What gives a goalkeeper ‘presence’? Tim Ellis explores the most memorable moments of goalkeepers coming up big…
Goalkeeping presence is tangible. It is not something to extrapolate via data. There are those epic nights when a visceral sixth sense suggests a goalkeeper will repel everything. Unless an unmissable chance or a penalty comes along. See McGregor, Allan at Anfield on Tuesday.
Over the course of the last decade, the goalkeeper has change in role, responsibility and style. Whilst many managers still prefer the stature of a tall, imposing goalkeeper in the box, the game is slowly becoming more accepting to those with spring, flair and athleticism, such as Jordan Pickford, over traditional giants such as Joe Hart or Petr Cech.
But, with goalkeepers still often the biggest players - and personality - in any starting eleven, it's only right that we appreciate the moments that the big men came up big.
1) Fraser Forster repels Messi and Co. single-handedly. Twice.
Almost a decade ago, Celtic defeated peak Barcelona 2-1 at Parkhead with the Catalan giants having 89 per cent of possession. Lionel Messi managed to finally score in the last minute of the game but that was only a tap-in after another extraordinary save from Fraser Forster. The number ten said: “the performances of Forster against us were talked about for a long time. There was one game in Scotland where he was not human, it is the best goalkeeping performance I have seen.
The Spanish press dubbed Forster La Gran Muralla or ‘The Great Wall’ as Rod Stewart cried a river in the stands after the final whistle. Arguably, Forster was better in the first match at the Nou Camp. There was even talk of the two-metre giant signing up for Barca at one stage.
The definition of presence is Forster standing over James Milner when the midfielder was about to place the ball on the penalty spot in 2017. For once, the hard man was psyched out, and Forster's giant frame sprawled lengthways to deny the veteran from the spot. Now on the periphery of the England and Tottenham Hotspur pictures, memories of Forster in his presence-filled prime are bittersweet.
2) Thibaut Courtois becomes Mr Incredible
Courtois was a man on a mission in Paris in the Champions League final this summer just gone. He was moments away from a winners medal in 2014 – thanks to an Iker Casillas howler – when Sergio Ramos bulleted a 93rd- minute header into the right-hand corner to set Los Blancos on course for La Decima. Atletico subsequently collapsed in extra-time
Eight years later, the Belgian played like he knew this was his time. All of the (perceived) negative coverage from England only heightened his focus: “Nobody could take away my desire (to win a Champions League)", he stated to the in-awe media.
Sadio Mane’s rasping shot just over 20 minutes into the game looked to be a sure-fire goal by the naked eye, but Courtois stepped, sprung, and sprawled his giant limbs, somehow getting enough on the ball to touch it downwards onto the post. Mane’s reaction threw an expletive into the Parisian air.
Mo Salah’s equally frustrated reaction was the perfect bookend when his sharp shot – his sixth on target – was expertly diverted with a spread and a mechanical arm eight minutes from time. The Egyptian struck the ground with both fists as David Alaba jumped into his goalkeeper’s arms. Courtois was Mr Incredible that night. And then some. Let's call it circadian rhythms all working to order.
“Once you make the first stop then you're focused, and I took chances from Mane and Salah. Especially Salah's, I looked for it from distance, and I knew where the ball was going. It's crazy, I don't believe it", recalled Courtois.
It was one of those nights that fate, literally, had a hand.
3) Alisson makes it look easy in Madrid
The best goalkeepers don’t look as though they are working too hard to keep the ball out of harm’s way. Alisson’s unshowy performance in the 2019 Champions League final against Tottenham Hotspur, when the Reds claimed UCL number six, was a case in point.
There are more stunning saves out there, but everything the Brazilian did that night was as clean as a whistle. From pushing Heung-Min Son’s shots away from danger to gathering Lucas Moura’s snapshot, to catching Harry Kane’s supersonic drilled hit to his chest in the last minutes of injury time, nothing was going to escape the claws of the Liverpool number one. Tottenham knew it as well. Jurgen Klopp said of the Brazilian: “He makes difficult things look easy," That’s it. That’s exactly it.
In an age where pundits love claiming goalkeepers ‘for the camera’, Alisson's silky, solid performance reinforced the importance of getting the important, simpler things right as a goalkeeper - and what a complete, professional, understated performance can do for a team.
4) Yann Sommer prevents Munich munching Monchen
Bayern Munich vs Borussia Monchengladbach. August 2022. Yann Sommer became superhuman.
19 saves are not to be sniffed at. The Swiss goalkeeper stood as wide as a huge Toblerone before it was minimised due to the cost of ingredients crisis. When he kept out Bayern for 83 minutes at the end of August, eleven of those stops were from shots inside the box; a double save from newbie Sadio Mane a particular highlight.
Sommer saw it like this: “95 minutes pressure, pressure, pressure. You have to forget really quickly. There’s another shot coming, there’s another cross coming.” You can safely say he was in the zone. After the game, Bayern coach Julian Nagelsmann quipped to the goalkeeper: “You know, you could take a week off sometime” on Sky Germany's post-match interview panel.
Sommer is perhaps not a traditional goalkeeper when it comes to presence. Standing at only six foot, the Monchengladbach number one is probably the greatest example of how to compensate with skill and athleticism for a perceived ‘lack’ of height. He has consistently come up big in all the big moments; a presence in his own right.
5) De Gea frustrates North London's big two
Arsenal vs Manchester United, December 2017, and Tottenham vs Manchester United, January 2019.
David de Gea might not fit into the total football world of Erik ten Hag but the Spaniard won’t be dumped without due consideration. His ability to make saves that go beyond normal biomechanics is, simply, unreal. When he made 14 stops against Arsenal in a 3-1 win in 2017, the United number one mentioned “you just start a game with a really good save, with a good feeling”. Arsene Wenger added that “on his line he was unbeatable”.
Arguably, De Gea’s eleven interventions in the second half of the 2019 game against Tottenham at Wembley were even better. Spurs were visibly crushed as new United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer reminded everybody that you are allowed to have a good goalkeeper. Harry Kane and company must have been sick of the sight of De Gea’s flailing feet, as four of those saves were with his boots.
Former Futsal England goalkeeping coach Tony Elliott commented: “People will look at that Tottenham game and say it was poor finishing, but that's utter rubbish. Some of those shots would have been goals against other goalkeepers because they would have tried to do it by the book instead.”
David De Gea's shot-stopping has never been in question, but his career continues to stagnate. Could it be that we need to look backwards with our goalkeepers, to what really makes great shot-stoppers great?