By ‘The Don’ – @donkopleone
I want to start this article off with a disclaimer. This past year I have not been able to watch Italian football frequently enough to sufficiently judge any of the players playing there.
Dybala, Icardi, Koulibaly etc., all great talents, but I would feel uncomfortable giving a detailed opinion on any of them, considering how irregularly I have watched them play.
So the following should be taken with a pinch of salt, as my evaluation is based on the very limited number of performances I have seen. When Alisson is receiving his ninety-first Ballon d’Or, please do not share this article purely to shoot me down.
On New Year’s Eve of 2011, Grant Hanley profited late on as David de Gea made a mess of claiming what seemed to be a fairly routine ball into the box, and Blackburn earned only their second victory at Old Trafford in fifty years.
With de Gea having already cost his United side several points that season, the Blackburn mistake proved a tipping point for Sir Alex Ferguson, who promptly dropped de Gea for Anders Lindegaard.
De Gea’s struggles during his first year in England are well documented, and generally viewed through a lens of positivity: given time to adapt, a struggling, but talented, young goalkeeper can blossom.
Loris Karius’ promising performances at the start of this calendar year, for instance, earned some somewhat hopeful comparisons with the resurgence of de Gea that followed the latter’s time away from the first team.
The Spaniard is now recognised as one of the top three goalkeepers in world football, at the very least, so why could his example act as a warning to Liverpool in regards to our interest in Alisson?
Essentially, de Gea encapsulates the struggles of goalkeepers coming into the Premier League from abroad in recent years. Let me explain.
Since de Gea, nine goalkeepers have been signed from foreign clubs by sides in the so-called ‘top six’: Costel Pantilimon, Hugo Lloris, David Ospina, Willy Caballero, Sergio Romero, Loris Karius, Geronimo Rulli and Ederson. Of these nine, only Lloris and Ederson have been clear and obvious successes.
(I am aware this is sounding like a wordier, but Paul Merson-esque xenophobia-fuelled rant. My apologies.)
All the others have suffered from high profile mistakes, leading to irregular or non-existent runs as their team’s “number one”, and even Lloris- although now Spurs’ captain- did not find the transition into English football to be a particularly smooth one.
I want to focus on one of those names for a moment, Claudio Bravo. The Chilean arrived at Manchester City on the back of a great season in Spain and Barcelona did not want him to leave.
He was performing well enough to keep the emerging Marc-André Ter Stegen out of the team. In fact, Bravo was considered one of the best goalkeepers in the world, before he came to the Premier League. Note his comparison amongst the world’s best during his last season at Barcelona:
Yet, the very next season, Bravo’s troubles seemed to mimic those which de Gea had faced during his first season in England. Frequent mistakes, particularly when dealing with crosses and balls into the box, meant Bravo was promptly replaced by Ederson- the only member of that earlier list whose success in the Premier League was instant.
Notably, Ederson has struggled less with aerial balls than any of the others, and it could be argued that this would bode well for his compatriot Alisson. Where Bravo often was outmuscled and made to look weak when flailing at crosses, Ederson’s strength and size stand out as a possible explanation for his uniquely rapid and successful adaptation; traits he shares
So why do I fear Alisson would fail to repeat the smooth transition endured by Ederson? Returning to my earlier confession- I have never really watched enough of Alisson to make a formed and rounded opinion on him as a player, although, of course, I did watch him play both legs of the Champions League semi-final.
You can add both Brazil games at this year’s World Cup to that list, too, alongside the obvious YouTube compilations. At the time of the semi, people suggested that Alisson could not be blamed for any of our seven goals across the two legs, which confused me.
Our fourth goal at Anfield saw Roberto Firmino poking home from a Mo Salah cross, with Bobby’s touch coming from three yards out, at most. Considering the cuteness of Salah’s angle, Alisson should have been questioned.
In total four of our seven goals against Roma came courtesy of crosses. It is impossible to assert such things as weaknesses in Alisson’s game from such a small sample, but that is a damning statistic, and my concerns were once again brought to the surface when watching Brazil play Switzerland in their first game of the World Cup finals.
Steven Zuber headed in from (I’m not even going to put a distance on this,) an area where any aerial ball ought to have been claimed by the Brazilian stopper. Despite Alisson’s discussed physical prowess, his command of area would seem to be problematic.
I’m sure Serie A aficionados will point out that these are blemishes and unique situations, but all three examples come from games in which he has played against different footballing ‘cultures’, if you will, which perhaps hints at potential struggles he could face in adapting to the English game.
Simon Mignolet’s incompetence when dealing with set-pieces has plagued us for most of the last four years, so that is the key area of weakness we should be looking to eliminate in moving on from the Belgian. While Alisson’s distribution and reflexes look to be almost prototypical, it would matter little if his command of his area were as poor as Mignolet’s.
Why did I point to the stories of de Gea and Bravo, then? Even within the last seven years, football has become even more about the here and now, the instant results. Admittedly de Gea did have more time on his side, but, who knows, given time would Bravo not have repeated de Gea’s turnaround? City were not willing to wait, and he was replaced within a season.
Alisson’s fee, at a very minimum would be £50million, and could rise as high as £85million, per reports.
Either would break the record sum of £45million spent on a goalkeeper, which would naturally attract an increased media pressure on him, and his transition would be expected to be seamless. In this way, I would almost be more confident of Alisson’s success, the less we paid for him.
Imagine if Alisson’s first few games were littered with unclaimed corners, misjudged punches or even worse- errors leading directly to goals. Bravo’s issues almost became a self-fulfilling prophecy, just as de Gea’s before him
and Mignolet’s of recent times; because the goalkeeping position is one of psychological vulnerability. Goalkeepers are human. Once they make one mistake, they come under scrutiny. Perceived weaknesses are discussed in the media, questions are asked in post-match interview. In football, as in many walks of life, the more you fear a mistake, the harder it becomes to avoid it.
The way City dealt with Bravo has been successful- he was dropped, their goalkeeping errors dried up, and Guardiola’s side waltzed their way to a league title. But if we were to smash the record fee ever paid for a goalkeeper, that could not be the back-up option if things weren’t to pan out as planned.
In the NFL, last season, the New York Giants were suffering their worst campaign since 1983. Their coach’s response was to drop their franchise quarterback of fourteen years and the two-time ‘Super Bowl MVP’, Eli Manning.
The coach was promptly sacked, and the American media attacked him for effectively ending Manning’s career in giving him a sporting ‘vote of no confidence’.
There are huge differences between the two sports, but an £80million goalkeeper would be essentially as undroppable as Manning. Like the goalkeeper, the quarterback is the one position which you do not mess with.
Other positions sub in and out, depending on tactical approach, but the quarterback should stay a constant. To drop your goalkeeper is to say he is not good enough, at his current level.
People argue that the relatively low transfer fees of goalkeepers overlook their importance to football teams. That £45million for Gianluigi Buffon, is, after all, half the record sum paid for a central midfielder, and less than a quarter of that for a forward. But that view fails to account for the risk of a transfer.
While confidence crises can also plague forwards, low morale can be rectified with a match-winning goal, or a moment of class. This isn’t the case for a goalkeeper. If it was, Karius’ performance in the Champions League final would be remembered for the goalsaving stop from Cristiano Ronaldo’s header in the first half, rather than his two later mistakes which cost us the game.
Essentially my argument is this: where de Gea was given time to adapt to the pace and physicality of Premier League football, Liverpool would not be in a position to offer the same luxury to Alisson.
He is five years older than de Gea was when United signed him, and the media’s scrutiny of his performances would be even greater due to his price tag. Moreover, Alisson would be expected to immediately solve Liverpool’s goalkeeping problem, which has lasted since Pepe Reina’s form first showed signs of decline during the 2009/10 season.
While transfers should not be looked at merely with consideration of ‘worst case scenarios’, we have just seen Liverpool stall a deal for Nabil Fekir for that exact reason. Ours is not the kind of club who can splash fifty, sixty million on a potentially risky deal and if Liverpool want Alisson, there would have to be absolutely no doubts over his ability to transition. I just do not see how that could be the case.
Still, this discussion could well be futile. Recent reports have suggested Alisson would prefer a move to Real Madrid. Regardless of whether he can collect the ball from set-pieces, if any man can come and play at Anfield in a European Cup semi-final and not be convinced that this is his dream move, he is not the right man for Liverpool Football Club.