Novelist Vladimir Nabokov called the goalkeeper 'a lone eagle', and 'the man of mystery'. Do they remain an enigma to their manager or can the boss truly bond with his number one?
When Frank Lampard gave Edouard Mendy a start against Nottingham Forest this month, it confused Kepa Arrizabalaga as much as the rest of us. Kepa had done little wrong and wasn’t dropped in the official sense. According to Lampard, a shuffle of security at the back didn’t matter at this stage of the season because “in the situation we are in, to give him a game was no problem.”
It turns out that six months of out of the starting eleven wasn’t good preparation for the Senegalese goalkeeper. Kepa swiftly returned for Manchester City’s title processional at the weekend.
Under Lampard’s original stewardship, the seeds of manager-goalkeeper bonding were bending only one way in a two-way fight: Frank was frank about Ed, the shiny new signing that Petr Cech had scouted so diligently: “Engaging, trains hard, wants to talk and make relationships with the players. It’s been a really good start for him.” Within weeks, the manager pronounced him as the man in possession of the number one shirt. The Lamps and Kepa relationship contained more ice than Frozen.
On the face of it, the goalkeeper-manager workload has several similarities that should create understanding. Here are two people with a unique remit of individual pressures; who have to suffer the most when the ball rockets over the 'wrong' white line. They are the goods handlers, the directors, and the scanners that can pan the whole of the pitch. When they make a mistake, the dominos fall inwards. The responsibility of picking up the pieces as last man standing can be overwhelming.
Senegal’s coach Aliou Cisse kept the faith after Mendy’s poor opening to the World Cup against Holland: "Edouard's qualities speak for themselves, I don't think that anyone is doubting him, sometimes he has highs, sometimes he has lows, he has my full trust, my blind trust, and that of his teammates. Tomorrow he will be on the pitch."
That “blind trust” binds the closest manager-goalkeeper dynamic. It transcends the noise on the ground. Wrexham's Mark Howard, face of the Your's, Mine, Away! Podcast said "We're used to working in 90 minutes in our head" when talking to Goalkeeper.com.
The physical demands of the outfielder are different to the intensity of the boss and what Pep Guardiola described as the most important position. Ederson will certainly tell you that he can’t even let his guard down when his team have just scored.
It has been just over 20 years since Gordon Strachan articulated his thoughts on the subject, suggesting that he never really wanted to get into their mindset. “Goalkeepers need to work through their crises with one of their own.”, the Scot claimed.
Strachan was right in one way. The netminders run through their issues with a trusted goalkeeper coach. The latter is the best conduit to the manager and the closest confidant to a very specific process that creates rigour and security in a sole trader role. Former Leeds United and Reading boss Brian McDermott, now Director of Football at Hibernian, would use his own judgement allied to those on the inside gang of the goalkeeper clan.
“I never played in goal so I won't say I know the nuances of goalkeeping. They are sort of unique characters, I found, and of course I talk to the goalkeeper coach. But ultimately, it's about what happens on the pitch. So that doesn't really change. It's not what someone else says to me, it's what I see.”
This doesn’t mean that goalkeepers are an impenetrable bunch of outsiders. The relationship between manager and goalkeeper can go way back. Just as managers take chosen assistants to different jobs, so they will go back to collect a trusted custodian from their slumber. Neil Warnock used Paddy Kenny no less than five times during a career where they probably knew each other more than some members of their own families. It was a relationship that could survive any fallouts. They had each other’s backs.
McDermott acknowledges that goalkeepers are now expected to perform skills other than mere saves; “If you look at some teams, they’re not going to play from the back so it’s not that important if the goalkeeper can pass it or not. I had Adam Federici at Reading who was unbelievable with his feet. And he had the sidewinder kick.”
As the culture club of styles becomes more widespread, the pressure points between managers and goalkeepers have been thrown into a new light. In recent times, Brighton’s Robert Sanchez has been usurped while Robert De Zerbi has boldly put forward Jason Steele to play the high-risk high-reward game from the back.
As Steele has said, it’s for the greater good: "We are doing it for a purpose. I'm not doing it to have people say you're decent on the ball". De Zerbi has specifically insinuated that the team is playing with “one player more” due to Steele’s ball-playing ability. It’s a relationship that has escalated fast and in the right direction.
Substance can still trump style, though. The person underneath the shirt has to have the character to survive the tidal waves when they come. Ultimately, McDermott also had to protect Federici when the Australian went through a bad patch in 2012. The removal from the team is always more sensitive for a goalkeeper but it’s a prerequisite for anyone who is the last defender to cope with the rocks and stones of life.
“I had to do it with Adam Federici when we were in the Premier League. I took him out of the team, and he had been brilliant for me”, recalls McDermott.
"Likewise, I had to loan Alex McCarthy out at one point, which I didn't want to do, but I needed to, because he needed to play games. But listen, no decision is ever personal. I always tried to make every decision based on what was best for the team and the club”, he explains.
Therein lies the most priceless decision of all. Keeping goalkeepers onside when they feel marginalised is critical.
The goalkeeper might be a lone eagle, but he can learn to fly with the right backing.