Paulo Gazzaniga must have had a very lonely Saturday evening. Tottenham’s third-choice goalkeeper found out 24 hours before the game with Crystal Palace that Michel Vorm would not be playing and that he would be making his debut. Most likely, that would have been a long night staring into the bathroom mirror.
Being a third-choice goalkeeper is supposed to be the best job in football and would seem to rely as much on personality as it does ability. The back-up’s back-up must be competent, of course, but his value likely depends more on a willingness to accept certain realities and leave his competitive instincts at the door. Come to training, keep yourself in good shape, but don’t sulk at the lack of opportunities.
Prior to kick-off at Wembley yesterday, Toni Jimenez led Gazzaniga through his warm-up: some simple footwork, some basic catch-and-distribution drills, and some shot-stopping which gradually rose in intensity. While Gazzaniga looked competent, it was telling that Jimenez took extra care to applaud his every save and stop. That was a coach earning his money and preparing a player for a challenge which he wasn’t necessarily equipped to meet.
The story from Sunday afternoon is that Gazzaniga actually played quite well. Aside from nearly decapitating Mamadou Sakho in the opening minutes and allowing Wilfried Zaha to dance around him early in the second-half, he produced a series of saves at critical moments in the game. His denial of Andros Towsend, in particular, was excellent.
But the sub-text is fascinating. There’s little analysis of goalkeeping in the mainstream media, but most appreciate the mental disciplines associated with it. We’re informed by a series of truisms: we know it’s the most psychologically taxing position on the field, we know that continuity in selection is important, and we understand the relevance of all sorts of familiarities. Being comfortable with a defence is important, so too being experienced in a particular league. Goalkeeping performance, we’re told, is less about saving shots and catching crosses, and more about the accuracy of a series of micro decisions.
It stands to reason, of course, that the confident player, the one informed by his own successful past, is far more likely to get those right.
Within that context, Gazzaniga did extremely well. He spent last season on-loan at Rayo Vallecano in the Spanish Segunda Division and actually made over thirty appearances. However, in the three seasons prior he had made just twelve starts, including a paltry four since August 2014. With such scarce involvement – and considering the stylistic chasm between the Spanish second-tier and the Premier League – his performance on Sunday was mildly remarkable. True, had Zaha shown more composure when facing an empty goal it would have been downgraded and, had Kevin Friend pointed to the penalty spot after the Sakho incident then, again, the tone of his appearance would likely have been very different.
But even in those moments there was something to admire. Given the circumstances, Gazzaniga could have done with a strong early involvement: a simple claim of a high-ball, perhaps, or a basic save. Earning a gentle round of applause from the Wembley crowd would have dampened many of the fears he presumably felt before kick-off. In reality, he began as badly as possible: with raw clumsiness and a hesitation which sent a wave of concerned chuntering through the stadium. Gazzaniga would have been aware of that, it was impossible for him not have been, and yet he responded very well. In fact, from that point on he was aerially excellent and made good, early decisions which were finished with strong execution.
There’s no need for hyperbole or to exaggerate his appearance into something it wasn’t. Hugo Lloris regularly makes excellent saves which form the backbone of Tottenham victories and, albeit with less frequency, so too does Michel Vorm. But Gazzaniga deserves recognition: although clearly less talented than either Lloris or Vorm, he managed to ensure that they weren’t missed.
The third-choice ‘keeper has an unique job description. Essentially, he’s tasked with doing his very best impression of players of superior ability. An actor, he’s asked to step out onto the stage, in front of 70,000 people and a live television audience, and not be the reason why the entire production fails. Whichever analogy you choose to use, that sounds terrifying and like the kind of situation which would crush most normal personality types.