Friday, September 8, 2017

BRIDGING THE 15 POINT GAP

Brian Clough, Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger were each convinced that a good goalkeeper ---Peter Shilton, Peter Schmeichel and David Seaman at their respective title winning Nottingham Forest, Manchester United and Arsenal sides  -- could save their sides between 10 and 15 points a season.

As City prepare to face Liverpool this weekend, the long history of goalkeepers, good and bad, that has wrapped itself around these two clubs, may make this old saying even more poignant.  In City’s case, the big question is: have they finally found the man, who can do for them exactly what Messrs Schmeichel, Seaman and Shilton did before him and be a deciding factor in the Premier League title returning to the Etihad for a third time in seven years?

After all, the afore-mentioned 15 points that those managers believed a proper keeper could save them represent the exact difference between City and title winners Chelsea last season.
City’s recent problems in this position are well documented: from Joe Hart, England’s first choice and a regular at the Etihad since his breakthrough in 2007-08 to his immediate replacement Claudio Bravo, Chile’s record cap holder, things have not always gone smoothly between the sticks for the club.

This is nothing new of course. As far back as the last time City featured in the trophy-winning highlights back in the late sixties and early seventies, the goalkeeping position provided a proper headache for Malcolm Allison and Joe Mercer.
Joe Corrigan, putting on weight quicker than his profession required, failed to take off successfully - both metaphorically and literally - and found himself dropped. In those nascent glory years, the gloves flew between Harry Dowd, Corrigan and Ken Mulhearn. The latter was the main keeper for the title season of 67-68, while Dowd regained his place to feature in the FA Cup final v Leicester in 1969. Corrigan was in the side the next season for the double triumph in the League Cup and Cup Winners' Cup and was also between the sticks for City's 1976 League Cup triumph over Newcastle, plus the 1981 FA Cup final defeat to Tottenham after a replay, where he was the BBC's Man of the Match(es).
A lot had happened in between, however. 
By 1973 the battle for a flabby and nervous Corrigan was to wrest the number one jersey from Ron Healey and the expensively acquired Keith MacRae, a £100,000 buy (imagine that) from Motherwell, of all places. A succession of managers around that time did not rate Corrigan and even some of his team mates had had enough of his occasional gaffes, Mike Doyle purportedly asking the management what Corrigan was doing still in the side.   
That he fought back, regained his place in the first team and – by the mid seventies – had found a slot in the England squad, was testament to his incredible willpower and attitude. That he never made it past a meagre total of 9 international caps was down to the bad luck of finding himself competing with the afore-mentioned Shilton and a certain Ray Clemence of Liverpool.

Clemence stood between the posts at Anfield nearly 500 times during the seventies, before giving way to Bruce Grabelaar, a moustachioed Zimbabwean who had fought in the jungles of central Africa before finding an unlikely place in British professional football.

Grobelaar was the archetypal “eccentric goalkeeper”, often leaving his line to perform the kind of duties today’s goalkeepers are regularly expected to do, but in an era, when the backpass could be picked up and defences did not expect the man at the back to frolic from goal and start playing the ball to feet. Grobelaar seemed to be making up the goalkeeper's art as he went along and this often led to embarrassing failure.

In one such event, in 1981, City came to Anfield fully expecting to get their annual pasting, but came away with one of those rare away wins, partly because of Grobelaar's antics in the home goal. Coming way too far for a high ball, he was stranded in no man's land when the foray resulted in a missed catch, as City's Steve Kinsey looped the ball towards goal, forcing Phil Thompson to palm it over the bar.

Kevin Bond's penalty conversion helped City towards a 3-1 win that was as rare as hens' teeth.

Corrigan, watching from a safe distance at the opposite end that day, will have had uneasy flashbacks to his own dark days.

Claudio Bravo arrived at City just over 12 months ago knowing exactly what to expect. Guardiola, an advocate of so-called sweeper keepers, had brought him to England to do what he professed Hart could not manage: come out, use his feet, pass and set attacks in motion with alert, adept balls to his midfielders. 
This was quickly shown to be a flawed exercise, with Bravo caught horribly in an early season Grobelaaresque act of hot headedness in the Manchester derby at Old Trafford. The game left a
All the way from Motherwell
mark on the Chilean, who became steadily more erratic and less convincing as the season progressed, to the extent that he eventually lost his place in the first team to Hart’s old understudy Willy Caballero.


This was arguably one of the major turning points in Guardiola’s first attempt at trophy winning in England. With an already shaky defence shot of confidence, a major Achilles heel had been uncovered and was duly attacked as City’s weak point by a variety of canny opponents.
To their credit, City have moved to correct the weakness.

Bravo’s much heralded arrival had initially pushed fan favourite Hart out to Torino on loan and subsequently West Ham, where he is still trying manfully to shore up his battered reputation.
That Bravo is still at the club comes about as a result of the impasse with Hart. The Chilean, meanwhile, relegated to second choice by the expensive acquisition of Ederson Morais from Benfica, has witnessed a sturdy and reliable start by his new Brazilian team mate.

The calmness and authority that was so obviously missing last season as Bravo’s confidence ebbed away like the evening tide, is now there for all to see. After opening matches with little to do at Brighton and at home to Everton, the young goalkeeper found himself in the thick of a truly crazy game at Bournemouth, which required maximum concentration and huge agility to help his side to the most hard-earned of three points.
That his concentration did not waver was one thing. That he was able – when called upon – to pull off the kind of elastic saves that seemed for the most part of last season to be beyond his predecessor, bodes well for the future.

Having proved his worth against Guardiola’s Bayern Munich in the Champions League for Benfica in 2016, Ederson simply has to keep doing what he did in those two closely fought quarter-final matches: racing from his goal, passing accurately and confidently to feet and launching searing counter-attacks with incredibly accurate drop kicks to the wings.
If he can do all of this at City, those 15 extra points – exactly the margin of failure last season -- might just make all the difference to City's challenge in 2017-18.

An abridged version of this article featured on the ESPNFC website here

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