THERE are very few managers who genuinely want to rotate goalkeepers. Football’s a squad game these days, more than it ever was when I turned professional, but a consistent number one is a prerequisite for any decent team.
The first keeper I played with was Dave Beasant, who pretty much defined the word consistent. He was a long way into his career when we crossed paths at Nottingham Forest and no-one ever worried about him. Antti Niemi at Southampton was another star: extremely agile and blessed with the reactions of a cat. He could go all season without making a mistake.
For the guys who managed them, both were a dream. The goalkeeping position was boxed off and, barring injuries or red cards, it required no thought. Thomas Christiansen and Leeds United are in a different ballpark: trying to settle on a first choice but yet to be convinced by either Felix Wiedwald or Andy Lonergan. I’ve seen similar situations before and doubts about goalkeepers cause no end of stress. A coach can do without it.
It’s important to say at this point that I sympathise with the life a goalkeeper leads (I’m not talking about the lifestyle or the money; no-one is complaining about any of that). It’s an isolated role and as a position on the pitch, it’s absolutely bespoke. If a club’s right-back is having a hard time, other outfield players can help by doubling up and covering his back. If a striker’s out of form, you can tweak the formation or fall back on goals from elsewhere.
I know this sounds obvious but when it comes to the keeper, no-one else can catch the ball. No-one can do anything to assist their handling, help their shot-stopping or sort out poor distribution. You can support and you can encourage, and I was always a great believer in pats on the back every time your keeper made his mark, but as a breed of footballer they’re on their own. I don’t doubt that mistakes get into their heads and, in some circumstances, probably become self-fulfilling.
There was a bit of that with Rob Green in the first half of last season. The errors he made were well documented and once people began to focus on them it almost felt like more were inevitable.
As it turned out, Rob eradicated all of that and was pretty much flawless from December onwards.
Games under his belt must have helped, considering how inactive he’d been before joining Leeds, but the faith of Garry Monk will have been a boost too.
I’m going over old ground here but it still surprises me that the club were so ready to replace Rob in the summer. It’s a manager’s prerogative to pick who he likes and I’m all for selecting players in form but to me the decision to give Wiedwald the gloves felt a bit predetermined. Christiansen said when he came here that he’d watched a lot of the footage of last season and I’d have thought the evidence would have been pretty favourable for Rob. Then again, this is football. They say that managers live and die by their decisions and that was a big one.
In Lonergan’s case, I’d say there’s a solid Championship keeper there; not necessarily the best in the league and not necessarily too suited to the sort of distribution Christiansen wants, but a player who has been in the division for years. Where Wiedwald is concerned, the jury’s still out. He looks better than Lonergan when it comes to playing out from the back but at the stage where Christiansen opted to drop him, plenty of people were voicing doubts about his handling and the way he was dominating his box.
It’s important to say at this point that I sympathise with the life a goalkeeper leads (I’m not talking about the lifestyle or the money; no-one is complaining about any of that). It’s an isolated role and as a position on the pitch, it’s absolutely bespoke.David Prutton
It was true that in Wiedwald’s poorer performances the defence in front of him struggled but you have to ask if the two were connected and you also have to reflect that the problems came in matches where teams started to ask big questions of him.
Leeds protected Wiedwald brilliantly during the run of six straight clean sheets earlier in the season. The more questionable displays are where you look for your keeper to step up and bail you out. And when it comes to dropping a keeper, there’s no way of spinning the call.
You can stroke a striker’s ego by saying you’re trying to change the way you play or adapting the team for specific opponents but if a keeper loses his position, it’s purely down to form. It’s not quite as cut and dried as this but it must feel like you’re being told that results are your fault.
There’s not getting away from that and dropping both Wiedwald and Lonergan this season is an admission from Christiansen that he’s not quite sure about either of them. I saw this previously at Leeds with Casper Ankergren and Dave Lucas. Gary McAllister started one season with Casper and then switched to Dave, without the results improving. You can’t imagine that either of them felt like they had Gary’s confidence – although the fight for a place didn’t stop them getting on like a house on fire. Casper and Dave were the fiercest of friends. They never took the situation out on each other.
Given that Wiedwald is back in the frame, Christiansen might wish now that he’d backed him and stuck with him through a sticky patch. Alternatively he might find that a break has done Wiedwald good. But what’s clear is that Wiedwald needs to produce a big run of performances through December.
If problems persist then, to my mind, it’s a position Leeds have to address in the January transfer window. It was fine for Christiansen to have a look at Lonergan and it’s more than reasonable to give Wiedwald a second chance. But the chopping and changing can’t go on indefinitely.
Sky-televised fixtures: today, Birmingham City v Wolverhampton Wanderers (7.45pm); Friday, Sheffield United v Bristol City (7.45pm).