The 'keeper conundrum

Posted by eXec-5 on June 14, 2005, 06:07:12 PM

Assembling a playing squad is a hugely complex process that merits consideration on many levels. As a hugely successful Championship Manager (clean sweep this year with Nesta, Carra, Adriano and Shevchenko as key players), I tend to focus mainly on ability, but thought clearly needs to be put into the demographic structure of the squad as well. The most successful teams always seem to have a healthy combination of experienced professionals and up-and-coming youngsters, with some real veterans thrown in for good measure.

   In all positions on the field there needs to be competition for places, but that competition works the best when an established player gets challenged by a younger lad. Even in today’s squad-rotating age, this holds true; the older player invariably plays the most games, until the younger eventually takes over, and the older leaves. Fierce competition between two relatively young players for one spot doesn’t always yield the same effects; it often leads to the departure of one, who may still have been a very talented and useful squad player for years. At Liverpool, the dysfunctional Fowler/Owen relationship was a good case in point.

   Another interesting position is the goalkeeper’s spot, an area in which LFC squad policy has seemed particularly daft in later years. In 2001, Houllier seemingly lost sanity for a day when buying two young top-class 'keepers to replace Sander Westerveld, without telling either of the arrival of the other. Nearly five years later, neither player can be said to have been a success. Jerzy Dudek, who was 27 when he signed, literally let initial promise slip through his hands in an infamous Anfield encounter with Diego Forlan in 2002, and never recovered. Chris Kirkland, who signed at 20, and who at the time incarnated the great English goalkeeping tradition, has become a byword for injury-induced inconsistency.

   As we prepare for a serious challenge to the current triumvirate of English league football, the goalkeeper’s position is still a problem. Kirkland seems destined to leave Anfield, while Dudek seems keen to fight for his place. Most of us seem ready to cut the Pole some slack after that Champions League Final, but we’re also queasy about him being our number one. Aside from some purely technical issues, mainly his inability to deal with crosses, he is prone to some appalling mental switch-offs. Dudek’s Istanbul heroics assure him a permanent place in Liverpool folklore, but it’s easy to forget that he made two grave errors in the very same game! At the end of the day he’s a competent keeper, more than good enough at back-up, but not what we really need. However, as an established 32-year old international, he won't accept being number two, even at the Champions of Europe. Exit Dudek.

   Chris Kirkland is in the fast lane down the road to perdition, and now enters a make-or-break season. On his day he’s an able goalkeeper, but he has patently not fulfilled his potential. Only a couple of seasons ago, Kirkland was hailed as the best English youngster since Shilton, but instead of domination, he has encountered stagnation. Kirkland's problems are mostly of his own making – he needs to improve both his physical and mental strength. Injuries can be shaken off with time ('sicknotes' Owen and Gerrard are forceful cases in point), but Kirkland also needs to become more vocal and attack-minded, as he's hugely underwhelming in the box. He might yet make it, but whether he will at Anfield looks doubtful. He's been here for nigh-on five years now, and seemingly out of favour with Rafa Benitez, he might need to start with a clean slate at a club with less pressure than Liverpool. Exit Kirkland.

   Without the ‘Houllier Two’, what are our options? Incidentally, there’s a new kid in town: 19 year old Scott Carson. Very much a Benitez man – he was his first English signing – the former Leeds United ‘keeper has already played in a Champions League quarter final (against Juventus, no less), convincing a fair few fans of his promise in the process. In fact, I'll go out on a limb right away and say that if Dudek (or Kirkland) stays at Afield, we should start the next season with Carson as our main keeper. Premature, maybe, but it's just a feeling. Small details like the way he marshals his box, something Kirkland and Dudek have never been capable of doing. He's shown more than enough maturity in the games he's played to be given the nod, and he could conceivably become a new Robinson.

   However, neither Dudek nor Kirkland will stay as second choice, and one remaining goalkeeper is not enough. Every club needs at least two top-level keepers (and a third-choice youngster), but the dynamics of the goalkeeping duo merits careful examination. If we’re to bring in another ‘keeper, he would want to play, unless he’s happy to develop under an experienced, established player. But Carson, my preferred choice, is only 19, meaning we would have trouble getting a new player who’d be good enough and at the same time willing to wait (potentially for years). Thus, strange as it may seem given my statement above, Carson cannot be the clear number one yet.

   Now Rafa’s apparent transfer target is Jose Reina, a 22-year-old Spaniard. It might be good to get the disclaimer™ out of the way at once: Rafa Benitez watches players in training on a daily basis, and is infinitely more competent at evaluating them than I’ll ever be. Still, I don’t understand why we’re looking at another promising youngster, who would be a direct long-term threat to Carson.

   If we get Reina, who will apparently cost about £6M, it can mean that Rafa doesn’t think Carson is good enough in the long term, which seems weird as he bought him only five months ago. Alternatively, he might like to keep his options open, having two up-and-coming competing goalkeepers in the squad. To my mind, however, this is the worst possible solution. Keepers, more than any other players, need stability and confidence; I struggle to think of successful sides which have not had a clear number one. And anyway, nobody buys £6M goalkeepers only to let them warm the bench, so Reina is bound to get the nod at first. It might mean losing Carson in the long term, which would be a real shame.

   I feel the best option would be going for an experienced keeper instead of Reina. That player should be significantly better than Dudek, but old enough to be retiring in a couple of years. This would send out a clear signal to Carson that he’s the future, but that he needs to develop under an experienced mentor for a couple of years. Carson would obviously get games, but the pressure would be substantially lower than as our main man, or than as the second horse in a two-horse race with Reina. Without wishing to speculate (very much), I think a player like Antti Niemi would be perfect. As the Saints are no longer marching, he’d be cheap as well.

   Whatever the outcome of the summer’s various transfer sagas, I would hope we enter the new season with a new number one goalkeeper. Whether this will be Carson, Reina or someone else remains to be seen, but here’s hoping for a slightly saner ‘keeper policy than these last few years. With its illustrious goalkeeping history, this club really deserves it.

© eXec-5 2005

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