Bob Wilson, the former Arsenal goalkeeper, gave an interview several years ago in which he talked with some frustration about his fraternity becoming figures of fun. Rudimentary goalkeeping no longer interested anyone, Wilson said. The viewing public only paid attention when keepers served up a comedy of errors. Then those keepers became intellectual property; ripe for a good hammering.
There is some truth to that, although the the reputation of Gary Sprake and the halfway house between his finest goalkeeping and his careless hands make you wonder if football was ever any different but the trade gets no easier. The rudimentals barely cut it these days. Clubs want knock-offs of Manuel Neuer, men whose feet are as good as their hands, and keepers in the German Bundesliga now cover an average of six kilometres a game. The fittest outfield footballers in the Premier League generally cover less than 12.
Germany prides itself on the standard and innovation of its goalkeeping and having grown up in that particular culture it is hard to imagine that Felix Wiedwald is pleased with the performances he has imported since Leeds United paid £500,000 to sign him from Werder Bremen. What German keepers do is what Leeds wanted from Wiedwald - the neat feet, the eye for a quick pass, the willingness to play behind a high line - and his aberrations this season do not change the credibility of the theory or the fact that clubs are increasingly subscribing to it. They rather reiterate the difference between theory and practice.
Where Wiedwald is falling down is in the application of the basics which Wilson felt players in his position deserved to be judged on, and deserved credit for doing well. It is not that Wiedwald is incapable on that front, and there is a glaring contradiction between prevailing criticism of him and his tally of seven clean sheets (only six colleagues in the Championship have more), but the trickle of wobbles has taken Leeds to the point where the width of Wiedwald’s backside is the difference between a deserved win at Queens Park Rangers and a baffling 2-2 draw.
That Wiedwald pulled a save out of the bag when it mattered in injury-time on Saturday at least redeemed his prior error, but there was only one reason why QPR were wading on in search of an equaliser, 60 seconds after looking like a team resigned to defeat. If Wiedwald’s confidence is drained then the tension was there to see in the concession of Pawel Wszolek’s aimless punt into his box; a moment of hesitation, the slow movement of feet and then the horrible realisation that allowing the ball to bounce in front of him would allow it to arc over his head. It happens to the best of them, but not often like that.
Goalkeeping has a tendency to go like this: one mistake leading to another and repeated mistakes leading to an atmosphere where simple catches raise a jeer.
Wiedwald is not in Paul Rachubka territory but Rachubka is an example of what happens when a keeper develops a reputation for throwing one in. Leeds could hardly have given Wiedwald more protection on Saturday. Wszolek’s hoof was their first shot on target, if a hoof like his can legitimately be called that, and Sylla’s attempt to snatch a draw their second. Both materialised with 90 minutes played. The chinks in his game are in spite of United generally demanding little of him.
It is true, at the same time, that Thomas Christiansen’s defence looks more sure of itself in front of Wiedwald than it did in front of Andy Lonergan, and therein lies Christiansen’s problem. He has already turned to Lonergan with unconvincing results. He has given Wiedwald two goes and finds the German back in the public glare. The club are patently trying to stand by Wiedwald – a meaningful pat on the back from Liam Cooper after he denied Idrissa Sylla on Saturday and a supportive tweet from Andrea Radrizzani after full-time – and his three-year contract reminds you that his transfer was no speculative punt. Leeds wanted Wiedwald to take up the gloves and the club still do.
January is coming, though, and United have a chance. Four points separate the club from the play-offs and their next two fixtures coincide with some helpful others in the next fortnight: Aston Villa away at Derby County on Saturday and at home to Sheffield United the following weekend. Leeds are standing by their transfer strategy, as a deal for Japan’s Yosuke Ideguchi demonstrated again this week, but there is enough at stake with half of the Championship season gone to concentrate attention on the shorter-term. Wiedwald is the pick of the keepers and there is something decent about the club en masse helping him play his way into calmer waters. United must also be prepared for the possibility that he can’t.
Wiedwald is the pick of Leeds’ keepers and there is something decent about the club en masse helping him play his way into calmer waters. United must also be prepared for the possibility that he can’t.Phil Hay