Real Madrid’s Thibaut Courtois is undervalued, but key to the club’s success

“You can say we have a goalkeeper,” Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti said with a smile. Yes that’s possible.

This was after a game against Sevilla, but it could have been Rotterdam, Liverpool, Rome or anywhere else. Every week, every game, good, bad or indifferent, there is at least one stunning save from Thibaut Courtois. Sometimes they don’t really need it; sometimes they are real Real to do. But anyway, it’s always there.

Real Madrid have won seven games in a row. They wouldn’t have done it without him. They’ve all seen a rescue from Courtois, seemingly a legal requirement now, no match complete without it.

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Just ask… well, Courtois himself. The goalkeeper isn’t shy about saying so, nor is he slow to mention his miracles in post-match interviews and put them in something. But then again, he’s that rare football player — the kind for which we should be thankful — who actually has something to say and would rather say it, rather than just mumble some clichés to get out of there. A man who is willing to talk after the game — almost any postgame, in fact a press officer’s dream when others refuse — and who is clear and direct on any subject, to analyze the game well.

Why shouldn’t his saves be included? After all, without them, the analysis of just about every Real Madrid game would not be complete. Besides, there’s something factual about the way he does that, gleefully breaking down which stops were easier, which ones were harder, how his height plays a role. For example, on Wednesday night, after a 1-0 win over Athletic Club, Courtois outlined the difference between the saves he made, noting of stops by Raul García and Oihan Sancet: “I know Raul García well. He heads it low, from close range, which isn’t easy. It’s training, quality, reflexes, talent and a bit of luck. The second is more about making yourself big, trying to block the space under your feet.”

Not least because it’s a fact, because he’s right and really, why not? Anyone would find out soon enough if he made a mistake. Would be? They were. When he didn’t even make mistakes, they weren’t miracles, at least not yet: when he had a rough start in Madrid, they waded him not because he was even sinking, but purely because he wasn’t saving them.

Not anyway. He is now. The statistics also show this: no one in Spain has earned more than him. In Europe, only two men, which is not normal at a big club, are generally less likely to have enough shots to achieve such stats. Those are the raw numbers; then there are the percentages. In the Champions League, Courtois saves 86.36% of shots on goal. In LaLiga, he saves more than three quarters of them. Nobody does it better. And if you won’t take his word for it, how about taking Unai Simon’s?

Last Sunday night, Courtois made two fantastic saves against Sevilla, the latest in a long list. Four days later, he denied Athletic. Two games that Madrid really could have lost; two games they somehow won, quietly climbing seven points ahead of the top of the table.

Afterwards Athletic manager Marcelino said: “I’ve been in football for a long time and I’ve never seen anything like it.” His team could have scored six. Some of it was a terrible finish, some of it was excellent defensively – Lucas Vazquez in particular produced a fantastic block – and some of it was Courtois’ obligatory, daily magic. Athletic’s sporting director Rafa Alkorta said: “He was phenomenal. He kept the game alive.” As for Athletic’s own goalkeeper, Simon insisted: “There is not enough appreciation for Courtois.”

Which isn’t to say it isn’t there — it is, and this morning AS is calling out “Golden Gloves” on the AS front page, for example, but maybe there’s something about goalkeepers that means they’re being overlooked, something about them, it might be advisable to admit that makes them more inclined to stick up for each other.

“Courtois’s work is not appreciated as it should be, and he is a mainstay of the team,” said Simon. “There are many stars in Madrid, such as Benzema, Modric and Kroos, and without him they would not have won.”

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 difficult for him at the beginning.” There he goes again. His rescue rate was low, it’s true, and there was maybe even some uneasiness, a hint of lack of confidence. The media speculated that he was having an anxiety attack – a subject too serious, too frivolous to let go of – so he spoke out.

The pressure was great, as always. 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 “believes everything in the press makes your head crazy.” Which isn’t to say he’s impenetrable to what’s being said around him: he clearly isn’t, there are often glimpses of that, and he’s admitted that his press officer filters through and relays to him some of what’s written so that he can see “which how the wind blows.” (Hi Thibaut!) But if that was hard to manage – if that is hard to manage, and it’s hard for those on the outside to realize how hard – he succeeded.

Asked on Wednesday whether Courtois was the best goalkeeper he had ever worked with, Ancelotti gave 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 at the moment.”

Courtois (who was voted No. 4 goalkeeper in the 2021 ESPN FC 100) was not shortlisted for The Best and was absent from the Ballon d’Or call. Those latest awards are largely about what they won (or didn’t win) last season — the visibility — even if Courtois attributed it to the fact that he said the play-off for third-fourth place in the Nations League pointless, only there because it is “extra money for UEFA”. It doesn’t matter, he said: “I know what I’m doing for the club.”

So save by default. And it’s not just the rescues. Watch the game from right behind his goal and there’s more that catches his eye outside of the little routines: studs slammed against the posts, a spare ball handed to him by an employee standing there with a bag full. (It’s something to hold, to bounce, to get a sense of.) The sense of control, the sobriety, the calm, the lack of fuss. Courtois is not a particularly boisterous goalkeeper, but there is still an authority and words used when they are needed. The dominance of his territory is also striking. A ball in the air is a ball that belongs to him, every time.

And then there’s the play. It is striking how often teammates turn to him, the ball sent his way. Sometimes pinged his way. Hard, bouncing, clumsy… and always handled.

How much you play depends on the coach. Some teams just do it, and Courtois has been on those teams too. When he was at Chelsea under then manager Guus Hiddink, Courtois recalled, he was in the midst of passing drills – and he was pretty good at it. That part of his playing has returned, and even encouraged at the Bernabeu. It’s not that uncommon, no, but the confidence in him is telling. Which it would be if you consider how he never abandons them and how regularly he rescues them.

For another club, that might be something to worry about – no team really wants their goalkeeper to be excellent – but Ancelotti wasn’t worried. Not so anyway. “We have him and we enjoy him,” Ancelotti said. Well, some of them do. “He does in matches what he does every day in training,” added the coach. “I tell him, ‘You have to give our attackers more confidence because you always stop with every shot they take.'”

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