Real Madrid’s fans have grown accustomed to the routine often gone through for the unveiling of a big-name, big-money signing. In the summer of 2009, 80,000 supporters packed out the Santiago Bernabeu to welcome Cristiano Ronaldo as the club’s latest Galactico. Four years later, it was Gareth Bale who was given the ticker-tape reception.
Thibaut Courtois was Real Madrid’s big summer signing, their only summer signing besides the return to the club of Mariano Diaz, but when he was rolled out on to the Santiago Bernabeu pitch there were only a handful in the stands waving back. There were even fewer with his name on the back of their shirt.
Of course, few fans are energised by the signing of a goalkeeper. Shot-stoppers have never been more valuable than they are now in the modern game, but nonetheless, a goal-getting centre forward will always catch the imagination over a keeper. There’s more than this to the ambivalence felt over Courtois’ arrival at Real Madrid, though.
Keylor Navas didn’t really need replaced. The Costa Rican is a three-time Champions League winner and technically the most successful goalkeeper in Real Madrid history. But no matter what Navas did, no matter how well he played or how many trophies he got his hands on, speculation over his future swirled.
Had it not been for a faulty fax machine, Navas would have been replaced by David De Gea in the summer of 2015, with the Costa Rican heading to Manchester United as part of the deal. For so long it seemed inevitable that De Gea would one day end up at the Santiago Bernabeu. Courtois was, in some sense, a consolation prize as Real Madrid failed in their efforts to lure their number one target.
Through loyalty to Navas and disappointment of missing out on De Gea, Courtois’ signing largely underwhelming. Many doubted whether the Belgian was even an upgrade on Navas, with Courtois frequently culpable for mistakes in his final season at Chelsea. While so many other areas of the Real Madrid team needed strengthening, the addition of another goalkeeper was a signing for a signing’s sake.
Despite all this, Courtois is finally starting to prove his worth at his new club. Julen Lopetegui opted for a policy of rotation between his two goalkeepers, with Courtois favoured for La Liga games and Navas the Champions League number one. It was a strategy that didn’t really work, with both goalkeepers less than convincing as they were swapped in and swapped out on a game-to-game basis.
Now, however, Santiago Solari has decided to stick with one over the other, using Courtois for both La Liga and Champions League games. This has seen the Belgian achieve a level of consistency with his performances, establishing a relationship with the defence in front of him. That should have happened weeks, even months ago, but Lopetegui’s rotation never allowed for that.
Luis Enrique somehow made it work as Barcelona manager, switching between Claudio Bravo and Marc-Andre Ter Stegen. But this was the exception to an otherwise proven rule. It’s now conventional practice to use a different goalkeeper for cup games, and Navas has played in the Copa del Rey for Real Madrid this season, but using two different keepers on a regular basis very rarely works.
Real Madrid have given themselves a lot of work to salvage their season, but under Solari they are making a gradual recovery. The former Castilla coach has done nothing revolutionary, not yet anyway, but his decision to make Courtois his number one has made quite the impact. Some still believe Navas to be the better goalkeeper, but using him in rotation hasn’t worked. Solari has at least recognised this.
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