After what seems like forever, the 2019-20 season is finally coming to an end.
I think it’s safe to say that we’ve never had a season quite like this one. Obviously, the biggest story is the presence of COVID-19 and its impact on football leagues and competitions across the world. From pausing (and even cancelling some) competitions for months, to preventing fans from attending live sporting events, to forcing UEFA to pursue one-legged knockout matches for its premier continental club competitions, COVID-19 made itself at home this season, and football was forced to adapt.
But with the UEFA Champions League Final set to kick off this Sunday, the 2019-20 season is just about to close its books. And with the end of a season comes everyone’s favourite kind of post-season content; laughing at the stupid predictions we made 12 months ago.
Anyone who has followed me for a while knows that I’m the worst when it comes to making predictions. How bad are my predictions, you ask? To give you an idea, I predicted Croatia’s golden generation was going to be eliminated in the group stage of the 2018 World Cup.
For those of you that missed that tournament, Croatia made it to the final for the first time in their history. So yeah, I’m not exactly your go-to guy if you’re thinking of betting money on anything.
Did that stop me from making predictions at the start of the 2019-20 season? Absolutely not! So today, let’s continue to laugh at my inability to predict the future by revisiting a piece I published in August 2019 — 4 bold GK predictions for the 2019-20 season.
How many of these did I get wrong? Continue reading to find out. (Spoiler alert: It’s not zero, unfortunately).
ALISSON BECKER WILL WIN THE 2019 BALLON D’OR.
Prediction: Only one goalkeeper — Lev Yashin — has ever won the Ballon d’Or, and his win came over 55 years ago. But that was about to change because according to my prediction, Liverpool’s Alisson Becker was going to win the 2019 Ballon d’Or.
Why I thought it would come true: At the time of writing the piece, Alisson Becker was coming off of one of the most accomplished seasons in goalkeeping history. The Brazilian goalkeeper had backstopped Liverpool to a 97-point season, which was the greatest total ever put up by a Premier League runner-up. He had also played a key role in the club’s Champions League title win, delivering match-winning performances against FC Barcelona in the semi-finals and Tottenham in the final. And to cap it off, Alisson helped Brazil win the Copa América, South America’s elite continental competition, for the first time since 2007.
Alisson won the Golden Glove award in all three tournaments. In doing so, Alisson became the first goalkeeper in football history to win three Golden Gloves in a single season.
The key in my opinion wasn’t just that Alisson won multiple trophies (including an international trophy, which his direct Ballon d’Or rivals Lionel Messi and Virgil van Dijk failed to do); it was also the fact that Alisson was a key contributor to Liverpool’s dominance.
As a ball-playing, sweeper ‘keeper, Alisson benefited Liverpool both offensively and defensively. Offensively, Alisson was a fantastic deliverer of both long and shot passes, and he constantly found Liverpool’s quick attackers with long deliveries that exploited the defensive lines of opposing teams. Defensively, Alisson was comfortable acting as an extra defender and constantly cleared threatening deliveries that looked to expose Liverpool’s high defensive lines.
Given all of this, why wouldn’t Alisson be a favourite for the 2019 Ballon d’Or?
Why it didn’t come true: I mentioned in my piece that the odds were stacked against Alisson Becker, and deep down, I knew that the chances of Alisson winning the Ballon d’Or were slim to none. But hey, it was a bold predictions piece, not a safe predictions piece. Go big or go home, eh?
Luckily, I never left home.
Suffice to say, Alisson didn’t win the 2019 Ballon d’Or. He didn’t even come close. Alisson only picked up 67 points from voters, which was 619 less points than the total accumulated by actual winner Lionel Messi. Alisson’s total, though by far the highest among goalkeepers, was only good enough for seventh place. He didn’t even finish in the top five, let alone win the whole thing.
Where did it go wrong? The most damning conclusion is that, well, Alisson is a goalkeeper and goalkeepers just don’t win the Ballon d’Or.
As I mentioned earlier, Lev Yashin is the only goalkeeper in history to win the Ballon d’Or, and his win came over half a decade ago at a time when non-Europeans weren’t eligible for the award. And since Yashin’s win, only five goalkeepers — Dino Zoff, Ivo Viktor, Oliver Kahn (twice), Gianluigi Buffon and Manuel Neuer — have even finished in the top three.
Put simply, the Ballon d’Or is just not a goalkeeper-friendly award, and while Alisson had a phenomenal year, he was always going to be overlooked due to his position.
This was confirmed by the introduction of a new award, the Yashin Trophy. Created by Ballon d’Or-makers France Football, the Yashin Trophy was introduced in late 2019 as a supplement to the Ballon d’Or ceremonies. This award was created to honour each year’s best performing goalkeeper, and it was awarded for the first time during the 2019 ceremony. Alisson was the award’s first ever recipient, beating Marc-André ter Stegen and fellow Brazilian Ederson Moraes.
With the introduction of the Yashin Trophy, the likelihood of another goalkeeper winning the Ballon d’Or is basically non-existent. The existence of a goalkeeper-only trophy will likely discourage future voters from considering a goalkeeper for the Ballon d’Or. After all, why vote for a goalkeeper to win the Ballon d’Or when they already have an award dedicated to their craft?
All things considered, it shouldn’t be a shock to see this prediction fall flat on its face. Alisson did not win the Ballon d’Or, and it’s possible he nor any other goalkeeper ever wins it in the future.
ALEXANDER NÜBEL WILL SIGN A CONTRACT EXTENSION WITH SCHALKE.
Prediction: Interest in Schalke 04’s young goalkeeping sensation Alexander Nübel is heating up. Both Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich are interested in signing Nübel, and with his deal expiring at the end of the 2019-20 season, there’s a real possibility that a club will snap him up for free. But not on Schalke’s watch! According to my prediction, Schalke will lock Nübel up to a new deal before the end of the season.
Why I thought it would come true: Schalke 04 were in all-or-nothing mode when it came to extending Alexander Nübel’s contract. They had reportedly offered him a three-year extension with an exit clause, and they loaned club legend Ralf Fährmann to Norwich City in an attempt to clear the position for Nübel. They even gave the 22-year-old the captain’s armband, making him the youngest Schalke player to be named captain in the 21st century.
Schalke were extremely desperate to get Nübel to extend his deal. Surely Nübel, who was given his Bundesliga debut as a teenager by the club in 2016, would pay his club back in some way by extending his contract?
Why it didn’t come true: When a player outright refuses to sign a contract extension, there’s really nothing else a club can do. And as much as Schalke 04 would’ve loved to ink Alexander Nübel to a new deal in order to get some cash back on his move, Nübel just wasn’t going to let it happen.
On December 22, 2019, Schalke accepted defeat — they confirmed Nübel’s departure at the end of the season. A few weeks later, Bayern Munich confirmed Nübel’s arrival.
Nübel signing elsewhere was always a question of when, not if. It was well-accepted that sooner or later, Nübel was going to sign for another club, the likeliest suitor being Bayern Munich. This became especially apparent as the season dragged into the winter transfer window, with rumours heating up that Bayern Munich had secured his services on a free. Even in my predictions piece, I noted that I don’t think a contract extension was going to prevent Nübel from departing the club. It was inevitable.
Still, Schalke fans seemed to feel hard-done by the young German. After all, Nübel had played for Schalke’s reserve team for several years and was allowed to grow and develop at his own rate while with the club. According to some, the club had treated him respectfully by giving him the shot at a starting role over Ralf Fährmann. Not to mention giving him the captaincy at his young, inexperienced age. Leaving the club on a free — for a direct rival, no less — was incredibly disrespectful of the German.
At the end of the day though, Nübel has every right to refuse a new deal and focus on a future elsewhere. He’s not obligated to sign a contract extension, especially if not doing so opens the door for a smoother move to a bigger (and frankly, better) club elsewhere.
That won’t stop some Schalke fans from dreaming of a world where the club made some money off of his move. After all, selling young goalkeepers is a lucrative business these days — five of the six most expensive goalkeepers of all time were 25 or younger at the time of their move. And given Nübel’s place as a hot goalkeeper prospect, Schalke surely could’ve made some bank off of a move.
Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. Nübel got his free move to Bayern Munich (even if reports suggest there might be trouble in paradise), and I struck out on another bold prediction.
JASPER CILLESSEN WILL FINISH THE SEASON AS VALENCIA’S BACK-UP GOALKEEPER.
Prediction: Following three seasons of backing up FC Barcelona’s Marc-André ter Stegen, Cillessen was finally given an opportunity to prove his mettle as a starting goalkeeper thanks to a move to Valencia. But according to my prediction, Cillessen will be relegated to the bench by the end of the season.
Why I thought it would come true: Jasper Cillessen’s lack of appearances between 2016 and 2019 raised questions over how fit he was to take on a starting role. The Dutch goalkeeper only made 32 club appearances in that span, including just five appearances in La Liga. He hadn’t made more than 11 appearances in a single season for FC Barcelona, and while he was widely regarded as one of the top back-up goalkeepers in the world, it’s difficult to translate success as an 11-game-per-season back-up goalkeeper into success as a 30-game or 40-game-per-season starter.
Of course, Cillessen wasn’t always a back-up goalkeeper. He made 30 or more appearances per season in three campaigns with Ajax between 2013 and 2016. This includes a career-high 44 appearances in the 2015-16 season, which was his final season with the club prior to his Barcelona move. He won the Eredivisie in 2014 — his first season as an Ajax starter — and was twice recognized as Ajax’s Player of the Year.
But at the time of his Valencia move, Cillessen’s Ajax stint was three years ago. A lot can change over a period of three years, and given that Cillessen spent most of his prime years as a Barcelona back-up goalkeeper as opposed to a number one, it’s fair to suggest that his talent was wasted on the bench. And how much of that talent was left for Valencia — a club with domestic demands and expectations — to take advantage of? If you asked me, very little.
Why it did come true: If you were to go off of appearance numbers, you’d conclude that this prediction was incorrect. Jasper Cillessen made 30 appearances across all competitions this season, including 24 appearances in La Liga. That’s 10 more appearances than his teammate Jaume Doménech made, but the difference could’ve been greater; Cillessen was forced to sit out 10 games due to various injuries. So from an appearance-based perspective, it seems like this prediction was wrong.
But the prediction wasn’t that Cillessen will play less games than Doménech (or any other goalkeeper in Valencia’s system). Actually, the prediction was that Cillessen would finish the season as Valencia’s back-up goalkeeper. And in that regard, I’m correct.
Entering July, the final month of the 2019-20 Spanish league season, Valencia had six games left to play. The Spanish club entered the month eighth in the table and not far away from a European spot, but given the log-jam in the middle of the table — when all was said and done, just 11 points separated fifth-placed Villarreal from 12th-placed Levante — the Bats knew that they needed a strong finish to keep them in the race for a European spot.
Unfortunately, Cillessen was not helping. The Dutch goalkeeper, fresh off of a bland performance in his side’s 2-0 loss to Villarreal in late June, went 0-1-1 (wins-draws-losses) in his side’s first two games of the month, conceding four goals on eight shots across the two matches. The two games were against fellow mid-table-based clubs Athletic Bilbao and Granada, and the results saw Valencia drop as low as tenth in the table at one point.
Given the tight squeeze between clubs in the middle of the table, Valencia knew that they couldn’t continue dropping points like they were. So, in an effort to change their fortunes for the better, Cillessen was demoted to the bench and Doménech was promoted to a starting role.
Doménech ended up playing in three of Valencia’s final four games, sitting out Valencia’s 1-0 win over Espanyol. Valencia’s fortunes didn’t change much — the club went 1-0-2 in Doménech’s three appearances and finished in ninth place. But the fact that the Bats trusted the Spaniard over Cillessen — a goalkeeper who they had paid €35 million for — to close out the season in a tight European race spoke volumes of their attitude towards Cillessen.
Now, Valencia are reportedly trying to offload Cillessen. Cillessen has been linked with a departure out of Valencia since May, and earlier this summer, Cillessen was cited in a potential three-way deal involving Ajax’s André Onana and Chelsea’s Kepa Arrizabalaga. Cillessen has also been linked to Aston Villa, and according to some reports, Valencia are already shopping for his replacement.
Granted, the reports suggest that Cillessen’s sale likely has to do with a squad overhaul aimed at reducing Valencia’s wage bill ahead of the new Liga Santander season. But given Cillessen’s inconsistent performances — his five league clean sheets put him last among starting goalkeepers (20+ appearances) representing a top-10 Spanish league club — and how his season ended, I’m confident in saying his form played a role.
JAN OBLAK WILL NOT WIN THE ZAMORA TROPHY.
Prediction: Jab Oblak has had a monopoly on the Ricardo Zamora Trophy; he’s won the award every season since becoming Atletico Madrid’s starting goalkeeper in 2015. But in August 2019, I predicted he’d fail to win the Zamora Trophy in the 2019-20 season.
Why I thought it would come true: Atletico Madrid’s defensive line took a significant hit last summer. The Rojiblancos had to say goodbye to their captain Diego Godín, as well as Filipe Luís, Juanfran, and Lucas Hernandez. All of those defenders were or at some point had been key contributors to Atleti’s backline, and while the club had signed younger reinforcements — most notably 2019 UEFA Champions League finalist Kieran Trippier — Atleti’s defence had seemingly taken a hit.
It didn’t help that Oblak was becoming a busier goalkeeper with each passing season. After facing just 84 shots in La Liga in 2016-17, Oblak saw his workload increase to 131 shots in the 2017-18 season, then 132 shots in the 2018-19 season. And while he was still performing at an elite level — in the 2018-19 season, Oblak saved 9 more goals than expected — could he sustain those performances behind a defensive unit that had seemingly gotten weaker? And with an equally world-class goalkeeper in FC Barcelona’s Marc-André ter Stegen challenging him for the accolade, could he maintain his grip on the Zamora Trophy? Not according to my prediction.
Why it did come true: Oblak’s loss can’t really be blamed on a dip in performance as his numbers were pretty consistent with his statistics from the 2018-19 season. He played 38 league games (just one more than his 2018-19 total), but conceded the same amount of goals (27). And while his clean sheet total (17) is his lowest — by a significant margin — since the 2016-17 season, he did keep a slightly better goals-against-average compared to last season (0.72 compared to 0.73).
Despite losing some key defensive teammates, chief of which being Diego Godín, Oblak was able to keep the ship steady. In fact, the defensive departures didn’t seem to impact him. The Slovenian kept seven clean sheets in Atletico Madrid’s first 10 league games of the season, including a clean sheet against Real Madrid.
So if Oblak’s numbers are consistent with his stats from previous seasons, what caused him to lose out on the Zamora Trophy? Well, for once, there was a Liga Santander goalkeeper who performed better than Oblak.
Real Madrid’s Thibaut Courtois had a career season, but it didn’t always look like it would go that way. The Belgian international struggled in the early part of the 2019-20 season. He kept just two clean sheets in his first seven league games, including zero clean sheets in his first four appearances. He also had to be subbed off in Real Madrid’s Champions League opener, which was an eventual 3-0 loss to Paris Saint-Germain. And while an illness was cited as the reason why the substitution was made, Courtois was nonetheless blamed for conceding two goals on three shots in the first half.
But Courtois put the rough start behind him and rebounded with one of the best statistical seasons we’ve seen from a Real Madrid goalkeeper. In 34 league appearances, the 28-year-old kept 18 clean sheets — roughly one clean sheet every two games. Courtois also led La Liga in save percentage (78.9%) and goals allowed (20). The latter is the least amount of goals conceded by a Spanish league starting goalkeeper (20+ appearances) since Oblak conceded 18 goals in 38 appearances in the 2015-16 season.
Courtois trumped Oblak in every statistical category, including the one that mattered most for the Zamora Trophy. Courtois’s goals-against-average of 0.59 was 13 decimal points lower than Oblak’s tally of 0.72, and it matched Oblak’s average from the 2017-18 season. It’s also the lowest average posted by a Real Madrid goalkeeper, besting Antonio Betancort’s average of 0.62 from the 1964-65 season.
All in all, while I might’ve been incorrect in predicting Oblak’s performance would dip significantly this season (despite believing he wasn’t even the league’s second best goalkeeper this season), I was correct in predicting that Oblak would fail to win the Zamora Trophy for the first time as a Liga Santander starting goalkeeper.
How many of your 2019-20 predictions came true? Let me know on Twitter via @ThatArabKeeper.