by Tom Lees - 23rd December 2015
On October 25th 2015, AC Milan hosted Sassuolo in a game at the famous San Siro stadium, Milan were victorious 2-1 in the Serie A match, but after the game all talk was not of the result, but the debut of 16-year-old goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma. The teenager was selected ahead of the usual number one stopper Diego López, and in doing so became the youngest goalkeeper to ever start a game in the top tier of Italian football.
The selection by coach Mihajlović sent social media outlets into a frenzy, admittedly reaction on the Continent was more positive than critical, but here in the UK heads were being scratched, brows furrowed, what on earth was going on at the once great AC Milan? How the mighty had fallen, a 16-year-old playing in goal, what a joke, there must be something seriously wrong. This was the general reaction across the United Kingdom from pundits, journalists and fans alike. Maybe the real question to ask is, why did this selection raise so many eyebrows? Why is being ‘only 16’ such a problem as a goalkeeper?
The general consensus is that a goalkeeper doesn’t really begin to peak until he’s over 30, and that it takes that long for them to develop, but is this view slightly archaic, after all football has changed a lot in the last 20 years. The days of strikers barging into keepers are a thing of the past, they are given a much greater protection, even in England the ‘in the mixer’ tactic has diminished with only a few clubs and managers adopting it. Back when I was a much younger man and learning to play football, goalkeepers were always the fat kid, or the kid who wasn’t very good, it’s amazing in a way that I used to play midfield, but the ability to actually play football wasn’t attributed to the goalkeeper position. As time has gone by though, with extra protection and the back pass ruling, keepers now have to be as comfortable with the ball at their feet as they are their hands, we are at a time where a keeper is an extra defender sweeping up play.
In those last 20 years there have been a couple of fine examples of goalkeepers succeeding despite their tender years, both Iker Casillas and Gianluigi Buffon made their professional debuts, for Real Madrid and Parma respectively, while still in their teens. These two legends of the game went on to win World Cups for their National teams, as well as many other accolades and honours. Of course you could argue that they were simply exceptions, players that come along very rarely and that’s why they were given a chance and succeeded at such a young age, but let’s look at the top goalkeepers in the game right now.
Of course the title of ‘World’s best’ is all down to opinion, but the majority would say Manuel Neuer is as good as it gets in the modern game, Neuer broke into the Schalke first team aged 20. The other candidates for the World’s best keeper accolade are Thibaut Courtois, Hugo Lloris, and David De Gea, all three were playing first team football in their teen years. Marc-André ter Stegen, Stefanos Kapino, Jan Oblak and Claudio Bravo also fall into that category, although not quite at the elite level as the aforementioned. It’s a sign of the modern game, a game where keepers in all leagues tend to punch rather than catch, where protection from physicality is afforded, where agility, pace, footwork and athleticism are now key goalkeeping attributes. Why can’t a teenager excel in these areas? Okay they don’t have the experience to organise a defence, but that direction can be led from other members of the defensive unit. It is an approach that has been adopted on the continent, an approach that clearly works.
If we take England as an example, this is a Country where there is still the perception that age makes a goalkeeper, even though with every passing season the game becomes less physical towards the man in the posts. There is still an element of that around, as David De Gea experienced upon his arrival at Manchester United, but it only took the Spaniard a few months to adjust and now he is one of the top keepers in the World. The reaction to Donnarumma’s debut though still shows the mind-set, where one position is viewed completely differently to another, and in Reece Oxford we have the perfect example of this. The talented young defensive player also made his debut this season aged 16, but unlike the selection of Donnarumma, Oxford’s inclusion at a young age was greeted with all round praise, a player for the future, a star to look out for, good on West Ham. Why that difference in attitude? Both players are outstanding young talents, both play in positions of importance where strength and experience are often deemed required, yet because one is an outfield player, age no longer becomes a problem.
This is a mind-set that certain nations, England in particular, need to change or face being left behind. Spain, Germany, Serbia, Belgium, France and Serbia are all producing young quality goalkeepers with experience given at an early age, yet England only have Joe Hart and Jack Butland, both earnt their experience in their early 20’s on loan in lower divisions. After Butland, the English cupboard is now bare, it might be worth young English goalkeepers in future seeking game time in foreign leagues, leagues that will give them a chance to play at an early age rather than stagnating.
While young English keepers struggle for game time, young Gianluigi Donnaruma has been going from strength to strength with the Rossoneri, with many labelling the youngster as the next Buffon. His performances have propelled him from the Italian Under 17 side up to playing at Under 21 level, and together with the likes of Mattia Perin, Nicola Leali, Emil Audero and Simone Scuffet it appears that Italian goalkeeping is coming into a golden age. The tall 16-year-old Donnarumma could well go on to be the best of a generation, and while certain sections of the football world scoff at his early inclusion, he is gaining all the experience needed to be the best that he can be.
Football has changed, tactically, physically and mentally, in each and every position, especially goalkeeping. If we compare the skills of keepers now to those of 20 or 30 years ago, the difference would be night and day, many countries recognise this, and these are the countries that will reap the rewards while others wonder where they went wrong.