Goalkeeper may be the most misunderstood position in soccer. Pundit speech and lazy quips plague the position and it’s challenging to find real analysis of what a goalkeeper could have done on a goal, or what he did to prevent it.
People also assume that the countries making long runs in tournaments must have the best goalkeepers but a few countries that likely won’t get out of the group stage at the 2014 World Cup are sporting some fantastic keepers. Here are the 10 best starting goalkeepers at the World Cup, with a detailed explanation of what makes them so formidable.
1. Manuel Neuer (Germany)
You’ll see the term “sweeper keeper” used for Neuer but I think that undersells it. His distribution from the back is from another planet. He’s not just running up the field booting things out, he’s giving Germany an extra field player and commanding the offense with his passing. While his reflexes aren’t quite what his peers are (perhaps best highlighted in the 4-0 loss to Real Madrid in April), his approach to goalkeeping is so calculated it more than makes up for it. Keep an eye out for his perfectly timed jump set than rarely leaves Neuer behind the play.
2. Fernando Muslera (Uruguay)
Muslera is another goalkeeper whose technique is a lot of fun to watch. His movement is so smooth that changing direction isn’t as big of an ordeal as it is for other goalkeepers. On top of that, Muslera’s hands have continued to develop this past year. He’s been holding more shots instead of going for the highlight reel save yet giving up a corner or a rebound. Muslera had a great World Cup in 2010, just conceding two goals in four games, but then had a dreadful performance against Germany in the third place game. With 2010 well in the past, expect Muslera to have a great run through the entire tournament this year.
3. Gianluigi Buffon (Italy)
Buffon enters the 2014 World Cup with 139 appearances for the Italian national team. The anchor for Juventus for thirteen years, Buffon has recently been questioned about his age and if he’ll be up to the task in Brazil. Buffon hasn’t been shy about answering the critics both on and off the field. At 36, Buffon has done an amazing job of staying mentally sharp and physically fit. His hands are looking a little weaker than when he was in his prime but in reality that is just bringing him back down to Earth with the rest of us mortals.
4. Thibaut Courtois (Belgium)
The media is trying to stir up a debate over which goalkeeper Belgium should start but fans aren’t buying it. Courtois is the clear selection and for a good reason. His 6’6” frame paired with explosive dives essentially make long range shots out of the question. But he’s just turned twenty-two in May and only has fifteen caps under his belt so there is still growing to be done. I’d like to see him develop the mindset of recognizing what he can hold versus what he needs to parry away. However, after he led Belgium to their first World Cup since 2002 and pushed Atletico over Barcelona and Real Madrid, it looks like he’s ready for the big stage.
5. Iker Casillas (Spain)
Everyone knows the story of Casillas but not everyone knows what to expect of him this summer. Yes, he’s been the backup for Real Madrid this past year but he was still getting an average of ninety minutes every nine-to-ten days so it’s not like Casillas has just been rotting on the bench. Still, the worry is there that Casillas isn’t the same that he was in 2010. He looks like he’s stayed in shape physically and but has he had enough game scenarios going into the summer? Will he be able to handle an awkward cross, perhaps a bad pass from a defender, or a slight deflection?
6. Boubacar “Copa” Barry (Ivory Coast)
Easily the most underrated goalkeeper at the World Cup this summer. Copa has quietly been doing very well in the Belgium Pro League with Lokeren. I don’t think I’ve ever been impressed with a goalkeeper after giving up five goals in a match. His technique is a little gaudy with his hands taking such a huge swing behind his body as they come forward but his athleticism typically covers it up. He’s clearly improved since the last cycle but I think others will write him off for playing in Belgium. Crosses could be an issue for him by getting lost in the crowd, but I’d watch for him to impress the doubters and perhaps surprise Greece or Colombia.
7. David Ospina (Colombia)
Of all the goalkeepers going to Brazil, Ospina’s footwork is one of the best. A lot of times you’ll see a “miraculous” save when in reality the goalkeeper could have shuffled and held the ball. He makes hard saves look easy. However I’m not 100% he’s fully recovered from his partially ruptured ligament in his knee, back in November of last year. His agility seems to have taken a hit after and I don’t know if he can match stellar performances from earlier in the season. If he’s fit, and doesn’t move down toward the attacker too much in attempt to cut down the angle, Uruguay should survive the group. If not, this cycle might be remember as a “what if” year with all the injuries.
8. Vincent Enyeama (Nigeria)
Talk about aggressive. Enyeama’s back line better be on their toes at all times because Enyeama isn’t afraid to come off his line and approach a striker. A lot of the time it works due to his extreme reflexes but it’s all dependent on knowing the angles and having aware defenders. I’m curious how good Nigeria’s back line compares to his French club Lille, who finished third this last year. Enyeama’s style might mesh well or could be problematic when facing Argentina and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
9. Hugo Lloris (France)
Lloris is a mixed bag. When it comes to saves that call on his upper body, he’s great. His spring is huge and he’s more than capable to lay out for a low ball. But smart movement coming forward is a bit of an achilles heel when you compare him to the other world class keepers. He’s a little antsy on crosses and on 1v1 situations it’s anybody’s guess on what will happen. Sometimes it feels like he’s trying to force his presence on the game too much and clubs in the EPL haven’t given him a long leash in the past. If he keeps his head and plays the percentages (doesn’t chase balls he can’t get, stays up as long as possible) then there’s a good chance he’ll lead France out of the group.
10. Keylor Navas (Costa Rica)
Americans may remember this CONCACAF foe from qualifying. Navas plays for Levante in La Liga but don’t be fooled by their 10th place finish. Navas was a large part of why Costa Rica qualified for the World Cup. I’d like to see Navas hold more shots and not just recklessly dive near the general vicinity of the ball, but his spring and balance provide him the opportunity to get to shots that most goalkeepers can’t. Don’t discount Costa Rica despite the tough draw. Navas is no stranger to upsets, like when Levante topped Courtois’ Atletico 2-0 back in February. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if one of the teams could only pull out a draw against Costa Rica.
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WHAT?!? NO TIMMY HOWARD?!?
Don’t get me wrong, Tim Howard is a top keeper. He’s just not a top 10 keeper. In the past couple of year, his technique has gotten a little sloppy. His ready stance is extremely wide in the feet, which cements him in the ground. So lateral movement is an issue for him. Imagine spreading your feet really wide then trying to jump to your right. This is why Howard is often dogged for long distance shots, as happened multiple times during World Cup qualification.
In one-versus-one situations he doesn’t play the percentages very well. It’s more of a run-at-the-ball-however-you-want technique instead of covering the likely scenarios. Remember the goal England scored on the U.S. in 2010? Gerrard came in one-versus-one and Howard went legs wide for the save instead of bringing his hands into play. Just small stuff like that.
He is, however, very good at recognizing scenarios. He knows the likely shot (most of the time) and has great reflexes to get there. He won’t sink the US this summer and I could easily see him keeping them in a few games, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he gives up a relatively soft goal and the media let him off the hook by focusing the blame elsewhere.