Save Well For Less: Which Clubs Consistently Get The Best Goalkeepers For Bargain Prices?

By Alex Connor

News • Apr 22, 2024

Save Well For Less: Which Clubs Consistently Get The Best Goalkeepers For Bargain Prices?

What does history tell us about the clubs who've bought well in the transfer market?

Goalkeepers are built for legacies. 

With a longer life span in their careers and perhaps more of a reluctance of clubs to change their shot-stopper, it is the perfect opportunity for positional longevity. Yet, there is an underlying reluctance for the transfer budget to be splashed on a goalkeeper: but why? 

Of course, there is an ignorance attached to the position. Not from goalkeepers themselves but the outsiders. Goalkeepers are inherently undervalued, in terms of fees and importance. In recent years we have slightly turned the corner as goalkeepers often perform as the eleventh outfielder, with an intense focus on technical impudence, passing vision and confidently building from the back. 

Due to the nature of the transfer market, goalkeepers often become available for astoundingly low prices. Spending the least amount of money on the position that is likely to change the least appears counter-intuitive. If you plan to build a dynasty with a player, theory would state that the most expensive options provide the best ones. Pay cheap, pay twice, as they say. 

The list of the most expensive goalkeepers of all time pales into insignificance when compared to the average yearly spend of clubs on outfield players. 

For context, you could sign Thibaut Courtois (one of, if not the world's best goalkeeper) three times over for the same fee that Arsenal paid for Declan Rice in the summer of 2023 (reported £105 million plus add ons). That's based on the reported £35 million Real Madrid paid to take him to the Spanish capital from Chelsea. Or, you could grab about six Marc-Andre ter Stegens based on Barcelona's 12 million Euros fee for him in 2014 (about 17 million Euros adjusted for inflation). 

Thibaut Courtois 3.jpg

Goalkeepers ticking the criteria of somebody who is brimming with ready-made quality or potential to flourish into an unquestionable first choice can be available within the depths of the market. This is the beauty of the transfer window and goalkeeper bargain hunting. 

Inter Milan are one team that loves a bargain. 

Since 2020, Matteo Darmian, Arturo Vidal, Hakan Calhanoglu, Edin Dzeko, Denzel Dumfries, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and Marcus Thuram have all arrived at the San Siro for €15m or less. However, since 2020, Inter have lost €470.6m according to The Athletic, and has been pushed into this region of the market. 

Nevertheless, the Nerazzurri’s forensic eye for a cheap goalkeeper has been tremendous. In 2012, Samir Handanovic joined the club for a reported €15m, facing the daunting task of replacing Julio Cesar. But the Slovenian was ever-present and produced a fabulous dynasty in Lombardy, amassing 455 appearances and keeping 166 clean sheets. The fee equates to about 22 million Euros today. For reference, Manuel Neuer cost Bayern Munich about 30 million Euros when he joined from Schalke in 2008. 

Inter are not a one-trick pony and replicated their cunning eye for a cheap goalkeeper. Andre Onana’s career had been catapulted into uncertainty after he was banned for nine months by UEFA (reduced from twelve by the Court of Arbitration for Sport) after testing positive for a banned substance. In the summer of 2022, the Nerazzurri acquired his services and in his first season, he conceded just 36 goals in 41 games, keeping 19 clean sheets. 

The former Ajax man also played every minute of the Champions League campaign, in which they excruciatingly lost the final to treble-chasing Manchester City.  

Due to financial constraints, Onana was sold to Manchester United for over £40m, leaving Inter at square one. But, once again, Inter replied with devastating effect in the form of Yann Sommer. The idea of a 34-year-old joining a club for €6.75m sounds fairly uninspiring, but this guileful piece of business has paid off remarkably. 

Yann Sommer 2.jpg

With Sommer, Inter have been impenetrable and are cruising toward the Serie A title. They have conceded just 15 goals in 31 matches and are 14 points clear at the top. Sommer, when compared against his positional peers in Europe’s top five leagues, ranks very highly in basic measurements of goalkeeper performance, such as save percentage and clean sheets. 

Though these statistics don't tell the full story, it is true that they give legitimacy to the claim that Sommer has, for some years, been one of Europe's most underrated elite goalkeepers. 

It is a recurring theme in Italian football. AC Milan and Juventus complete the Northern triumvirate of clubs who can sniff the most impeccable bargains. 

Inter’s city rival signed Mike Maignan for just €16.4m in 2021 and had just clinched an unlikely Ligue 1 title with Lille. Similarly to Handanovic, he was drafted into a difficult situation. His predecessor Gianluigi Donnarumma, who became the second-youngest goalkeeper to make his debut in Serie A in 2015, aged 16 years and 242 days, was automatically endeared to the vociferous home support, swiftly establishing a reputation as one of the most promising goalkeepers in the world. 

During his formative years with the Rossoneri, he was named the Serie A’s Goalkeeper of the Year and secured the Yashin Trophy. But a bitter departure for Paris Saint-Germain paved the way for Maignan to take centre stage. In his debut campaign, Maignan collected 17 clean sheets in 32 appearances, won the Serie A, and was named the league’s Best Goalkeeper and in the Team of the Season. 

Since Hugo Lloris’ departure from international football, Maignan is now France’s number one goalkeeper, and in an interview with TF1, Didier Deschamps has showered the shot-stopper in praise. “He really oozes confidence and calmness,” said the World Cup-winning manager. 

After over ten years at Arsenal, Wojciech Szczesny joined Juventus for £10m. Another pillar of reliability and responsibility, the towering Polish international won the title in his first three seasons and has been the undisputed first choice for the last six years. Szczesny’s time in North London generated mixed fanfare, due to his inconsistency and unpredictability. 

Before his journey with the Old Lady, Szczesny spent two years on loan at Roma and praised how goalkeepers are prepared and coached in Italy. In an interview with The Independent, he said: “The coaches in Italy are much more tactical, that’s just how the league works. 

Wojciech Szczesny.jpg

"The preparation for the game is different to what I was used to in England. You work on the shape of the team for a particular match all week. At Arsenal, you’d  prepare physically for it but here you watch film analysing a specific opponent before the game and afterwards we’ll watch again to see what worked and what didn’t. 

The goalkeeping school in Italy is very different, it’s very technical and pays more attention to the details. In the two-and-a-half years since I came to Italy, I’ve improved massively which is thanks to the coaches and the way they work.” 

The Premier League has also seen its fair share of bargain goalkeeper transfers. In recent years, mid-table teams have acquired league-leading goalkeepers.

Bernd Leno's move to Fulham was a masterstroke in the summer of 2022. The German goalkeeper had fallen out of favour at Arsenal due to the arrival and form of Aaron Ramsdale. Fulham quickly capitalised and brought Leno to Craven Cottage for a reported £8 million. Leno would eventually come third in the Goalkeeper xG Overall Goalkeeper Ranking in 2022/23, behind only Alisson Becker and Emiliano Martinez.

Goalkeepers exist in a strange paradox. They are constantly on the edge of extensive criticism as their mistakes can be the most glaring and costly. But, it is arguably the safest position on the pitch, if performed reliably and consistently, with the ideal opportunity at an enduring legacy. And these legacies can be built on the most modest and unassuming transfer fees.

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