Goalkeeping is the one area where familiarity breeds anything but contempt. It is fundamental in bringing stability, consistency and confidence to a goalkeeper’s – and indeed his team’s – game.
Despite being separated by a little over a thousand miles, Joe Hart and Claudio Bravo were joined together in their debut appearances for their new clubs by errors. One was more costly than the other as Bravo’s error merely gave hope to United, while Hart’s proved the starting point to personally handing Atalanta all three points.
For goalkeepers there is a common thread of difficult debuts, particularly for those moving abroad where a change of language initially provides a huge barrier. Massimo Taibi may be a standard bearer for difficult starts to a keeper’s career but he is certainly not alone.
Of course at the very top level of football, players’ performances are put under microscopic scrutiny but there has to be an acceptance and an understanding that keepers especially need time to adjust and settle. It’s just too easy and lazy to describe a goalkeeper as “shocking” without this caveat as to why and how it might have come about.
Guardiola’s post match comments describing Bravo’s debut as “amazing” and praising him for attacking the ball all stem from his acceptance that keepers who are positive in taking high balls and playing what many would call “risky” passes, may just get caught out now and again. To have that kind of backing from your manager means that when errors do happen, they don’t affect you as much.
Because of the consequences to any errors of judgement, familiarity with regards to team-mates and the environment around them on and off the pitch is paramount to a goalkeeper’s state of mind. At this early stage in Hart’s and Bravo’s time at their clubs almost everything is alien to them and it is imperative they find a routine to provide them with a comfort blanket that will aid their consistency.
I know from experience in my own career how difficult it can be. I changed clubs twice on the eve of a season’s start, with contrasting results. As a 22-year-old with Darlington I moved to Aberdeen two days before the season opener. One minute I was preparing to face Halifax, the next I was on a flight to Scotland and shoved into a hotel room with a piece of paper, revising the names of my team-mates and preparing to face Celtic live on TV. I returned to my room later that evening, overwhelmed by the occasion and a 5-0 defeat.
Six years later as I joined Silkeborg in Denmark under similar circumstances, plus a language barrier and more unfamiliar names to add to it. This time it ended with 3-2 win against Sonderjyske, which included some important saves but still an error costing us their first goal but luckily, like Bravo, not the win.
The relationship between a goalkeeper and the players directly in front of him is key as it is needed to provide a platform. A keeper should know the strengths and, perhaps more importantly, the weaknesses of his team-mates, so he can adjust his positions and actions accordingly. With just over a week since both players arrived, there has been little time to strike up a professional rapport and for a few weeks at least they will be playing from instinct, doing what comes naturally until they begin to shape their game into that of their team.
If you look back at both of their mistakes, they are actually positive decisions and as a rule you’d applaud them both for being bold. With hindsight though, it’s easy to say they should have played safe and let their defenders deal with those kinds of deliveries until they have their feet under the table but perhaps that may have proved a good policy. Whatever position you hold in team, when you arrive at a new club there’s a desire to impress but as a keeper that can prove to be a dangerous notion. More often than not, your keenness to be pro-active leads to you manufacturing situations, coming for balls that defenders can easily deal with instead of letting the play come to you.
A keeper’s decision-making process is affected by his senses being battered with new information; his clarity of thought is clouded, which is why erratic performances are so common and that is why in these initial few weeks at a club a keeper should play safe until calm has been restored to his head and his game.
Clubs and managers need to take this into account when bringing in a cornerstone of their side and if their has been a failing by anyone it’s by the clubs themselves. Circumstances can dictate the timing of a signing and Jasper Cillessen’s arrival at Barça triggered Bravo’s move and in turn Hart’s but all three clubs would have been better served by getting their business done at the beginning of pre-season, giving their keepers the time necessary to bed in.
Not that this is new territory for Bravo. On his arrival at Barcelona from Real Sociedad, his debut in a friendly against Napoli was ruined by a double error, after first giving the ball away with a loose pass and then allowing the ball to squirm though his hands from the subsequent shot. But it was a friendly, a chance to get that first, difficult game out of the way and move on as he did so successfully, showing the value of time spent developing bonds.
In six weeks’ time Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s goal will be less likely to happen because the hours spent together during games and on the training pitch will mean Bravo’s voice and style of play will be more known to John Stones and their work together will be less jarring and much more cohesive.
David Preece is a goalkeeping coach and writer who played professionally in England, Scotland, Denmark and Iceland between 1992-2014