The position of goalkeeper is the most unique in the sport of football, by quite some distance. He even wears a different coloured jersey, not to mention the gloves. As Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov put it, “a goalkeeper is the lone eagle, the man of mystery, the last defender”.
That is why goalkeepers should be treated differently to all other members of a squad and why Barcelona were smart in their handling of Marc-André ter Stegen’s arrival. Having just turned 22 when was signed by the Catalan superclub from Borussia Mönchengladbach in 2014, Ter Stegen was still raw, with the best of his career ahead of him. He’d also never experienced pressure like the morbo which surrounds the Camp Nou.
To casually toss him into that pressure cooker like a rack of ribs could have proven disastrous. No player’s every participation is under the microscope as much as a goalkeeper’s and few countries boast a media as unforgiving as Spain’s. Therefore, Luis Enrique’s decision to only play the young German in cup matches and to field LaLiga veteran Claudio Bravo in league matches was a cautious one, but a wise one. Even if Ter Stegen was unavailable for the first couple of matches anyway due to injury, the Asturian coach had always admired Bravo and his decision to stick with the former Real Sociedad shot-stopper paid off, with Barcelona winning the league during both of the seasons in which the Chilean was at the Camp Nou.
Of course, there’s a chance Ter Stegen could have done just as well as Bravo, who conceded 19 times in 37 LaLiga appearances in 2014/15 and 22 times in 32 appearances the following year, but there’s also a chance that the he could have wilted under the pressure. By limiting Ter Stegen’s participation to Copa del Rey and Champions League matches, Barcelona were protecting him, as the only matches in which the pressure was truly ramped up came in the knockout stages of the run to Champions League glory and in the Copa del Rey final, with no high-stakes fixtures at all during his first six months. The fact that his European performances were very hot and cold further validated the club’s decision to keep him away from the weekly interrogations of LaLiga.
The idea of sitting a rookie is commonplace when it comes to quarterbacks in the NFL, a position which is similarly unique in the sport of American Football as goalkeeping is in football. From Philip Rivers to Aaron Rodgers, there are a number of players who had ‘a redshirt year’ in which they studied and learned from the veteran in front of them in the depth chart, making them better prepared for when they were finally charged with the responsibilities of being the team’s starter and offensive leader.
Ter Stegen went through something similar, even if he did play domestic and continental cup matches, for which there is no comparable side competition in the NFL. As much as he has admitted that at the time he wanted to play more, the now-25-year-old realises and has spoken of the benefits of patiently learning from Bravo and from goalkeeping coach José Ramón de la Fuente.
By the time he finally became the full-time starter in the summer of 2016, when Bravo was sold to Manchester City, Ter Stegen was 24, a Champions League winner and a lot more confident than when he joined the club. He conceded just 0.92 goals per game to finish second in LaLiga’s award for the most effective goalkeepers, the Zamora award, while in 2017/18 he is on course to beat Atlético Madrid’s Jan Oblak to the prize, having made some jaw-dropping parries over the first half of the campaign.
The patience shown by both the player and the club is now paying off and Barcelona have provided the rest of Europe’s top clubs with a template for how to incorporate a pricey and talented young goalkeeper into a new system. Football clubs have always given game playing time to academy ‘keepers in cup competitions, but by doing so with a €12m signing, Barcelona have taken the art of slowly introducing a new goalkeeper to a whole new level.
Other clubs can and will learn from them, perhaps even just down the road where Real Madrid are expected to sign 23-year-old Kepa Arrizabalaga from Athletic Club. By giving him his own redshirt year behind Keylor Navas, they too could eventually reap the rewards of goalkeeping patience.