“You can say that we have a goalkeeper,” Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti said, smiling. You can, yeah.
This was after a game against Sevilla, but it could have been Rotterdam, Liverpool, Rome or anywhere, really. Every week, every game, good, bad or indifferent, there’s at least one astonishing save from Thibaut Courtois. Sometimes they don’t really need it; sometimes they really, really do. But either way, it’s always there.
Real Madrid have won seven games in a row. Without him, they wouldn’t have. All of them have seen a Courtois save, seemingly a statutory requirement now, no match complete without one.
Just ask … well, Courtois himself. The goalkeeper is not shy in saying so, nor is he slow to mention his miracles in postmatch interviews, slipping them in somewhere. But then again, he’s that rare footballer — the kind for which we should be grateful — who actually has something to say and prefers to say it, as opposed to just mumbling a few cliches to get out of there. A man willing to talk postgame — almost every postgame, in fact, a press officer’s dream when others are refusing — and do it clearly and directly on every subject, to analyse the game properly.
Why shouldn’t that include his saves? After all, the analysis of just about every Real Madrid game would be incomplete without them. Besides, there is something matter of fact in the way he does so, happily breaking down which stops were easier, which were harder, how his height plays a part. On Wednesday night after a 1-0 win over Athletic Club, for example, Courtois outlined the difference between the saves he made, noting of stops from Raul García and Oihan Sancet: “I know Raul García well. He heads it low, from close range, which is not easy. It’s training, quality, reflexes, talent, and a bit of luck. The second one is more about making yourself big, trying to block the space beneath your feet.”
Not least because it is a fact, because he is right and, actually, why not? Everyone would be onto him fast enough if he made a mistake. Would be? They were. When it wasn’t even mistakes he was making, it just wasn’t miracles either, at least not yet: When he had a difficult start at Madrid, they waded into him not because he was even sinking, but purely because he wasn’t saving them.
Not, then, anyway. He is now. That stats show it, too: No-one in Spain has made more than he has. In Europe, only two men have, which is not normal at a big club, usually less likely to face sufficient shots to rack up such stats. That’s the raw numbers; then there’s the percentages. In the Champions League, Courtois saves 86.36% of the shots on target. In LaLiga, he saves more than three-quarters of them. No one does it better. And if you don’t want to take his word for it, how about taking Unai Simon‘s?
Last Sunday night, Courtois made two superb saves against Sevilla, just the latest in a long list. Four days later, he denied Athletic. Two games Madrid really could have lost; two games they somehow won, quietly climbing seven points clear at the top of the table.
At the end of it, Athletic’s manager Marcelino said: “I’ve been in football a very long time and I’ve never seen anything like it.” His team could have scored six. Some of it was terrible finishing, some of it was excellent defending — Lucas Vazquez in particular produced a superb block — and some of it was the obligatory, daily magic from Courtois. Athletic’s sporting director Rafa Alkorta said, “He was phenomenal. He kept the game alive.” As for Athletic’s own keeper, Simon insisted: “There’s not enough appreciation of Courtois.”
Which is not to say there is not any — there is, and this morning’s front page of AS shouts “Golden Gloves,” for example — but maybe there’s something about goalkeepers that means they get overlooked, something about them, it might be advisable to admit, that makes them more likely to stick up for each other.
“Courtois’ work is not valued as it should be, and he is a pillar of the team,” Simon said. “There are lots of stars at Madrid, like Benzema, Modric and Kroos, and they would not have won without him.”
Courtois admitted that when he came to Madrid, there was a certain “distance” between him and then-manager Zinedine Zidane. See how clearly he speaks? He even said that “[captain] Sergio Ramos was Keylor Navas‘ friend, so it was hard for him at first.” There he goes again. His save percentage was low, it is true, and there might even have been some unease, a hint of a lack of confidence. The media speculated that he had an anxiety attack — a subject too serious, too frivolously thrown out there for him to let it go — and so, he spoke out.
The pressure was intense, as it always is there. Courtois would later make the point that social media, a trap into which young players fall, is best avoided because it “just makes you feel bad” and that “your head goes mad if you believe everything in the press.” Which is not to say he’s impermeable to what’s said around him: He clearly isn’t, there are often glimpses of that, and he has admitted that his press officer filters through it and passes him some of what’s written so he can see “which way the wind blows.” (Hi Thibaut!) But if that was hard to manage — if that is hard to manage, and it is hard for those on the outside to appreciate just how hard — he managed.
Asked on Wednesday if Courtois was the best goalkeeper he’d ever worked with, Ancelotti offered a very Ancelotti answer. “The list is long,” he said, “Iker Casillas, Diego Lopez, Gianluigi Buffon, Petr Cech, Manuel Neuer … but for us here he is the best in this moment.”
Courtois (who was voted No. 4 goalkeeper in the 2021 ESPN FC 100) was not included in the shortlist for The Best and was absent from the Ballon d’Or conversation. The latter prizes are largely about what they won (or didn’t) last season — the visibility — even if Courtois put it down to the fact that he had said that the third-fourth place playoff at the Nations League was pointless, only there because it is “extra money for UEFA.” No matter, he said, “I know what I am doing for the club.”
Making saves as standard, then. And it’s not just the saves. Watch the game from just behind his goal and there’s more that stands out about him beyond the little routines: studs bashed against the posts, a spare ball handed him by a member of staff standing just there with a bag full of them. (It’s something to hold, bounce, get a feel of.) The sense of control, the sobriety, the calmness, the lack of fuss. Courtois is not an especially loud goalkeeper, but there’s an authority still, and words used when they are needed. The dominance of his area stands out, too. A ball in the air is a ball that’s his, every time.
And then there’s the play. It’s striking how often teammates turn to him, the ball sent his way. Sometimes pinged his way. Hard, bouncing, awkward … and always dealt with.
How much you play depends on the coach. Some teams just hoof it, and Courtois has been on those teams, too. When he was at Chelsea under then-manager Guus Hiddink, Courtois recalled, he would be in the middle of passing drills — and he was pretty good at it. That part of his game has returned, and even encouraged at the Bernabeu. It’s not so unusual, no, but the trust in him is telling. Which it would be considering how he never lets them down, and how regularly he rescues them.
For another club, that might be something to worry about — no team really wants their goalkeeper to be outstanding — but Ancelotti was not worried. Not like that, anyway. “We have him and we enjoy him,” Ancelotti said. Well, some of them do. “He does in games what he does very day in training,” the coach added. “I say to him, ‘You have to give our forwards more confidence because you always stop every shot they take.'”