Robert Sánchez has enjoyed a remarkable rise to prominence this season, from Brighton’s fourth-choice goalkeeper to a first call-up to Luis Enrique’s Spain squad.
Indeed, the 23-year-old spent last season on loan at Rochdale in League One, English football’s third tier. The year before that, he spent a campaign with League Two’s Forest Green. But now he is considered one of the Premier League’s most dependable goalkeepers, which is no mean feat given the other luminaries up and down the division.
Now, he is mixing it with David De Gea, Sergio Ramos, Sergio Busquets, Thiago Alacantara and Co. Teaming up with serial silverware winners worth hundreds of millions between them is a far cry from playing in England’s lower leagues.
How has Sánchez done it?
Being a backup goalkeeper is tough. Most managers try to use only one over an extended period of time, barring perhaps offering one other some minutes in cup matches, so it takes a bit of luck and opportunism at first, but solid form and consistency thereafter to stay there.
Mat Ryan had been Brighton’s number one goalkeeper since their return to the Premier League in 2017, after signing from Valencia. Behind him, manager Graham Potter had Christian Walton, a former England youth international with lots of experience out on loan, Jason Steele, a veteran of the English Football League with over 300 senior appearances, and then Sánchez.
Sánchez was given an almost immediate step up the ladder after his return from Rochdale when Walton suffered an injury in a pre-season friendly against Chelsea.
That meant it was between Steele and Sánchez to be the substitute goalkeeper behind Ryan. The Australian failed to match his performances in his first three seasons in England, and Potter gave Sánchez his first-team debut against Tottenham Hotspur in November.
At that point, commentators were not sure if he was considered an immediate replacement for Ryan, or whether Potter had used it to give his more experienced, senior ‘keeper a much-needed wake-up call.
Sánchez played well, despite Brighton’s 2-1 loss, but Ryan was restored for the next five matches. In four of those, Sánchez was not even named in the matchday squad. It did look as though Potter had used the Spaniard to show Ryan that he was far from undroppable if his performances continued to slip.
But a 3-0 loss to Leicester City was his final chance. He endured a poor display, including failing to push away James Maddison’s tame shot for the Foxes’ opener. Brighton were beginning to be in serious danger of relegation, and Potter had to change something.
And change, he did. Sánchez was reinstated for a crucial match against fellow strugglers Fulham. He made fine saves from Ivan Cavaleiro, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Ademola Lookman, the latter of which he denied with an incredible double save, as Brighton held on for an important 0-0 draw.
It was Sánchez’s first Premier League clean sheet, and he has not looked back. He has played every minute since, and he kept five shutouts in six Premier League matches which included wins against Liverpool and Spurs.
Experience belying his years
In his 18 Premier League appearances so far, he has shown experience belying his years, which is incredibly important for a goalkeeper. On top of his great shot-stopping powers, he is calm under pressure with the ball at his feet and he is a loud, constant presence in defence. He is adept and claiming crosses, too, helped by his strong, 6’6 frame.
Indeed, he has saved all 12 of the shots he has faced from outside of the box this season, no other top-flight ‘keeper still has a 100% record. And Ryan was allowed to leave for Arsenal in the January transfer window, which tells you how happy Potter is to stick with Sánchez.
Brighton still remain in the relegation battle, but none of the blame can be sent the ‘keeper’s way. His attacking team-mates have been in infamously poor scoring form in their battle to avoid the drop, and they have only conceded two or more goals four times since he became the undisputed regular.
Spain No 1 shirt up for grabs
The peculiar thing about his call-up for Spain is that it mirrors his breakthrough for Brighton. La Roja’s No 1 shirt has been a poisoned chalice in recent years, with Iker Casillas, David De Gea and Kepa Arrizabalaga all enduring poor form for club and country in recent memory.
Athletic Club’s Unai Simón has deputised in Spain’s recent matches, but he is far from irreplaceable. Certainly, his position is much, much less certain than Ryan’s seemed to be for Brighton, and Sánchez soon ousted him when he was given the opportunity.
He has been given a prized opportunity by Luis Enrique, which is amazing given he has not yet played half a season’s worth of matches, and he has never featured for Spain’s youth teams. It is not even a stretch to say the most ardent Spanish fans might not have known who he was a couple of months ago, given he left Levante to join Brighton in 2013 aged 15, but they will do now.