The goalkeeper debate in Mexico is long and enduring. Occasionally some of us remember that there is a world out there with a blue sky with sun shining … and all that stuff. But it always rears its big ugly mug once again.
Normally these follow a similar pattern. One keeper is far superior but being slighted. Another is petulant at the indignation at being left on the bench. One keeper makes a mistake. Another keeper makes an even bigger mistake. Another keeper uses his cranium as a short-range missile. It’s been played out.
For nearly every new edition of the national team, this comes rolling back. For every new manager, and there are plenty, the question of who will be the next chosen one comes crawling back in to our lives like the unwelcome cousin at the holiday dinner.
This time around the conversation has taken a strange turn. Nearly everyone agrees on the strongest and most proven keeper for Mexico and nearly everyone agrees that he shouldn’t be playing in Mexico’s upcoming marquee event - this summer’s Copa America.
Much is made of the current form of players. Form is looked at as hard proof of a player’s skill and ability. If the striker has scored in recent weeks he is in great form. If a keeper has kept a few clean sheets he is in great form. Ignore the factors that lead to the goals, including teammates, opportunity, and opposition. Ignore the other twenty-one players on the field. Form is key and often is determined by the simplest of statistics.
Generally, form is fiction. It’s a simple way to explain a pattern of occurrences that are likely rooted in a more nuanced set of circumstances. Is Chicharito a good player in great form at the moment, or is he just a great player whose circumstances have allowed him to succeed? Was Chicharito in bad form during his final days with Manchester United, or did he just not score during the few opportunities presented to him?
The ability of a player doesn’t wildly vacillate simply based on results. Similarly, a few misses doesn’t necessarily mean he will miss his next chance. These things aren’t dictated by this elusive form concept. It’s about ability and execution, which don’t always come together in even the greatest of athletes.
This is not to say that players are simply automatons acting and reacting on the field. There is the mental side to any sport which is impossible to quantify. There are nagging injuries, illnesses, or even lumpy pillows that can lead to varying performances. Players aren’t always at their best - that is clear. Yet, for the most part good or bad form is largely a creation.
The fallacies with assigning form are even further exaggerated when it comes to goalkeepers. Goalkeepers have a limited number of chances to perform on the ball and their opportunities are reactionary by nature. They can only save what is sent there way. Goalkeepers don’t have the same ability to make decisions and take actions that will affect the course of the game. They save or don’t save. They come out or don’t come out. Being in position and reacting is the standard. Beyond that it is mostly just skill and technique.
Assuming the position of goalkeeper is difficult. There’s an argument to be made that it is the most mentally taxing of positions on the field. It is not, however, likely swayed by form very often. A goalkeeper with five consecutive clean sheets is not necessarily one in good form. Perhaps all the shots presented were ones that could be stopped. Perhaps there just weren’t many shots at all. Conversely, a keeper who concedes five doesn’t need to be in bad form.
Goalkeepers make mistakes like anyone else on the field, and as we all know, those mistakes are amplified in this position. It’s just that a howler at the back doesn’t indicate that another is coming. It doesn’t mean the keeper in bad form. It just happens. It’s sport.
When Guillermo Ochoa moved to Europe to take over the goalkeeper positon for the struggling Ajaccio of Ligue 1, it was applauded. He was leaving the comforts of his home country for a team in Europe with significantly less of a profile (and funds) than his club team domestically, Club America. Yet, as the popular sentiment goes, anything in Europe is better.
For a while it was better for Ochoa. He proved himself invaluable to the club and was occasionally given a larger stage to prove himself on when playing the top competition of France. Ochoa continued to shine and eventually won the starting role for El Tri in the 2014 World Cup. His exemplary play with Mexico and in particular his stellar performance against Brazil in the group stage earned him heaps of praise and silenced his critics. Ochoa proved himself on the biggest stage and his reward for that was a free transfer to Malaga. Not exactly the big prize.
Nonetheless, it was a La Liga side. It had potential. Mexico fans, myself included, had hoped that his successes would lead to a team competing for a Champions League place, but at least he would get the chance to play some of the best players and teams in the world.
He never did get that chance to play. Through 18 months with the club, Ochoa has been the clear number two choice at goalkeeper for Malaga. Relegated to the odd Copa Del Rey fixture, Ochoa has rusted on the bench and has been largely inactive for the past year and a half at the club level.
But is he still Guillermo Ochoa?
Any time a player comes back from a long spell away from the field, some rust is to be expected. Although, these absences are normally due to injury. Does time on the bench erode your abilities?
I believe there is a case to be made that players are hurt by not playing. There is a certain rhythm to athletics and professional athletes have more than proven over the years that habits reflect performance.
Still, to me, there is something about goalkeeper position that is unique. Endurance is less of a factor. There isn’t a concern about being in proper game shape – just look at the number of aged keepers around the world still hanging on. It seems to come down to whether they still possess the ability to make the same saves they have made in the past. Are their reflexes still on point? Do they still have the ability to captain the defense in front of them? I can’t imagine these things fade just from a lack of playing time. Practice still takes place for the keeper on the bench. It isn’t really all just Cheetos on the couch.
It’s not ideal; I wouldn’t recommend bench time. Goalkeepers generally don’t get better by sitting. However, we may need to reassess the belief that they become a lesser player with a lack of playing time.
Keylor Navas had a somewhat similar career path to that of Ochoa. The excellent Costa Rican goalkeeper took the leap to Europe and landed at a lesser-side in Spain. He would eventually move on to Levante where he truly started to open eyes. After his amazing play in the World Cup for Costa Rica, Navas signed on with Real Madrid. Navas proceeded to spend his next year on the bench.
At any point during that year do you think the Ticos considered him to be lost? Did Costa Rica need to find a new number one goalkeeper because Navas was on the Real Madrid bench?
Obviously this never came to pass and Navas actually became the top goalkeeper for the Spanish giants this year. By all accounts, he seems to be same keeper who was sitting on the bench before and played at such a high level previously.
Now the Malaga bench and the Real Madrid bench are clearly two different places. Navas and Ochoa are two different players. Yet, doesn’t it stand to reason that Ochoa is still the same guy who made those saves for Mexico? Shouldn’t he be given the benefit of the doubt?
I’m not sure if Guillermo Ochoa is the best Mexican goalkeeper. There always seems to be another with a strong argument for that title. However, if you believed him to be the best in 2014, it’s only logical that he is still the best in 2016. Unless of course we are dealing with a Samson situation for Ochoa – then just forget everything here.
** photo used under a creative commons license from Victor Araiza