Cech v Courtois
With Thibaut Courtois continuing to impress on loan at Atletico Madrid, Chelsea could have two world-class goalkeepers available to them next season. Ian Watson examines the choice they face and eyes a compromise solution...
By Ian Watson - @ianwatson1
Last Updated: 08/04/14 7:19pm
Jose Mourinho has given up trying to hide his contempt for his strikers, but that is not the only issue demanding Chelsea's immediate attention.
In sharp contrast to his pool of under-performing forwards, Mourinho may have at his disposal two world-class goalkeepers - and neither has any intention of playing second fiddle.
Petr Cech, despite having occupied the Chelsea goal for 10 years, is showing no signs of decline, which is perhaps what the Blues anticipated when they bought Thibaut Courtois in 2011. The former Genk goalkeeper has been placed at Atletico Madrid for the last three seasons - out of sight and almost out of mind, with Courtois claiming recently he had never spoken to Mourinho. But the Belgian's consistent brilliance for Los Rojiblancos has caught the attention of everyone and it certainly will not have escaped the boss.
Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink has been very impressed. On Sky Sports last week, the former Chelsea and Atletico striker echoed the growing belief that Courtois was now the best goalkeeper on the Blues' books. Could we be about to see a changing of the guard in the Stamford Bridge goal?
Chelsea are in a no-lose situation - they have two of the world's best 10 goalkeepers on their payroll. If you really have to choose between Cech and Courtois, there is currently no wrong answer.
The only thing to split them at present is the decade between their births. Both have provided commendable consistency over numerous seasons, during which they have regularly displayed moments of goalkeeping genius to help win matches, domestic titles and European trophies.
The naked eye reveals no obvious weaknesses in either goalkeeper, while a simple comparison of their stats in this season's Champions League shows some predictable similarities. They also highlight some intriguing differences, certainly in their individual styles, and that's what it may hinge on for Mourinho in the short-term: which goalkeeper is best suited to his Chelsea team?
In Europe this season, Courtois has a better overall save percentage, but there is a large disparity between the pair's save percentages from shots inside the box.
Courtois has kept out 73 per cent of shots he has faced from inside the 18-yard box - a figure 17 per cent higher than Cech, who last week admitted that PSG's potentially-pivotal late third goal went 'straight through me'. The 31-year-old's Premier League numbers are more reassuring, though. For overall saves percentage (76 per cent) and percentage of shots saved from inside the box (67 per cent), Cech ranks fourth in both categories.
Goalkeeping, though, is not just about shotstopping, which is where many believe Courtois has the edge. Cech remains a superb all-rounder, despite in the past having been labelled a reactive goalkeeper, rather than one who anticipates. That has always been a flawed accusation and one Cech clearly does not agree with.
"This amazes me," Cech told the Daily Mail. "It absolutely makes me laugh. People say I'm the old-fashioned goalkeeper who doesn't really like to sweep. If you look how high I play on the field, regarding any goalkeeper I can remember, nobody plays higher than I'm playing.
"Look at any goalkeeper in the league to see their average position and look at my position at any moment in the game and you will see a massive difference: you may find 10 metres' difference. This is really funny. It is the complete opposite, the way I'm playing and the way people see it."
The Champions League stats back up what Cech is saying. The Chelsea keeper has made 14 clearances/punches compared to Courtois' two. Crucially, Cech is also more involved in his team's possession, having attempted almost double the amount of passes Courtois has.
It seems when - or if - Courtois does return to Stamford Bridge, he may have to adjust his approach and decision-making when the ball is in his possession. Of his 78 attempted passes, 79 per cent were sent into the opposition half, compared to 65 per cent of Cech's 155 passes. Playing long more regularly results in a lower accuracy rate for Courtois, who finds a team-mate with only 38 per cent of his passes. Cech opts to play short more regularly, therefore keeping the ball and allowing his team-mates to build the play up from the back.
|Champions League 2013/14|
|Petr Cech||Thibaut Courtois|
|Save success in box||56%||73%|
|Save success out box||100%||90%|
Courtois' preference for the longer ball is more likely as a consequence of instruction from his coach. At Chelsea, Mourinho wants his players to work the ball into the feet of the likes Eden Hazard, Oscar and Willian, which may be due in part to the lack of top-class centre-forwards in their squad. With Diego Costa leading the line for Atletico, can they be blamed for favouring a more direct style?
Tweaking his distribution is not likely to cause a major headache for Courtois. Encouragingly also for Chelsea, the youngster will not have to alter his game-management mindset.
Stepping into a title-challenging side, where he might be redundant for long periods in matches, is not always easy for a goalkeeper. A young stopper, who might have a hefty price-tag and reputation to justify, may feel the need to prove himself when the opportunities to do so are not necessarily there. Successful sides like Chelsea need a consistent goalkeeper to be the first line of attack and make the big saves at the few absolutely critical moments, a good example being Cech clawing Andy Carroll's header away from goal in the 2012 FA Cup final.
For a stopper who has stepped up a level, the mentality is not always easy to adjust to. Courtois, though, should have no problems.
He has spent three seasons with Atletico, in which time he has collected winners' medals in the Europa League, UEFA Super Cup and, most recently, the Copa del Rey, which was won at the Bernebeu thanks largely to a phenomenal point-blank save to deny Real Madrid's Mesut Ozil. Atletico also sit at the top of the Primera Division and are maintaining a title push alongside a Champions League run which has taken them to the quarter-finals. Playing in a side who have similar expectations of their goalkeeper will make any transition into Mourinho's winning machine as simple as it could be.
Importantly, Courtois already believes he belongs at the highest level. The pressure of expectation has never been a hindrance to the 21-year-old, whose confidence borders on arrogance - no bad thing for a goalkeeper. In October, he proclaimed to AS: "I feel as if I am among the top five goalkeepers in the world."
It is hard to argue. Courtois is certainly ready for Chelsea. But Cech will not simply stand aside and give up the job he has performed so expertly for so long.
"If, on the first day of pre-season, Thibaut Courtois is here, he is here. If he is not, he is not. It does not change anything," Cech said last week. "I will still have to do better than whoever else is here, to keep my place. It doesn't change anything for me.
"If he comes back and he's better than me, credit to him, well done to him. But who knows? I'm not afraid.
"I am not playing because my name is Petr Cech. I'm playing because I've been playing well and because the manager thinks it improves the team with me in goal. I would like to continue."
With both goalkeepers happy with the status quo, the likelihood is that little will change ahead of next season.
Courtois said recently he would be "very happy" to remain on loan at Atletico, with Cech continuing to perform. But Chelsea seem very keen to convince the Belgian that he remains highly valued in west London, despite the possibility of a fourth year away.
With two seasons remaining of Courtois' current contract, executive board member Marina Granovskaia - a long-term senior advisor to Roman Abramovich - is understood to have been conducting negotiations on a contract which, according to the London Evening Standard, could see the goalkeeper double his £30,000-a-week salary for a further five years. Given Courtois' standing in the game now, such figures do not seem unreasonable.
There have been reports that Mourinho may have been willing to use his abundance of goalkeepers to solve his striker shortage, but the prospect of watching Courtois leave Stamford Bridge having never played for Chelsea, even if it resulted in Diego Costa's arrival, was not one many Blues relished. It seems now that Shed Enders need not concern themselves with such a possibility.
Chelsea may well sign the Atletico hit-man and goodwill generated by Courtois' multiple loans would likely help them get to the front of the queue. But it is highly unlikely that Courtois will be used as a makeweight. If the goalkeeper returns to the Vicente Calderon, it will surely be for a fourth and final loan and irrelevant of wherever Diego Costa is playing next season.
A hefty salary increase and another year in Madrid would placate Courtois in the short-term, but Chelsea know he won't wait forever, just as they will be aware that Cech won't willingly sit on the bench after more than a decade as the main man. All things point to a handover of the gloves in summer 2015, when the Blues can still command a fee for a club legend, who, thanks to Courtois' excellence, they are unlikely to miss.