes. He was quick enough to sweep loose balls outside of his box, daring enough to handle and play the ball accurately when under pressure, strong enough to not let opponents overpower him in the air, and consistent enough to regularly sweep without fail.
He may not be the original sweeper ‘keeper, but he’s certainly the perfect one.
Neuer’s style earned him several individual accolades, including four IFFHS World’s Best Goalkeeper awards, four UEFA Goalkeeper of the Year awards, and several team of the season inclusions in the Bundesliga, the UEFA Champions League, and FIFPro. It also saw him earn a top three nomination for the 2014 Ballon d’Or; the only goalkeeper to achieve so this decade.
Much to the pleasure of his teammates, Neuer’s style of play — which allowed them to press higher up the pitch — also brought them success. At the club level, Neuer is a seven-time Bundesliga champion and a five-time winner of the DFB-Pokal, and he helped Bayern Munich complete a continental sweep of the UEFA Champions League, the UEFA Super Cup, and the FIFA Club World Cup in 2013.
A year later, Neuer backstopped Germany to its first World Cup title as a reunified nation.
At his peak, Neuer was the world’s near-undisputed best goalkeeper. And given his peak lasted for most of the 2010s, it’s only fair to put him at number one.
Top moment: Performance vs. Algeria, 2014 FIFA World Cup round of 16.
Neuer’s unique style is best exemplified through Germany and Algeria’s round of 16 match in the 2014 World Cup. Despite his lack of saves, the German ‘keeper kept himself busy by intercepting various Algerian crosses and corners.
But Neuer’s dominance wasn’t just limited to his box. Every time Algeria exploited Germany’s high defensive line, Neuer left his goal to break up the play, be it with his head or foot. Despite all of their chances, Algeria were always one step behind.
Thanks to Neuer’s all-encompassing defence, Germany defeated Algeria in extra time. A few rounds later, they were World Cup champions.
To read the other part of this list, which covers the goalkeepers ranked 10th to 6th, click on this link.