We don’t ask Leo Messi to improve his goalkeeping skills so why do we demand that our goalkeepers play like Andres Iniesta and mock them when they don’t?
Ruud Gullit was once working as a pundit for the BBC when he was asked to comment on a goalkeeping howler, caused by a back-pass.
“He’s only the goalkeeper because he can’t play football,” was the casually dismissive reply.
Gullit may have been joking (it was never easy to tell), but even during his maddest, Shearer-dropping days at Newcastle, he wouldn’t have been tempted to try the demonstrably insane tactics being used at goal kicks by apparently rational managers like Unai Emery and Mauricio Pochettino.
When the back-pass law was introduced in 1992, aside from destroying Liverpool as a serious footballing force for well over a decade, it also caused an initial spate of errors that were gradually reduced over time. Keepers began to improve their outfield skills and tactics evolved, to the extent that errors that led to goals became freakishly rare.
Underpinning this was a basic idea. It was self-evidently stupid to put a goalkeeper in a position where he might need to either tackle a forward or dribble around him, given that any mistake would almost certainly result in a goal.
This was best illustrated by Roger Milla at Italia 90 and 11 years later by Fabien Barthez, who was once described as a “very capable” outfield player by Alex Ferguson, but who, in 2001-02, committed two pivotal errors in a 3-1 defeat at Arsenal, both of which led to Thierry Henry goals.
Incidents like this featured on compilations of football “howlers” precisely because they were so rare.
Keepers adapted and learned to punt the ball downfield. Some, like Manuel Neuer, took risks and usually got away with them. And then, it dawned on progressive coaches that by playing out from the back and effectively using their keeper as an extra outfield player, they could draw the opposition forwards, opening up spaces for wing-backs like Hector Bellerin to attack.
This only works in a theoretical universe, where every full back can play a 60-yard crossfield ball like Cesc Fabregas and where every goalkeeper can pass like Anders Iniesta. Petr Cech struggles to pass water and on Tuesday night in the San Siro Michel Vorm looked nearly as uncomfortable for Tottenham, playing sideways passes from the edge of his own six-yard area, to full backs who immediately lost possession under pressure from Inter’s front line.
On half a dozen occasions Spurs were nearly swamped and the only mystery here is how they, like Arsenal, keep getting away with it.
The classic Dutch system of the 70s supposedly produced players who were comfortable in every position, the idea being that they might, at any time be needed to cover for a team mate in the event of an emergency.
“Emergency” was the operative word. When Gullit decided to play himself as an emergency defensive libero for Chelsea in an English League Cup semi-final at Arsenal in 1997-98 he made Igors Stepanovs look like Bobby Moore. Not only did it mark the end of his playing career, it helped destroy his credibility as a manager. Chelsea sacked him a month later.
Asking Petr Cech to turn into Franco Baresi at the age of 36 is nearly as insane as buying Lionel Messi, sticking him on goal and asking him why he can’t gather crosses.
Cech, like Vorm, might do well to borrow line from the English cricketer Phil Tufnell, who had a stock reply whenever his coaches asked him to improve his batting.
To wit, (and I paraphrase slightly): “So why don’t you get the batsmen to help me bowl to Brian Lara?”