A wise friend of mine who was a goalkeeper for many years before coaching taught me, “If the ball winds up in the back of the net, it had to pass 10 of your teammates first.” For some people, this may sound like a copout. But if you’ve ever stood between the ball and the net alone with only a pair of gloves for protection, you’ll know that she was right. The keeper truly is the last man standing.
|Not today, shorty!|
I’ve always thought that keepers were a mixture of pure bravery and complete madness. Who would stand alone between the back of the net and a ball that can come at you at freeway car speeds? Only the most insane, or those whose bravery was of epic proportions, or most likely a mixture of the two. And to that end, we have one of the bravest and most insane in Christian Abbiati.
Abbiati has faced a lot of criticism this season for our hemorrhaging of goals. So far, we gave up 8 goals in Serie A. A couple of those were definitely his blunders, and he was a class act before the Cesena match at the San Siro, apologizing to the crowd for his errors. I don’t remember any other players doing that. But when you’re the last man standing, there is a certain amount of honor involved in the clean sheet portion of the stats. For example, did you know he has also had 16 saves in Serie A and one clean sheet in the 5 matches thus far? Not as good as last year, but it could definitely be worse.
|"Everybody hurts... sometimes" --R.E.M.|
Last season was Abbiati’s season. The stats tell the story: in 35 appearances, he had 110 saves and only conceded 19 goals. He also had 18 clean sheets, shutting out opponents in more than half of his appearances. And while it’s true that he also had the best defense in Serie A in front of him, you can still see his contribution when you consider that out of 129 shots on goal during the season, he only conceded 19 of those. That’s 129 shots that got past the other 10 Milan players on the field (including the best defense in Serie A,) and he personally stopped all but 19 of them. Last man standing, indeed.
It is hard for some people to understand what a specialized position goalkeeper is and also what a keeper can’t really be responsible for. Many people are under the misconception that all goals conceded sit squarely on the shoulders of the keeper. I mean shouldn’t the one man who can handle the ball stop anything and everything that comes his way?
No. First of all, that’s not even humanly possible. As I understand it, a regulation sized goal has a face of 192 sq. ft./58.5 m sq. (8 ft./2.44 m high x 24ft./7.3 m wide) So that’s 192 sq. ft./58.5 m. sq. that one person is charged with protecting for 90 minutes of the game. If this person is, say 6’3”/1.91 m. tall, like Abbiati, he likely also has a wingspan to match his height. So that allows him to cover most of the height and about 25% of the width of goal at any given moment. With balls coming in at varying trajectories and speeds, and even sometimes from your own teammates, it gets tricky. When there are 20 other players out there in front of you plus a ref, it really becomes difficult to see where the ball is at all times. A keeper counts on his teammates to do their jobs as much as he is depended on to do his.
|Our Three Musketeers|
Not to mention all of the specialized training and techniques that a keeper endures, nor the importance of great hand-eye coordination and quick reflexes, and the natural ability to jump, fall, etc. They also need to know when to punch, when to grab, when to run out, when to stay in goal, etc. And did I mention they need to have both a killer kick and a great throw to be able to distribute the ball well? Truly, these are just a fraction of the skills required, and I think the average fan just takes these guys for granted.
I will have to go into more detail aboout the part about who is responsible when a goal is conceded another time, as this is getting long, but trust me, a lot of goals that are conceded would be humanly impossible for even the very best of keepers to stop. Just on Sunday, for example, we saw how the first Juve goal was partially caused by a failed Bonera deflection. Whereas the 2nd goal Abbiati should have had, and the placement of his legs/position of his body allowed the goal to literally slip through his fingers. That was something goalkeepers learn very early, and definitely his responsibility.
|A keeper has a bird's eye view of the battle and can sound the alarm|
But in the end, if you looked at every player’s stats for 90 minutes, Abbiati has probably had the fewest errors. Consider that pass completion rate is great at 80%. A striker who scores 25% of his shots is usually top of the table. How many cards does a defender earn in a year? It’s hard to compare all of these specialized skills. But my point is, no player is perfect. And in Abbiati, we have just about as close as you can get.
This season is starting off drastically different, not just for Abbiati, but for Milan as a whole. But a keeper is only as good as the 10 men in front of him. Take Julio Cesar, for example, he was recently considered the best keeper in the world (I think he still considers himself as such!) but I believe Inter have conceded the most goals so far this season in Serie A. And even if it could be argued that his form is off, Inter’s form as been off, too. Again, a keeper is only as good as the 10 men in front of him. The more shots allowed, the greater the chances of conceding.
It’s hard enough to be in the position of the last man standing. Harder still when your team allow lots of quick counter attacks, don’t mark their men, etc. But I think it’s the hardest when fans criticize you for things you had no control over. So much of this game is mental, too, that when you’re already down, it’s hard to have the fans down on you, too (this applies to all of the players, not just keepers.)
|"Not on my watch"|
But AC Milan have the blessing of one of the best keepers in Serie A, even in poor form, in Christian Abbiati. He is everything you could want in a keeper, just short of perfection. I believe his performances thus far have been stellar, despite a few blunders, and are certainly on par with or exceed the performances of the rest of this team. If I was a Milan player, and even more so as a Milan fan, I would absolutely put my faith in Abbiati. He is my hero, and the epitome of what you would want in your last man standing.
This post inspired by the music of She Wants Revenge