Tito Vilanova has had a great start to his managerial career – keeping in mind the recent series of winless games against Malaga and Sociedad. In the wake of Victor Valdes’ recent denial to extend his stay at the Camp Nou, Vilanova will have yet another concern to address. No matter how error-prone he’s (albeit, he is quite reliable, a few of his gaffes leave him stranded as a mediocre keeper), Valdes is perhaps the best goal-keeper suited to the style of this Barcelona. His composure, passing and also his innate ability to exceed himself and even the best in business in one-on-one situations makes him one of the best keepers of Barcelona.
Valdes also epitomizes the courage of Barcelona and the unflinching loyalty that they have towards their philosophy, their style, and their values. Nothing endorses this better than the match against Real Madrid, where a miss-pass from Victor was received quite gratefully by Angel Di Maria who shot only for the ball to be ricocheted twice of Busquets and then gleefully slotted home by Karim Benzema. Victor did not get intimidated. He did not stop passing. He did what he had learnt all his life. “The perfect image of this game was that after the goal Víctor Valdés continued playing the ball. Real Madrid steamroll you. Most goalkeepers would boot it. But Víctor kept playing the ball. I prefer us to lose the ball like that but give continuity to our play,” said Guardiola.
“The key was not forgetting our philosophy. We don’t know how to play any other way – and Victor was brave,” added Xavi later. Barcelona of course went on to win the match at the Santiago Bernabeu while staying true to their philosophy.
This loss is indeed going to be a crucial one for Barcelona and the lack of a proper fit might just be the stumbling block in a project which has already taken the world by storm. It’s inevitable that a plethora of world-class goalkeepers will be linked to the Catalan giants in the months to come. Starting from Manuel Neuer to Iker Casillas – the rumour mills will go abuzz with speculations, irrespective of how preposterous it may sound.
TheHardTackle analyses a few of the lesser known custodians who might just be willing to sign-up as an understudy to Victor only to take on the mantle come 2014. The advantage of these youngsters will be their comparatively lighter price-tag and age and the willingness to learn, imbibe and shine.
Marc-André ter Stegen (Borussia Mönchengladbach, Age 20)
Without exaggerating, this kid is perhaps the closest that you get to Oliver Kahn. Not necessarily an heir to the legendary German shotstopper, but Ter Stegen has got what it takes to be the Germany first choice custodian. Despite being linked with Barcelona’s arch-rival, Real Madrid, the youngster has quashed all rumours about joining the Spanish champions. In the recent match against Bayern Munich, ter Stegen showed immense composure and character at the Allianz Arena. His maturity is beyond his years and it’s inevitable that he will move to a bigger club, sooner rather than later.
The competition is immense but amongst the ones who are yet to make a mark for the national team, Ter Stegen is perhaps the most distinguished one. Lucien Favre has made it clear that it will not be possible to hold on to the youngster in the future, despite a drop in form earlier in the season. At this stage growth is of paramount importance and it goes without saying that time is essential for such growth. FC Barcelona might be able to afford the youngster some time (till 2014) to get used to the conditions. Price will definitely not be much of a concern as German clubs aren’t too pernickety but the match against Bayern will certain add to his value. As an investment, the young German custodian looks to be a long-term one. Notwithstanding, his growth should not be stunted at this level and despite interests from some of the biggest names on the planet, it’ll be in his best interest to stay put at Borussia Mönchengladbach for the next few seasons.
Bernd Leno (Bayer Leverkusen, Age 20)
German football is perhaps undergoing one of the most successful phases, if not in terms of trophies, then surely in the sheer quality and quantity of young talents produced. With Manuel Neuer and Rene Adler establishing themselves as the top two custodians under Joachim Löw, and Ron-Robert Zieler, Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Tim Wiese as their back-ups, Bernd Leno has some cut-throat competition to make it to the first team, leave alone establishing himself as a regular. That said, his potential has never been a matter of doubt. After a series of injuries and eventually the departure of Rene Adler from Bayer Leverkusen, the responsibility is on Leno to man the fortress and the youngster has not disappointed. Although his ability to be a dominating character inside the six-yard box has not been the greatest, hardly any 20-year old has that kind of presence.
One aspect of his game which should aid the Blaugrana is his distribution which is nothing short of sensational. Moreover, he seems to understand the importance of having the ball in possession which denies the opposition as many chances as they’d have liked to have. However, he too is a little error-prone, but after Victor Valdes, Barcelona should be able to live with that. Yet another attribute of Leno is his powerful shot. Although Barcelona do not seem to prefer this mode but in the absence of Carles Puyol, even Valdes has been found doing exactly that. The irony is that Leno will be remembered more for conceding seven goals in a single match, five of them being from Lionel Messi – however, it must not be forgotten that this Barcelona is perhaps the most gifted side of all time and a 20-year old can only do so much when he goes one-on-one with someone who already has 4 Ballon d’Or title at an age of 25.
Vicente Guaita (Valencia, Age 25)
This is perhaps the only name on the list that makes a lot of sense. With a handful of experience in the Spanish league, Guaita, who is just 25, might just get to be the Barca first choice keeper at an age which is presumed to be the formative years of any world class goalkeeper. After Valdes’ denial to extend his contract, rumours of Guaita’s arrival to the Camp Nou are rife; but Arsenal too are reportedly interested in signing the talented youngster. Not that it matters, because if Guaita is willing to leave, the choice between Barcelona and Arsenal is rather simple. Vilanova too will be willing to take his chances with Guaita, who comes with a good track record and experience in Spain. Offering the likes of Ter Stegen and Leno just over a year to adapt and learn the Barcelona style of football, at such a young age, might just be a little too taxing but the chances of reaping higher benefits too are there.
Pepe Reina (Liverpool, Age 30)
It’s like replacing Valdes with a slightly inferior version of Valdes. Going by his recent performances, Reina is not an upgrade over Valdes but the homecoming of the former La Masia player is certainly going to catch the headlines. After a decade, Reina might just get to start for the club where he learnt to ply his trade. Recent injuries, however, might just be a bit of a hindrance. On second thoughts, replacing Valdes with Reina isn’t going to be a step forward. On the contrary, the goalkeeper problem might just flare up for Barcelona as they’d have to enter the market for a younger keeper in another couple of years.
Reina is comfortable with the ball at his feet and can distribute well, but his proneness to freak errors (ironically a little more than Valdes) can cause Vilanova’s side some discomfort. Reina’s form over the past couple of seasons has been patchy and a move to Barcelona will only put him under more stress. At times, goalkeepers are quite incorrectly gauged by the number of saves they make. However, their ability to organize the defense is of paramount importance and great goalkeepers often make less saves because of their impeccable organization of defense. Of late, Reina has not be able to do so. Under Rodgers, Liverpool play a passing game which will aid Reina if he makes a move to his childhood club.
David De Gea (Manchester United, Age 22)
The young Spaniard’s move to the red side of Manchester, has been anything but a success. After joining Manchester United from Atletico Madrid, for an exorbitant fee of £18.9m, the youngster has failed to impress either the fans or the manager. And it is speculated that he might return to Spain. Despite being a fabulous shot-stopper, De Gea’s apparent discomfort with the aerial balls is making it difficult to establish himself at Old Trafford. In the recent match against Spurs, De Gea’s weak punch allowed Lennon to set up Dempsey and they equalised deep into extra time. United fans worldwide would concur that Edwin Van Der Sar wouldn’t have done the same thing. His weak clearance has often led to unwanted goals – the most recent being against Liverpool and Swansea.
Apparently, the United players too lack the conviction when it comes to De Gea and high balls. Sir Alex Ferguson has seen a series of goalkeepers under his tutelage – Mark Bosnich, Massimo Taibi, Rory Carroll, Tomasz Kuszczak, Fabian Barthez, Tim Howard, Peter Schmeichel, Edwin van der Sar, et al. Of these only Schmeichel and van der Sar have been able to make it upto the mark. And De Gea’s discomfort isn’t too surprising. In case the Spaniard moves to Barcelona, he will need to take his game a level higher than it is right now. More importantly, he has to be more comfortable with the ball at his feet. In addition to that if he gets his technique to parry shots out of danger correct, he can be a long term proposition for Barcelona.
As of now, the Barca camp seems to be relaxed despite the recent hullabaloo about their goalkeeper and it is unlikely that they will make a move for anybody this winter. Come the summer transfer window, fans might just see a fresh face as an understudy to Victor Valdes, who would be serving his last year of contract at the Camp Nou. However, there’s also the possibility that Valdes might not be there to guide the new comer. Whatever be the scenario, Victor Valdes will still remain as the best goalkeeper suited to the Barcelona style of play – despite all his shortcomings (there aren’t too many of those).
“He is one of the most important players the club will ever have in its history. When a player as good as Valdés, who has performed so well at this club, the only thing you can do is keep applauding and supporting him.”
- Andres Iniesta
Fans too round the globe will keep applauding and supporting Valdes, even if he isn’t with FC Barcelona.