The position with the unluckiest number

Three hundred and seventy-six combined international caps of the same playing position were sat on the benches of the English Premier League’s teams during the Week 28 fixture list.

Although, international caps may not be an exact measure of talent, just remember Michael Ricketts has one. Nevertheless, it is certain that the Premier League is awash with talented benches particularly in this one position that the opening statistic alludes to.

 

That is the position that can be the most lonesome in football, the one most susceptible to errors and one where a promising career can derail in an instance. A prime example of the latter, which truly displays the vulnerability of this position, is also the leading contender for ‘what player has played the fewest games in a professional career?’ – Stuart Taylor being the answer.

Yes, the position I refer to is the goalkeeping number two. It is a spot in the team that holds no flexibility, no tactical tweaking and no mercy for those deemed surplus to requirements, but at the same time not free to move on.

Whereas outfield players can play a variety of positions, just look at Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanović and Manchester United’s utility man Daley Blind, a goalkeeping position is confined to just the one, and so leaving the one considered number two to stew on the sidelines.

Of course there have been a few instances that contradict this, such as the never to be forgotten moment when David James donned a striker’s jersey to play up front for Manchester City under the instructions of Stuart Pearce.

The accumulative 376 international caps above don’t even include the 20 caps of former Barcelona number one Victor Valdes, nor are the 22 caps of the banished Wojciech Szczesny a part of that sizeable total.

Neither were included on the bench despite a full bill of health, both undoubtedly will have been reflecting on happier times when they were between the sticks rather facing the reality of time spent on reserve duty.

In the former’s case his somewhat surprising move to Manchester United in January has really brought to the surface just what is the role of the number two goalkeeper position at the world’s most elite clubs? What was his motivation in moving to Manchester to take up the certain position of understudy to the 2014/15 in-form goalkeeper David De Gea?

Recent transfer markets has shown an unforeseen, predominantly European, trend of top-quality, international, experienced goalkeepers taking up positions in the entrapped footballing abyss that can be the number two spot, or the old-fashioned squad number thirteen. Further bringing into question just what the rationale is behind such seemingly regressive career moves.

Shot-stoppers such as Pepe Reina and World Cup sensation Guillermo Ochoa currently take up the spaces on the bench at Bayern Munich and Malaga respectively.

Ochoa is yet to make an appearance in the league at his new club and Reina just made his long-awaited league debut seven months after signing for the Bavarian powerhouses.

The motives

Competition

The phrase bashed around these days is ‘a team must have competition for every position.’ And who could argue lack of competition certainly breeds complacency, but this quite recent development in the complexity of the goalkeeping situation is certainly depriving us (the fans) and the number twos themselves (the benchwarmers) of some spectacular moments of Hollywood-esque saves and cat-like reflexes.

Moreover we’ve seen how the chopping and changing of goalkeepers can be beneficial to not only the number two, in terms of getting some game time, but more importantly for the team.

The dreaded drop to the bench may give the originally designated number one, as was the case with Liverpool’s Simon Mignolet, the mental wakeup call to snap out of a run of bad form. Hence, this may reveal how the role of competition may be used to spur on the ultimately more talented first choice.

Nevertheless there is a fine balance between keeping your number one and number two in optimum shape that won’t have a negative effect on either’s performance. A decisive downturn in quality of performance of the goalkeeper not getting his match day fingers stung by raspy shots is specifically a number two’s problem.

 

Whilst this may be less apparent on the training pitch it is most definitely evident on the field of play. Especially if we judge it by the two absolute rickets that Tottenham’s summer recruit Michel Vorm produced in the 2-1 defeat to Leicester in the fourth round of this year’s FA Cup.

This aspect of being a substitute goalkeeper reveals the quagmire of despair that can affect their longevity to play at the highest level, as was perhaps the case with the aforementioned Stuart Taylor, perhaps.

Trying to maintain match sharpness whilst not playing any matches in a position that requires the senses and hand-to-eye coordination to be at their best is nigh on impossible and certainly unreasonable to expect.

Consequently competition may well be a motivation but in all likelihood it will not come from within the mind of the player himself, but rather be of the club as their desire to provide a continual incentive to their man between the sticks.

Cover

Never more evident than in Premier League Week 30’s incidents that saw 2014/15 season’s prominent goaltenders Hugo Lloris and Fraser Forester stretchered off with serious looking injuries.

The previously mentioned Vorm may get an extended opportunity to display his viability to act as competition rather than the liability he has thus far displayed in the no.2 position, a deep contrast to his previous starring role in Swansea City’s success over the past few seasons.

But cover is again the pure motivation of the club, no player would likely move with the intention of hoping his rivals get injured or suspended, hopefully anyway.

Acting the professional

The Premier League’s perpetual example of what constitutes a number thirteen is recently turned 40-year-old Steve Harper who never quite managed to nail down that number 1 spot between the posts.

A career that has spanned 22 seasons Harper has managed 230 appearances, with 100 being outside the Premier League where he has spent the bulk of his career firstly at Newcastle United and now Hull City.

Undoubtedly Harper, who has admitted to its difficulties, must be commended for that key characteristic that must be so prevalent in any player who spends the majority of a season, or a career, warming a seat – professionalism.

As a result we have to look at this professionalism in a way that we would any other job and in doing so the act of earning a wage is certainly a factor that we can consider pertinent to the number two goalkeeping trade with little room for criticism.

An easy or an arduous road

A factor more open for criticism is for the goalkeeper to be suitably happy to remain on the bench for monetary reasons and displaying a clear lack of desire to challenge the number one.

Liverpool’s Brad Jones’ performance against Manchester United earlier this season is an arguable example of the perceived lack of ability or aspiration to cement himself as number one between the posts.

In the game he inexplicably dived out of the way of Wayne Rooney’s shot and also fell for the schoolyard dummied shot of Juan Mata. Since picking up a questionably malingered thigh injury, which allowed Mignolet to reclaim the number one spot Jones has happily retaken the easy road back to his rightful place on the bench.

 

However, when undoubted dressing-room personalities, winners and talents like Victor Valdes, Pepe Reina and Carlos Ochoa take up these positions their reasoning remains debateable.

So by default we must go on to the ‘dirty’ issue of money. Can it be possible that the most recent spate of talented number ones taking up seemingly hopeless positions as number twos is comparable to what Winston Bogarde did for so many years at Chelsea? Something he vigorously denies in a recent interview with The Guardian.

Perhaps in the case of Michel Vorm this may well be true as the summer move to Tottenham is certainly not a decision that was based upon rising up the goalkeeping career ladder. Certainly his position in the Dutch national squad has been effected by the move.

So rather it does seem that the move was based on other matters, such as the fact that it netted him (excuse the pun) an even juicier contract, plus an extra five-year security length, than his previous deal that had two years to run at Swansea.

Although Vorm maintains Tottenham’s participation in the Europa League meant there would be enough opportunities to go around for him not to merely just warm the bench, something that his 11 appearances this season somewhat backs up.

So what of the two prominent Spanish understudies whom, until the recent ascent of certain future Spain number one David De Gea, had spent the best part of a decade as the country’s uninterrupted number two and number three behind the insurmountable, captain and record cap holder Iker Casillas. Could Reina’s reasoning be the lure of the accomplishment of becoming the first goalkeeper to appear in Europe’s top four leagues – doubtful.

More probable is to revisit an earlier factor alluded to in Vorm’s reasoning for choosing the number two position. No, not money but security. Both Reina and Valdes were at a crossroads, Reina had returned to Liverpool, a club he undoubtedly would’ve loved to continue playing, but Brendan Rodgers had made up his mind that Reina would be best to seek other employment.

A three-year deal was on the table in surroundings that would not be too demanding, especially under a growing Spanish presence at Bayern making a move to Germany an easy-going and comfortable decision.

Valdes, 33, a year older than Reina, a three-time Champions League winner has just returned from a lengthy knee injury and may view his move to Manchester United as back-up to a goalkeeper heavily linked with a big-money move back to Spain in the summer as the perfect way to ease his way back into high-level competition, whilst picking up a considerable, not quite ‘dirty,’ wage at the same time.

 

These factors are understandable and certainly logical, however the competitive fire that burns inside every professional athlete is not easily extinguishable, and how long they are prepared to play second fiddle will define how much weight we can lay upon these particular reasons.

It surely, if prolonged, will have a hold on their legacies in the game, after all who remembers Winston Bogarde for being a Champions League, La Liga twice, Copa del Rey, Uefa Super Cup twice, Intercontinental Cup and two-time Eredivisie winner.

Other goalkeeping competition paradigms that exist in the 2014/15 season include a Rocky V style skirmish for the Chelsea number one jersey. Experienced and dominating Petr Cech takes on a rival 10 years his junior and undisputed talent Thibaut Courtois.

Like our other case studies it’s a real shame that either of these gifted stoppers of the football has to be benched come match day. Except unlike the others this battle may not be so clear-cut but more a malign footballing version of ageism. Cech seems ready to admit defeat, unlike Rocky, and move on after spending the majority of the season on the bench.

An unfortunate consequence that affects all sporting athletes, but in a positional profession that serves the longest longevity of others, it will be intriguing to see what the moves of these undeserving backups will be.

Intrinsic motivation

If we look at this from a humanistic point of view we can see the motivation of moving, in most cases, abroad to the position of the underused no.2 as the chance to experience living in another country.

It’s unusual to think of multi-millionaire footballers as just people, but it’s an undoubted modern-day human characteristic to have an interest in other cultures.

So if the opportunity to immerse yourself into a culture or country with very little financial risk and it’s something that you enjoy doing or always have wanted to do then the sacrifice of confinement to the substitute’s bench is perhaps an alacritous one.

To the future

Can we expect to see a throwback to the ludicrous days Jorge Campos?

The goalkeeper come striker put on the striker’s jersey (not a fluorescent multi-coloured one) after signing for Mexican side Pumas and discovering they already had a capable number one.

In his second season with Los Pumas he scored 14 goals, which even involved Campos switching roles during a game if required by the manager.

 

This seems unlikely, but as we see a rise in the sweeper keeper, goalkeepers are now being expected to play a more conspicuous role outside of the safety of their 18-yard box. This development in the goalkeeping world may further evolve the current trend in acquiring highly paid talented number twos.

Perhaps number twos will be acquired based on their alternative skillset to the apparent number one, which will lead to number 1 positions being selected based on the tactics of that particular game.

This seems more applicable for the competitive aspect of the position rather than the current fad of having a set goalkeeper for cup and league competitions. This could in turn pave the way for further transformation and evolution of the definition of what is required of a number two.

Or you never know the next evolution of the goalkeeping position may be quite plausibly the answer to the perhaps overused commentator quip ‘you couldn’t have saved that two goalkeepers’. An idea Jose Mourinho referred to as a fantasy that would make Chelsea a phenomenal undefeatable team.

Author Details

Ross Davis

Ross Davis is currently an English teacher living in South Korea looking to make inroads into the football writing domain. He is a keen follower of the local K-League Classic and any world football he can push the boundaries of sleep deprivation enough to watch. He has written some K-League pieces for www.kleaguefootball.com and posts regular updates on twitter.

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