FEATURE | Spain’s goalkeeping conundrum

Only a couple of years ago, you would have been forgiven for assuming that David De Gea would be a mainstay for Spain until as far as the European Championships in 2024.

But that’s no longer the case. After a shaky 24 months for Manchester United and his country, perhaps he should no longer be considered the best goalkeeper at Luis Enrique’s disposal.

Then, you would imagine the number one jersey would be handed to the world’s most expensive goalkeeper, Kepa Arrizabalaga. Wrong.

He moved from Athletic Club to Chelsea in 2018 for a reported €80 million, ahead of Alisson’s transfer to Liverpool (€62.5 million) and more than double the fee Real Madrid paid for the man Kepa replaced at Stamford Bridge, Thibaut Courtois (€35 million).

But he has enjoyed a poor two years in London, and he has already been replaced by Edouard Mendy, who joined from Rennes in the summer.

At the end of last season among goalkeepers to have played at least 10 matches in the Premier League, Kepa’s save rate of 54.5% ranked last out of 730 custodians. And for 14 of the 47 goals he conceded last season (30%), he did not even attempt a save.

Spain’s best goalkeeper now is actually the Athletic Club star who shot to prominence as a result of Kepa’s departure to England: Unai Simón.

The 23-year-old has started Spain’s his first three matches – the 6-0 win over Germany and draws against the Netherlands and Switzerland – ahead of benched De Gea in the recent international break.

There is plenty more competition, though. Fernando Pacheco, Aitor Fernández and David Soria have been in strong form for Alaves, Levante and Getafe, but as they all approach 30 it seems Spain wish to choose a goalkeeper for the long-term, like they did with De Gea. Simón is capable of that.

Sergio Asenjo is another ‘keeper who will consider himself unlucky to have not earned more international recognition. But owing to the form of Iker Casillas and then De Gea and bad luck with injuries, he will surely not be recalled despite his excellence for Villarreal.

Simón’s goalkeeping compatriots will have been watching on as he made a brilliant save low to his left from Memphis Depay on his debut, when it looked certain that he would score to put the Netherlands in front.

He then followed that up against Switzerland with a strong block from Xherdan Shaqiri at his near post in the match’s early stages.

He did make a mistake, though. He charged out of his penalty area and missed his clearance, but a stunning goal-line block from Sergio Ramos saved Haris Seferović’s goal-bound shot and the goalkeeper’s blushes.

As you would expect, Manuel Neuer was the busiest ‘keeper out of the two in Spain’s 6-0 masterclass, but a clean sheet against Germany’s infamous firepower remains impressive.

You would be hard pressed to find anyone who would blame Simón for the goals Spain conceded against the Netherlands and Switzerland, too – the strikes from Donny van de Beek were Remo Frueler were convincing, and the result of poor defending, too.

And his club form has been impressive. He first came into first-team reckoning when Kepa was sold in 2018 and his natural heir, Iago Herrerín, suffered an injury. He was only two weeks into a loan spell to Elche in the Segunda División, but he was recalled to San Mamés.

Of course, Athletic’s transfer policy means that simply dipping into the transfer market for a ready-made replacement was not as easy as it would have been for other clubs – Simón was a direct beneficiary of this.

He had to compete for a place with Álex Remiro, who had more experience with Bilbao Athletic, the club’s reserves, but he made his LaLiga debut against Leganés less than a week later and did not look back.

His first two full seasons were solid and headlined by a man of the match performance to hold Real Madrid to a draw in his third appearance and a clean sheet against Barcelona on the opening day of last season in his first match wearing the number one shirt.

Athletic have endured an indifferent season so far, and they have kept only one clean sheet against Levante, but that is far from Simón’s fault – his call-up for his country is a testament to that.

This comes during a period that has seen De Gea under fire for his performances in the Premier League – surely seeing Dean Henderson replace him at Old Trafford would see his Spain chances diminished further?

Kepa looks to have already been cast aside by Frank Lampard at Chelsea, with Mendy off to a strong start and Willy Caballero also available. All things considered, though, they remain Simón’s biggest competition for regular minutes for Spain.

Against Germany, Spain’s attacking young stars showed that perhaps another golden generation is approaching its peak, a decade on from the last excellent cohort. In such a complete, dominant display, it was easy to forget the excellence of the young goalkeeper, but it appears he will have plenty of time yet to show his worth.

Ryan Plant

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