Safe hands, high cost

Leanne Lu
Written by Leanne Lu

Quality goalkeepers and defenders are becoming increasingly important in the battle for football supremacy, as evidenced by the world record transfer fee for a goalkeeper being broken three times this summer.


Weeks after Alisson Becker, Brazil’s national goalkeeper, switched from AS Roma to Liverpool for the then record transfer fee of £65 million, Chelsea triggered the £71 million release clause for young Athletic Bilbao keeper Kepa Arrizabalaga – making him the most expensive goalkeeper in football history. It seems safe hands now come at a very high cost.

In the same transfer window, Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois made his dream move from Stamford Bridge to Real Madrid at a cost of £35 million, becoming the third most expensive goalkeeper in history. Bearing in mind that the Belgian only had one year left on his Chelsea contract and that the deal also involved the loan of highly rated midfielder Mateo Kovačić to the Blues, Courtois could have easily been on the same wavelength of price as Alisson and Kepa.

In the past, attacking players have been the ones attracting record-breaking fees – Neymar for £198 million; Kylian Mbappé for £120 million; Philippe Coutinho for £106 million and Ousmane Dembélé for £97 million … the list goes on and on. Looking at the list of the most expensive footballers in the world, the top 10 all play in attacking positions.

But the importance of defensive players has become more noticeable in recent seasons. In England, Manchester City and Liverpool are the two big clubs that had been most plagued by massive defensive errors. In Pep Guardiola’s first season in charge of City, his fullbacks and goalkeepers were the biggest hole in his tactical system, prompting him to splash heavily on three defenders in Kyle Walker, Benjamin Mendy and Aymeric Laporte for a total of £159 million. Each exceeded £50 million in transfer fees. In the same window, Guardiola also made Ederson Moraes, Brazil’s number two goalkeeper, the most expensive keeper in the world at that time at £34.7 million. City went on to win the Premier League the following season.

Liverpool has spent even bigger to solve their defensive problems, and with good reason. Three months ago in Kiev, goalkeeper Loris Karius made two disastrous personal errors to concede goals in the Reds’ 3-1 Champions League final loss to Real Madrid. The goalkeeping position has been a long-term problem for the Reds and Karius was supposed to provide some much-needed competition for the No.1 jersey previously held by Simon Mignolet. However, both failed profoundly, forcing manager Jürgen Klopp to spend big on Alisson.

It follows another record-breaking Liverpool deal for center-back Virgil van Dijk, who joined the club mid-season in early 2018 for £75 million. The highly-inflated transfer market and the importance of good defensive cover forced the board’s hand after years of reluctance to spend big. Nowadays it is commonly agreed that worldclass defensive players, including goalkeepers, are far more valuable than previously given credit for.

It was 2001 when Gianluigi Buffon, the legendary Italian goal stopper, become the then most expensive goalkeeper in the world for a transfer fee of £32.6 million in his move from Parma to Juventus. The record remained for 16 years until Ederson inched over by £2.1 million in 2017. This summer, Ederson’s record was smashed three times in a short period of time and the price more than doubled!

The big moves by Liverpool and Manchester City are in stark contrast to Manchester United where manager Jose Mourinho was incensed by the board’s refusal to splurge on expensive defensive solutions like Harry Maguire and Toby Alderweireld. Mourinho has stated that United’s secondplaced finish last season, 19 points behind City, was “one of my biggest achievements in the game” – but with his league competitors spending big on safe hands, matching that achievement might be one step too far for the Red Devils this time around.

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