The hardest position to fill in modern day squad-building is arguably that of the second-choice goalkeeper.
The player in question needs to be good enough to deputise ably when called upon, but not so good that they become unsettled and believe that they should be starting every week.
It is not too dissimilar from the increasingly difficult second-choice striker role. But at least at the sharp end of the pitch, that player is not locked in their position. They might be able to operate on either the left or the right of the attack, if not further back. And of course, you are not limited to playing only one striker.
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Goalkeeping is fundamentally different. It is football’s one truly specialised role, and even as more and more goalkeepers become outfield players with gloves, it still requires a unique skill set. It is also the only position unaffected by regular squad rotation. You are either in, out or only playing tonight because it is a domestic cup competition.
This fact of life for second-choice goalkeepers makes it hard to identify the good ones. Who is the best in the Premier League? There is a case for Manchester United’s Sergio Romero, but he too makes occasional errors. Paulo Gazzaniga covered reasonably well during Hugo Lloris’ absence. They all have significant limitations, though, otherwise they would not be No. 2s.
And when any reserve goalkeeper is forced in through injury, there is always a risk that those shortcomings will be exposed. Adrian has generally performed very well in his 18 Liverpool appearances this season, but his error against Atletico Madrid on Wednesday night – a tame clearance to turn over possession, then a feeble attempt to stop Marcos Llorente’s strike – was the evening’s turning point.
Would Liverpool still be in the Champions League this morning if Alisson was their goalkeeper in the second leg? It is tempting to say yes. Jurgen Klopp’s side were ahead in the tie at the time of Adrian’s mistake, Alisson has been beaten by one shot from outside the box in 58 domestic games this season, and both Llorente’s first and second goals on the night were from distance.
But Klopp insisted otherwise. “If you lose a game you always lose for some [different] reasons. Tonight, this was not the moment that we lost the game, but it had a big impact,” he said. “We conceded more goals after this and we didn’t score the goals in other situations. We had plenty of reasons why we didn’t go through.”
“[Adrian’s] a man and he knows that’s how it is,” the Liverpool manager added. “We will not blame him for a second. What [the media] do, I don’t know, but stay respectful. That would be really nice. He did not want to do that, he saved us in so many moments when he played. Since he’s here, he had super performances. This goal didn’t help tonight, but that’s how it is.”
That is about as close as Klopp is ever going to come to giving one his players the Tanguy Ndombele treatment – admitting that a poor piece of play “didn’t help” and “had a big impact” on his side’s fortunes, but burying this admission deep within a sincere show of support for his player. It is not his style to dig out one of his own. He was not about to start now. And though he would never say it, the Liverpool manager might have asked a fair follow-up question: What did you expect?
Liverpool’s Adrian looks dejected (Action Images via Reuters)Most players join clubs with the belief that they will either play for the first team right away or break through gradually, having developed over time. Second-choices goalkeepers are practically the only ones who join clubs not to play and rather act as a last resort. The fact they are not as reliable as the buying club’s No. 1 is the whole point, practically written into their contract.
A goalkeeper signed late last summer on a free transfer after being released from West Ham cannot be expected to consistently deliver the same level of performance as one signed a year earlier for £66.5 million. Imagine the tables were turned last night and Jan Oblak was unavailable to Atletico. Does Antonio Adan make all of Oblak’s nine saves? Probably not. And even if he makes eight of the nine, Liverpool most likely progress.
But Alisson was the one injured, not Oblak. That is not the fault of Liverpool or Klopp and especially not Adrian. It is simply an example of the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune that dictate success and failure in knock-out football, while Adrian’s unfortunate mistake was all part and parcel of the strange existence that is life as a second-choice goalkeeper.