The Number Twos Stepping Up In the Premier League Title Race

By Danny Lewis

News • Mar 18, 2024

The Number Twos Stepping Up In the Premier League Title Race

Quality in depth will likely prove pivotal as the Premier League reaches its climax…

The smallest of margins are certain to matter in a title race as close as the one currently being played out in the Premier League. 

An injury to someone as important as a goalkeeper could have been disastrous for Liverpool and Manchester City had Caoimhin Kelleher and Stefan Ortega not proven their ability to step up.

Before proceeding, it is worth noting that reluctant Gunners number two Aaron Ramsdale has stepped in for both of the matches against Brentford since losing his regular place to David Raya. The England international had a nervy moment with his feet in both contests but ultimately emerged with six points, keeping a clean sheet in the first match and impressively denying an audacious attempt from Ivan Toney during the second.

A key difference between the England international’s situation and those of Kelleher and Ortega is that Ramsdale’s appearances were expected. Despite the unexpected circumstances that have seen their services required and the pressure of filling the gloves of two of the Premier League’s best goalkeepers in Alisson and Ederson, both goalkeepers have put in stellar performances when called upon in the league.

Notably, Ortega has been involved in three matches and Kelleher has played in seven, but the only contest either of them has failed to win came against each other – the latter can also boast two clean sheets earned away from Anfield.

Any goalkeeper needs to be ready to play if they’re on the bench – no matter how unlikely it is that they will be brought on – and Ortega has shown that. City's 2-1 victory against Brighton in October was the only one of the 31-year-old’s three league appearances so far this term that he has started.

The first of those occasions came a mere eight minutes into the win against Newcastle United, when Ederson got injured as Sean Longstaff’s goal was ruled out after he had been caught offside. The German was beaten by brilliant quickfire goals from Alexander Isak and Anthony Gordon while Kevin De Bruyne stole the limelight, but he still played his part in securing a vital win.

His introduction against Liverpool came in similar circumstances – albeit later in the match – as Ederson injured himself conceding a penalty that he stayed on the pitch to attempt to save. Having come on in the 56th minute, Ortega spread himself well to deny Darwin Nunez from point blank range and convincingly dealt with efforts from Alexis Mac Allister and Jarell Quansah.

Speaking ahead of the Citizens’ 2-0 FA Cup win against Newcastle – which Ortega would have likely started regardless of Ederson’s situation – Pep Guardiola said: “He’s proven himself since he arrived with incredible quality performances. We’re delighted with all three keepers at the moment but when he’s had to play he’s performed unbelievably.”

While none of Kelleher’s Premier League appearances have come from the bench, they have all arrived when Alisson has been unavailable through injury. It is testament to the Irishman and those around him that there has been no notable drop off during that period. That is especially true considering there have been injuries across the board and ‘Klopp’s kids’ have been called upon, as while Virgil van Dijk will still be the main leader, a youthful set-up could bring extra responsibility for Kelleher.

The aforementioned match with Ortega’s Man City offered an insight into Kelleher’s ability to step up when needed. While he was beaten by John Stones following an intelligent corner routine, the 25-year-old pulled off a variety of saves, including when he palmed away Kevin De Bruyne’s venomous effort and rushed out to deny Phil Foden. 

Even so, Kelleher’s standout performance this term is surely the EFL Cup final, in which he was undoubtedly a contender for man of the match despite a defensive masterclass from Van Dijk. He made a superb save to deny Cole Palmer from point blank range, rushed out to smother Conor Gallagher and stopped another attempt from Palmer before recovering to collect a tame shot from Christopher Nkunku.

That this is already Kelleher’s second eye-catching display in an EFL Cup victory – as he even scored in the penalty shootout win in 2022 – is an incredibly encouraging sign for him. It also offers a suggestion as to why having a ‘cup ‘keeper’ can help so much when a number two is called upon in the Premier League.

Kelleher has made a total of 43 senior appearances for Liverpool with only 12 of those having come in league action, while this is the first campaign in which he has made more than two Premier League appearances.

Especially in the case of an academy graduate, having the experience of winning at the Emirates and Wembley in the EFL Cup as well as playing across Europe this term will undoubtedly help make Premier League fixtures feel less daunting. It's the perfect analogy proving the efficacy of dropping someone in at the deep end and seeing if they'll sink or swim. There's no 'comfortable' introductions' for goalkeepers at the top. 

From Liverpool’s point of view, having somebody of Kelleher’s quality has massive value with Jurgen Klopp having referred to him as the world’s best second-choice; Van Dijk has called him a “world-class goalkeeper”. He is also a Republic of Ireland international. In Europe, Ortega has 67 Bundesliga appearances to his name.

City's signing of Ortega is proving a shrewd bit of business. The blue half of Manchester looks to have a settled goalkeeper department, and one that is adequately equipped for a seamless transition in the shot-stopping department when number one Ederson is out. 

In Liverpool's case, one issue that could arise is whether it will become a struggle to keep Kelleher.

The 25-year-old was ready to leave last summer before eventually staying with the Reds and there will be more speculation regarding his future ahead of the 2024/25 campaign. Celtic seems to be the club most heavily linked with the Irishman as they look to replace Joe Hart following the former England international’s announcement that he will retire at the end of the season.

If factors such as regular first-choice action for a club competing in a title race and in Europe prove too strong to keep Kelleher at Anfield, Liverpool could struggle to find a replacement who could match his quality while also being willing to come in as Alisson’s understudy.

Aside from both Kelleher and Ortega being called upon in a match of such magnitude as Liverpool and Man City’s draw, the rising calibre of second-choice goalkeepers across the Premier League offers an insight into how important that safety net is becoming.

There is the aforementioned situation at Arsenal, rotation between Bart Verbruggen and Jason Steele at Brighton and Hove Albion, Djordje Petrovic keeping Robert Sanchez out of the team after initially filling in for the Spaniard, Martin Dubravka filling in for Nick Pope at Newcastle United, Alphonse Areola taking over from Lukasz Fabianski after years of being his number two, Sam Johnstone and Dean Henderson both being at Crystal Palace and Daniel Bentley coming in for Jose Sa at times this term.

Long gone are the days where number two goalkeepers are seen as solely the supporting act, with Kelleher and Ortega proving that the best of them can make a difference at the very top level.

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