On April 25, 2021, Between the Sticks celebrated its two-year anniversary. In honour of the milestone, goalkeeper journalist Mouhamad Rachini is ranking the 10 best goalkeepers of all time from each of the big five European leagues: the German Bundesliga, the Spanish Liga Santander, the French Ligue 1, the English Premier League, and the Italian Serie A.
Goalkeepers are ranked based on a number of different factors, including team honours, longevity, peak, and statistical success, but only in their SPECIFIC DOMESTIC LEAGUES and relevant domestic competitions.
Performances in continental competitions (like the UEFA Champions League) and international competitions (like the FIFA World Cup) WILL NOT be considered. On the other hand, domestic cup successes (such as the FA Cup) will be considered, but only to a small extent. Non-competition-specific individual accolades, such as Ballon d’Or votes and IFFHS top goalkeeper awards, will also be taken into account.
Furthermore, I’m only considering goalkeepers who played following the official founding of each league. In the Premier League’s case, I’m only looking at performances post-1992, which is when the Premier League was formed. If a goalkeeper played in an English league championship prior to playing in the Premier League, only his performances in the Premier League will be considered for this list.
If you’re looking for a ranking that considers everything a goalkeeper did in their career, check out my “Top 50 goalkeepers in football history” project from last year.
David James (England): David James makes the cut due to the fact that he’s kept more career clean sheets (169) than every other Premier League goalkeeper bar Petr Čech. Unfortunately, his tendency to let in soft goals earned him the nickname ‘Calamity James’ — a nickname that stuck with him throughout his 24-year career.
Nigel Martyn (England): Nigel Martyn is often forgotten by today’s generation of Premier League fans, but he’ll forever have a place in Everton and Leeds United hearts. Martyn made 372 career Premier League appearances, kept 137 clean sheets, and backstopped Leeds to a club-record 3rd-place Premier League finish in 2000.
Shay Given (Ireland): With 354 appearances and 89 clean sheets to his name, Shay Given is undoubtedly Newcastle United’s greatest goalkeeper in the Premier League era. A two-time PFA Premier League Team of the Year member, Given also made top-flight appearances for Blackburn Rovers, Manchester City, Aston Villa, and Stoke City.
Thibaut Courtois (Belgium): Thibaut Courtois won nearly everything there was to win in just a handful of years as a Premier League goalkeeper. As Chelsea’s starter, he won two league titles in 2015 and 2017, the Premier League’s Golden Glove award in 2017, and the FA Cup in 2018.
Tim Howard (United States): Tim Howard may not have won silverware with Everton, but nonetheless, he’ll go down as one of the club’s all-time greatest goalkeepers. In 10 seasons with the Toffees, Howard made more than 350 league appearances. He also had a brief stint with Manchester United, though that was marred by inconsistency.
10. Jens Lehmann (Germany; Arsenal FC)
Jens Lehmann’s Premier League career is short compared to most other goalkeepers on this list; he only made 148 appearances across four and a half seasons. But nonetheless, his place in the league record books is secured. In the Premier League’s 29-year history, only one goalkeeper has gone a full 38-game season unbeaten — and Lehmann is that goalkeeper.
Lehmann accomplished the feat in his debut season with Arsenal FC in 2003-04. The German was signed as a replacement for the recently-departed club legend David Seaman. And though he wasn’t as consistent as his predecessor, his performances had a major effect on Arsenal becoming the first English team in 115 years to finish a season unbeaten. Arsenal and Lehmann’s record at the end of the 2003-04 season was 26-12-0 (wins-draws-losses), a league-leading 26 goals conceded, and 15 clean sheets kept.
As good of a goalkeeper as he was, Lehmann was equally known for his temper (as his nickname ‘Mad Jens’ suggests.) That sometimes translated well — he could fire up his teammates with a few choice words and ice-cold glares. But it also resulted in unnecessarily-rough play (like these moments against Bolton Wanderers) and errors.
9. Brad Friedel (United States; Multiple Premier League clubs)
Brad Friedel’s Premier League journey began with Liverpool FC in 1997. The 26-year-old American was expected to compete with David James and later Sander Westerveld, but his performances did not live up to those of his teammates. As a result, the club let him go in 2000.
Though devastating at the time, the departure kickstarted the better part of Friedel’s career. He joined second division club Blackburn Rovers that same year, and over the next three seasons, Friedel backstopped Rovers to Premier League promotion in 2001, back-to-back top-10 finishes in the Premier League in 2002 and 2003, and the club’s first Football League Cup championship in 2002. He was also included in the 2003 PFA Premier League Team of the Year.
Though Friedel never reached those heights again, he did set appearance records that no Premier League player will likely ever touch. Between May 15, 2004, and Oct. 7, 2012, Friedel made 310 consecutive Premier League appearances split between Rovers, Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur. Along the way, he also set “oldest player in club history” records for Villa and Tottenham.
After making 451 career Premier League appearances, a 44-year-old Friedel retired in 2015.
8. Joe Hart (England; Multiple Premier League clubs)
A product of local club Shrewsbury Town FC’s youth academy, Joe Hart joined Manchester City in 2006. He made his Premier League debut that same year in a 0-0 draw with Sheffield United; he was just 19 years old.
After a few seasons of bouncing between City and various League One loan spells, Hart got his big break in the 2009-10 season. Then on a season-long loan spell with Birmingham City, a 22-year-old Hart backstopped the Blues to a club-record 9th-place finish in the Premier League, and he was included in the PFA Premier League Team of the Year.
Convinced that Hart had finally blossomed, City made him their undisputed number one goalkeeper in 2010, and he kept ahold of that role until 2016. In that span, Hart won two Premier League titles, three domestic cups (though he only started in one final), and a joint-record four Premier League Golden Gloves.
Though Hart suffered a Wall Street-esque crash post-2016 (due in large part to new coach Pep Guardiola’s lack of faith in Hart’s ball-playing ability), Hart’s peak saw him mix incredible reflexes and reactions with phenomenal athleticism and concentration. This helped him reach the summit of English domestic football.
7. Ederson Moraes (Brazil; Manchester City)
Signed by Manchester City in 2017, Ederson Moraes makes this list largely due to his ball-playing style that has swept the league by storm. Despite being a goalkeeper, Ederson has an incredible range of passes; he can deliver them long or short, low or high, clipped or defence-splitting. He’s a master of various distribution techniques, and he’s comfortable acting as an extra outfielder between his centre-backs.
Though we’ve seen the likes of Manuel Neuer and Víctor Valdés play in a similar way, Ederson is the first goalkeeper to play this style in the Premier League in such dominant fashion. This was a style that some thought wouldn’t work in the Premier League, but Ederson has proven those doubters wrong.
Thanks in part to Ederson’s unparalleled excellence on the ball, Guardiola’s Manchester City have been able to dominate English football post-2016. They won the 2017-18 Premier League with the highest points total in league history, repeated as champions the following year, and are currently on the brink of winning their third league title in four years by a 13-point margin.
Since his City move, Ederson has also won the 2019-20 Golden Glove award & set a Guinness World Record for the longest drop kick.
6. Pepe Reina (Spain; Liverpool FC & Aston Villa)
Of the 16 goalkeepers who have kept more than 100 career Premier League clean sheets, Pepe Reina leads the way in clean sheet percentage with 45.79%. It’s a testament to his incredible shot-stopping and ball-playing abilities.
Upon Reina’s 2005 Liverpool FC transfer, coach Rafael Benítez reportedly called him “the best goalkeeper in Spain.” That’s a lot of pressure to put on a new signing, but Benítez’s words immediately rang true. Reina unseated club hero Jerzy Dudek from starting duties in his debut season, and he backstopped the Reds to their first top-3 finish in the Premier League since 2001. Reina also started in — and won — both the 2006 FA Cup and the 2006 FA Community Shield.
Reina would go on to make 285 Premier League appearances for Liverpool between 2005 and 2013. In that span, he became the first goalkeeper to win the club’s Player of the Season award (2009-10), and the first goalkeeper to win three Premier League Golden Gloves (2006-2008).
Following stints in the Serie A and the Bundesliga, Reina briefly returned to the Premier League in 2020 with Aston Villa. There, he helped the Lions avoid relegation thanks to two clean sheets in 12 appearances.
5. David de Gea (Spain; Manchester United)
If you googled “one-man team,” you’d likely find a photo of David de Gea in a Manchester United jersey in the mid-2010s. In what has been one of the club’s darkest decades, the Spanish international often gave United fans a reason to hold their heads highs.
That wasn’t always the case, though. When De Gea arrived as a fragile 20-year-old in 2011, few people thought he could adequately replace the retiring legend Edwin van der Sar. And following a 2011-12 season that was characterized by baffling errors and near-post goals, it seemed like Sir Alex Ferguson had made a critical mistake in signing the goalkeeper.
But after bulking up in the off-season, De Gea returned ready to take on the league. In the 2012-13 season, De Gea produced top-class performances against the reigning champions Manchester City, Sunderland AFC and Queens Park Rangers. He led the Premier League in save percentage (77.2%) and kept the second-lowest goals-conceded-per-game average (0.93) as United won the Premier League for a record 20th time.
De Gea’s legend has only grown since that rebound season, and he was legitimately considered to be among the world’s top goalkeepers at one point. He’s added five domestic cups, various individual trophies and several records to his collection. These include five PFA Premier League Team of the Year appearances, a record four Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year awards, and the 2017-18 Premier League Golden Glove.
Nowadays, there’s debate over whether De Gea is still a top-class goalkeeper — and some fans believe it’s time for the Red Devils to part ways with the Spaniard. But no matter what you think of him now, there’s no denying that De Gea was the Premier League’s top goalkeeper at his peak.
4. Edwin van der Sar (Netherlands; Fulham FC & Manchester United)
When Edwin van der Sar joined newly-promoted Fulham FC in 2001, he was trying to reignite a career that had taken a severe hit from a horrid two-year Juventus FC stint. Though Van der Sar was only a few years removed from winning the UEFA Champions League, he figured a move to a club in a new environment with fewer expectations would be just the kickstart his career needed.
20 years later, it’s safe to say Van der Sar’s hunch was correct.
Though Fulham were not expected to stay in the Premier League for long, the ‘flying Dutchman’ and the Cottagers ended up overstaying their welcome. Van der Sar made 127 Premier League appearances for Fulham across four seasons, and he kept 42 league clean sheets in total. Fulham never tasted relegation during Van der Sar’s reign, and they even finished a club-record 9th-place in 2003-04.
Off the back of his impressive performances, Van der Sar was signed by English giants Manchester United in 2005. And despite being 34 years old at the time of his move, Van der Sar experienced a second prime of sorts with the Red Devils.
In six seasons between 2005 and 2011, Van der Sar won four Premier League titles and four domestic cups. He also won the 2008-09 Premier League Golden Glove and the 2009 Best European Goalkeeper award. He was nearly 40 years old when he won the latter trophy, which is a testament to his astonishing longevity.
In 2011, a 40-year-old Van der Sar finally called it a career. He retired with 132 Premier League clean sheets to his name and a Premier League clean sheet percentage of 42.17%.
3. David Seaman (England; Arsenal FC & Manchester City)
Aside from being a 1990s male sex symbol — what with his thick moustache and divine ponytail — David Seaman is also one of the greatest goalkeepers to play in the Premier League.
Already a star prior to the Premier League’s formation in 1992, Seaman immediately became one of the league’s top players. He twice led the Premier League in clean sheets kept (20 in 1993-94 and 19 in 1999-2000), and he often competed with fellow ’90s legend Peter Schmeichel for the league’s top goalkeeper crown.
Seaman won several domestic titles as a member of Arsenal FC. These include the 1998 and 2002 Premier Leagues — the first in Arsenal history — and four FA Cups. He started in all five of the latter finals (the 1993 final was contested over two games), and he kept three clean sheets.
Nicknamed ‘Safe Hands Seaman’ for his reliability, composure and rebound control, the English international led all Premier League goalkeepers in clean sheets kept when the Premier League’s first decade came to a close — his 130 clean sheets were 11 more than Peter Schmeichel had managed in that timespan. For his efforts, Seaman was included in the Premier League’s Domestic Team of the Decade in 2002, ahead of other Englishman like Nigel Martyn, David James and Tim Flowers.
To date, no goalkeeper has made more Premier League appearances for Arsenal than Seaman (325). He’s also the only Arsenal goalkeeper to keep more than 100 career Premier League clean sheets (138), and he’s one of only four Premier League goalkeepers to keep more than 140 career clean sheets (141).
Seaman retired in 2004 following a season-long stint with Manchester City. He was the Premier League’s all-time clean sheet leader at the time of his retirement.
2. Peter Schmeichel (Denmark; Manchester United, Aston Villa & Manchester City)
It takes a very talented goalkeeper to best what David Seaman achieved in the 1990s. But unfortunately for the Englishman, Manchester United’s Peter Schmeichel was that one-in-a-generation kind of goalkeeper.
The intimidating Dane was already a Red Devil when the Premier League was formed in 1992, though he only had 53 total club appearances under his belt. Then 28 years old, Schmeichel kept 18 clean sheets in the debut Premier League season — a total bested only by Blackburn Rovers’ Bobby Mimms. Still, that was enough to backstop United to inaugural Premier League glory.
“Peter Schmeichel champion” was a phrase English football became familiar with in the coming years. Over the next six seasons, Schmeichel added 11 more domestic trophies to his collection, including four Premier League titles. No Premier League goalkeeper has won more league titles than Schmeichal, and in his seven-year United career, Schmeichel never finished a season trophyless.
But Schmeichel wasn’t a passenger in United’s success; he was actually among the team’s most important players. He never made fewer than 32 Premier League appearances in a season for the Red Devils, and he averaged 16 league clean sheets per season. He became known for both his acrobatic saves and his throwing ability, the latter of which was unusual for the time.
When the Premier League’s first decade came to a close, Schmeichel was voted into the league’s overseas and overall Teams of the Decade. His 1997 save vs. Newcastle United’s John Barnes was also recognized as the league’s top save of the decade.
After a two-year stint in Portugal, Schmeicehel returned to the Premier League by way of Aston Villa and Manchester City. With the former, he became the first goalkeeper to score a Premier League goal; and with the latter, he played the final games of his career.
1. Petr Čech (Czech Republic; Chelsea FC & Arsenal FC)
Petr Čech or Peter Schmeichel? That’s the question I grappled with throughout the writing of this project.
There’s no concrete answer; it’s influenced by the era you grew up in. If you’re a 1990s fan, you’ll likely cite Schmeichel for his richer Premier League trophy cabinet and superior distribution skills. But if you’re a 2000s fan, you’ll probably back Čech due to his clean sheet records and greater understanding of traditional goalkeeping traits.
For me, even though I believe Schmeichel is the better goalkeeper all things considered, I think the edge goes to the Czech international from a purely Premier League standpoint.
The former Chelsea and Arsenal goalkeeper made 443 appearances across a Premier League career that spanned 15 seasons. It’s the fifth-most appearances made by a Premier League goalkeeper, and it averages out to nearly 30 Premier League games per season.
Čech is among the league’s most decorated goalkeepers, from both a trophy perspective and a records standpoint. Regarding the former, he’s a four-time Premier League champion, four-time FA Cup champion, three-time Football League Cup champion, and two-time FA Community Shield champion. Those achievements make him the most decorated goalkeeper in English domestic history (in the Premier League era).
As for the records, take your pick. He’s won a joint-record four Premier League Golden Gloves — in fact, he’s the only goalkeeper to win the award with two different clubs. He’s also the Premier League’s career clean sheet record holder (202; he’s the only Premier League goalkeeper to keep 200+ clean sheets), and he’s the first goalkeeper to play 1,000 consecutive Premier League minutes without conceding a goal.
For all the great goalkeepers that have played in the Premier League, I think it’s fair to say there’s never been one who dominated English domestic football quite like the helmet-wearing Czech international.
Do you agree with my list? Which other Premier League goalkeepers do you think should’ve made the cut? Let me know in the comments below or through Twitter via @BlameTheKeeper.