When Johan Cruyff once remarked that Edwin van der Sar was Ajax Amsterdam’s best attacking player, it was a comment met with some bemusement.
The mid-1990s was a time when goalkeepers were still employed for meat-and-potatoes tasks like saving shots, catching crosses and their footballing skills were confined to smashing the ball upfield from goal-kicks or out of their hands.
The likes of Colombia’s Rene Higuita, Mexico’s Jorge Campos and Paraguay’s Jose Luis Chilavert were Latin eccentrics taking unnecessary risks with the ball.
At 6’ 6”, Van Der Sar was unlikely to be much of a playmaker, but his comfort on the ball meant Ajax and the Dutch national team could begin their counterattacks almost as soon as he received the ball at his feet.
Two decades on, as with so much of Cruyff’s pronouncements, the goalkeeper as extra footballer has become an accepted norm.
And the snowballing speed of development of the role is proving disruptive to the careers of the old-style shot-stopper. Joe Hart and Petr Cech, two of the best Premier League goalkeepers of the last decade, with Cech rightfully acclaimed as one of the all-time greats, now look like men out of time.
When Pep Guardiola, the pupil to Cruyff who ended up surpassing his Dutch master’s achievements, sidelined Joe Hart in the summer of 2016, there was a deluge of reactionary derision of his decision.
After all, Hart had been the goalkeeper who had put in two superb displays during Manchester City’s 1-0 loss over two Champions League semi-final legs to Real Madrid. Worse than that, Hart was sent on loan to Torino while Claudio Bravo came in as his replacement.
Guardiola’s first season at Manchester City was a disappointment, that owed plenty to a disastrous goalkeeping situation.
Even if Bravo might often have shown a comfort in possession on the ball of Cruyff himself, he just could not keep the ball out of the net, dropping howler after howler almost every time a shot was aimed at him.
The back to basics brigade had their scapegoat. Guardiola had fallen short of the football man values required for success in English football only for last summer’s purchase of Ederson to prove that it was the unfortunate Bravo who was at fault and not the system.
How good a goalkeeper is Ederson?
In the Premier League it has been difficult to tell since the dominance of opponents he contributes to with his speedy recycling of possession has meant he has not been tested too often.
When considering him in action, the image conjured is that of him sauntering out of goal to play the ball adeptly rather than making a spectacular save in the style of David de Gea, who as an aside plays for a manager in Jose Mourinho who prefers the old-school doctrine of “get rid” when it comes to keepers and defenders.
In Alisson Becker, the man keeping Ederson out of the Brazil team, Liverpool have a player of similar talents, and very much the Ederson to Loris Karius’ Bravo.
Karius’ starting place last season in Liverpool’s team owed much to Jurgen Klopp preferring his ball skills to those of Simon Mignolet, a decision that would end up being fateful for the German manager and player in last season’s Champions League final.
Even if the mistake Alisson made against Leicester suggested he can be a little too casual on the ball the die is now cast; for Liverpool teams to keep up the relentless approach that Klopp demands the goalkeeper is required to start his team’s attacks almost as soon as the ball is back in his area.
At Chelsea, the loss of Thibaut Courtois has not been overly lamented, and in Kepa Arrizabalaga’s signing from Athletic Bilbao, Mauricio Sarri has a number one far more suited to his brand of high-speed pressing game, while Tottenham have been making use of the ball skills of Hugo Lloris for six years now.
Times have changed, and too quickly for certain goalkeepers.
Having struggled last season at West Ham, Hart has found a bolthole at Burnley with Sean Dyche, though so far looked uncomfortable, but it is Cech who looks most endangered by his manager’s expectation of a goalkeeper.
With £19m Bernd Leno (no slouch on the ball) sat on the bench and waiting for his chance, Cech has creaked through Arsenal’s matches so far, making mistakes that might have been far more costly against Manchester City and Cardiff.
Opposing forwards are smelling blood at his vulnerability to being chased down.
It has been an unedifying spectacle, cruel on one of the game’s gentlemen, but as Cruyff’s ideals become commonplace, a top goalkeeper needs to be much more of a footballer to maintain his relevance.