Kop's komedy keeper kapers betray modern lack of depth
FourFourTwo staff writer Huw Davies wonders why modern clubs so often have undisputed No1s
Liverpool's comedy keeper capers this week have seen the Reds forced to recall their fourth-choice glovesman, Peter Gulacsi, from Hull ahead of their FA Cup semi-final against Everton. But it isn't a sign of their lack of strength in depth between the sticks. Rather, it reflects the widespread death of the battle for the No.1 jersey.
At very few, if any, top clubs in Europe is there still a real bunfight over which goalkeeper is first-choice. Not only does nearly every major team have an undisputed No.1 - their second-in-command isn't even close.
Take Chelsea. After the once-world-class-but-now-slipping Petr Cech, the Champions League semi-finalists have only the highly questionable Ross Turnbull and the hilarious Hilario in reserve.
Take Arsenal. Wojciech Szczesny has come on such leaps and bounds that he is now one of Arsenal's best players. Are they offered the same kind of protection when he is replaced by Manuel Almunia, Lukasz Fabianski or - God forbid - Vito Mannone? Of course not.
For even more emphatic examples, look at the big two in La Liga. Real Madrid's Iker Casillas, perhaps the best goalkeeper on the planet, need not fear for a moment that Antonio Adan will challenge for his spot, and if Barcelona lose the classy Victor Valdes to injury or suspension, they can only rely upon Jose Manuel Pinto, he of the outrageous ponytail and dodgy keeping habits.
This is Barcelona, for goodness' sake: the best team in the world, and their back-up keeper is an unreliable 36-year-old with crap hair. Need we go on?
OK, so Liverpool aren't alone. But are they really helping themselves with this 'one good keeper only' policy? By choosing to play Pepe Reina in every game in every competition, they are achieving continuity and, obviously, a better standard of first-team goalkeeper in all matches.
But their reserve stoppers aren't getting match practice. And with goalkeepers more than outfield players, this means you aren't getting the chance to build a relationship with the team's defence in front of you. The drop-off in quality between your first- and second-choice keepers becomes massive.
In short, as soon as Pepe Reina cannot play for whatever reason - as is happening now - Liverpool's last line of defence turns from reliability into liability.
And they've brought this on themselves. Since the departure of Jerzy Dudek, forced onto the sidelines by Pepe Reina after winning Liverpool the Champions League, the Reds haven't even entertained the possibility of anyone seriously rivaling the Spaniard in goal.
There was Charles Itandje, Diego Cavalieri, Gulacsi, Jones and now Doni - all of whom were Reina's direct replacement in event of injury and suspension; none of whom were or are of substantial quality.
It's not that Doni is a terrible goalkeeper - he isn't. He has 10 Brazil caps, after all, and impressed for Roma across half a decade. The point is that he wasn't signed by Liverpool as a serious candidate for first-team action.
Can Doni himself be blamed for joining? Not really: at 32, moving to a traditionally big club to be a sub arguably makes sense. And he's hardly alone: some keepers make a habit of moving to a club just to be second choice. Spanish one-cap wonder Cesar Sanchez played a handful of games in five years at Real Madrid, joined Tottenham as a back-up to Heurelho Gomes and is now, at 40, sitting on the bench for Villarreal (maybe not literally right now, admittedly).
Stuart Taylor is a classic example. In 15 years at Arsenal, Aston Villa and Manchester City, he has made in the region of 30 Premier League appearances. He's happy, it seems, to be surplus to requirements.
Rightly or wrongly, reserve keepers are often seen as unambitious, or even lazy. Carlo Cudicini was certainly given that label at Chelsea.
It's rare, though, that a goalkeeper stays to fight for his place. For one season, Manchester City had, according to Roberto Mancini and a fair few pundits, two of the best goalkeepers in the world in Joe Hart and Shay Given. A classic battle between the two was expected.
In fact, it lasted only one year, with Given leaving for Villa after that. Not that this was new: Gordon Banks left Leicester shortly after winning the World Cup when a young Peter Shilton insisted upon being first choice (and he was only 17, the cheeky git).
It was ironic, really, that Given found himself in this position, seeing as he'd taken Steve Harper's place at Newcastle in 1997. And Harper has continued to be unlucky, falling to a lengthy injury last season and usurped by the superb Tim Krul as a result. Yet he hasn't left the club looking for first-team football. Still, he is an exception. Some fight for a place, but the most part, sub keepers are expected to know their place.
And so we have the modern phenomenon of the 'cup keeper': top-flight teams giving their reserve goalies a run-out seemingly just to keep them happy. It can result in a change of the No.1 - Stoke went back to Thomas Sorensen after he impressed in their FA Cup run last season and Asmir Begovic struggled at the start of this season - but generally, it's seen as crumbs from the table.
This even happens in the Championship: Cardiff stuck with second-choice Tom Heaton through their League Cup campaign this season right until the final, and were rewarded as he put in outstanding performances in the semi-final and final penalty shootouts (even if they were doomed to lose to Liverpool at Wembley).
More exotically, the aforementioned ponytailed Pinto plays in the Copa del Rey for Barcelona, but has featured in only 11 league games in five years at the Nou Camp.
Tottenham, meanwhile, had three keepers vying for a first-team place at the start of this season, electing to play Brad Friedel in the league, Heurelho Gomes in Europe and Carlo Cudicini in the FA Cup. Of course, it's a cop-out as far as Gomes is concerned: if the one thing you want in a reserve keeper is patience and a safe pair of hands, the often-brilliant-but-volatile Brazilian is a nightmare candidate.
So which team has the right approach? Stoke, with their juggling of keepers according to form? Or Barcelona and Real Madrid, who seem to do fine with only one quality keeper? That said, Arsenal's chopping and changing over the last few years led them to find a true No.1 in Szczesny - albeit only eventually, after Wenger initially overlooked the youngster in the hope that the older goalkeepers coming through the Arsenal academy would prove reliable.
In truth, it's very difficult to introduce a new goalkeeper, and transitions are rarely smooth. At Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson cast around for years trying to replace Peter Schmeichel, and filling the boots of Edwin van der Sar led to a very public beauty contest earlier this season between Anders Lindegaard and the initially derided David de Gea.
Even as managers rotate their squads so much that it's often hard to second-guess their first XI, such high-profile public competition for the No.1 slot is rare. When goalkeepers come and go, defences seem unsettled and the media are quick to label the manager indecisive.
But with so much at stake in such a vital position, shouldn't clubs reintroduce the policy of two - or more - keepers battling for supremacy? And should back-up keepers be satisfied with only domestic cup appearances, in the knowledge that often, even if they do well they may never get selected ahead of their rival but for injury?
Whatever the theories, the fact remains that Liverpool go into the FA Cup semi-final with a perceived weak link in goal. And you have to ask whether that would be the case had Pepe Reina been given the occasional rest.