Willy Caballero – When Two Becomes One

Willy Caballero, Manchester City goalkeeper
Willy Caballero, Manchester City goalkeeper

The 2016 Capital One Cup Final probably yielded little that will remain long in the memory of the neutral supporter. However, the match-winning performance of Manchester City’s erstwhile second-choice goalkeeper, Willy Caballero, was surely the exception as the unheralded Argentine brushed off widespread pre-match disdain with a hat-trick of remarkable penalty saves.

However, Caballero’s moment in the sun was remarkable not only for its inherent quality but also for dispelling much of our collective prejudice about goalkeeping as a whole and supposed second-string stoppers in particular. Manuel Pellegrini’s selection of Caballero, in preference to his established number one Joe Hart, was widely condemned before the match, on the basis that Caballero, despite being both a double-winner and an Olympic champion in his homeland, is generally accepted as being marginally the inferior player of the two. However, the apparent obligation to select Hart for a big game appears to expose something of a footballing double-standard: It might be perfectly reasonable to “rotate” every outfield member of your playing staff to the point where no-one can actually remember who’s first choice and who isn’t, but goalkeepers remain subject to a strict pecking order and deviating from the status quo is tantamount to treason, unless it’s the first round of the Capital One Cup of course.

We have long-since become familiar with the notion that a manager might not start a match with the eleven best players available to him at any given time. Titles, even minor ones like Capital One Cups, are now won by squads and not teams. Not since Aston Villa’s famous fourteen man league win of 1981 has a team won anything by assembling a first-choice team and sticking to it. Pellegrini was seemingly spared any scrutiny regarding having to make a call between the similarly comparable credentials of Gael Clichy versus Aleksandr Kolarov. Nor did he have to justify his selecting Yaya Toure or Raheem Sterling, despite the fact that one doesn’t lift a finger and the other might actually be a bit pony.

During the post-match interviews, Pellegrini made a big deal of explaining that he had already promised Caballero every round of the Capital One Cup as part of their initial transfer negotiations. The necessity of him having to do so is strange in itself. We have long-since understood that players might transfer for any number of reasons including financial or geographical convenience or just because their Missus told them to. The guarantee of first-team football is rarely a pre-requisite for transfer negotiation. The likes of Milner, Bellamy and Anelka would be much poorer men if this were not so.

Admittedly, goalkeepers are at something of an occupational disadvantage in that their specialist position means they have fewer opportunities generally. Aside from the occasional madness of David James coming on as the token big lump up front during the previous incarnation of Manchester City, they are never going to get the nod when the gaffer is desperately surveying his bench for an impact sub. Neither are the likely to get shifted to “fill in” for injury or poor form elsewhere on the field, or to suddenly find themselves reinvented in a sexy new role as part of some new whimsical formation. Of course, Caballero’s old friend the Capital One Cup in its various guises has often provided run outs for second-string keeper, but generally only in the capacity of a glorified ball-boy in games where a few players returning to fitness, the squad man and a couple of academy smartarses can reasonably be expected to befuddle some lower-league no-hopers.

There was however the brief interjection of the 1990’s trend of bringing keepers off the bench specifically for penalty shoot-outs which might prick Caballero’s interest. The endearing myth that dear old Bobby Robson considered replacing Peter Shilton with Dave Beasant to face the Germans is sadly ruined by the fact that Beasant wasn’t actually on the bench, and it’s difficult to disregard the fact that a true account of Beasant’s career would probably feature more calamities than penalty saves by a ratio of about ten to one. However, Martin O’Neill seemingly liked the look of the idea and replaced Kevin Poole with Zeljko Kalac in the dying seconds of the First Division play-off final of 1996. Sadly, the fun was ruined by Steve Claridge, a concept familiar to views of the BBC Championship coverage of recent years, and his untimely goal at the other end. We were therefore denied us a baseline experiment as to whether or not withdrawing one of your best players as your season approaches its most crucial point can ever be a good idea and we gradually slunk back to the realisation that good goalkeepers should probably be able to save penalties anyway.

Indeed, the act of eventually dispensing with a goalkeeper is a similarly long drawn-out affair, their seemingly charmed existence not restricted to being the only players in a team who no-one is allowed to bump into. Whereas an outfield player might reasonably expect a few bad games to cost him his place in a team, the removal of a goalkeeper is more akin to a painful divorce following months of rancour. With their team having the worst defensive record in the top flight, Norwich City supporters have gradually seen the era of their long-time number one John Ruddy slip away this year, with his protégé Declan Rudd finally being given a chance to step up after a six-year apprenticeship which has taken him well into his footballing middle age. Remarkably, this was seen as brutal and even premature in some quarters, notwithstanding the view that Ruddy’s disintegration from England international to the divisions worst player in his position would have long since freed up his Saturdays if he played any other position.

This hesitancy pertains to the process of goalkeeping recruitment also. Many eyebrows were raised when Asmir Begovic, one of the Premier League’s best goalkeepers over the past few season, gave up his cushy number at Stoke to join Chelsea last summer, despite the presence of the seemingly immovable Thibaut Courtois between their sticks. Many saw this as Begovic effectively taking early goalkeeping retirement, but he can probably expect to better employed that his outfield fellow arrivals at the Bridge such as Papy Djilobodji, Michael Hector and Matt Miazga all of whom have come “to fight for a place” no doubt. Succession planning might be sensible in most quarters but not for your goalkeeper. Even Andre Villas-Boas, the personification of a scattergun approach to a transfer window, seemed to have lost his marbles when he spent £10 million on Hugo Lloris when he already had Brad Friedel, serenely cruising up to his record of 310 consecutive Premier League Games, on the books. Villas-Boas was universally derided as a man who had gone to the shops without first checking the contents of the freezer, but Spurs are clearly a better team for having had successive top-class goalkeepers without the interjection of an Erik Thorstvedt in-between.

The general principle is that we seem to be more comfortable with the idea of a second-choice keeper being restricted purely to dinking up a few crosses in the warm-up and to wait impassively on the bench for the occasional instance of the proper keeper twinging that dodgy knee with a goal kick or charging out and picking up a silly red. Their occasional appearances are notable mainly for curiosity or even comedy value, and their stepping up to higher office being about as welcome as that of a Deputy Prime Minister with a croquet mallet in hand. But having two goalkeepers of genuine first-team credentials has widely been seen as an extravagant indulgence, the unwritten rule being that it’s just a bit more sporting to have to throw in a Hilario from time to time and that the prime goalkeeping spots should be fairly shared out amongst the best keepers with no one club hogging more than its fair share.

So, as Caballero galloped over the Wembley turf, curiously pursued by a mesmerised Sky TV reporter, the unlikeliest new City icon also became the human face of the hitherto seedy underworld of second-string ‘keepers. One wonders what Joe Hart and his goalkeeper’s union made of it. It may be that their treehouse has just been discovered and their gloved hands are frantically trying to pull the rope ladder up.

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