Marc-Ándres ter Stegen is arguably the best keeper in Football Club Barcelona’s history. The German shot-stopper has just completed his seventh campaign with the Blaugranas, and his career here has been one of stardom, impeccable saves, distribution, and overall reliability.
After Claudio Bravo’s departure in 2016, ter Stegen became Barça’s number one man between the sticks. For three years, he enjoyed a meteoric rise both in success and his own level. The German goalkeeper was widely considered as one of the best goalkeepers in the world.
However, several factors — both external and internal — began changing for ter Stegen in his Barcelona career. This set of factors has led to a large drop in his level, mostly coming together to crack up his 20/21 campaign. Unfortunately, it has been the 29-year-old’s worst season in the Camp Nou, having underperformed on almost all fronts.
To clarify, ter Stegen was certainly not bad per se in goal this season. It is mostly how badly the German keeper has fallen compared to his previous standards that makes this campaign a starkly contrasting one for him. The simple fact that he has been just about average as compared to keepers across Europe has cost both him and his team.
It seemed that for two years under Ernesto Valverde, the German shot-stopper’s raison d’être was to make the most magnificent, last-ditch saves and keep Barça’s title hopes alive match-day in, match-day out. Mostly credited for the success under Valverde (alongside Messi, of course), ter Stegen seemed entirely unbeatable in his goal. This season could not be farther from that picture. The Geman has gone from looking like a brick wall in front of goal to a crumbling structure, frail in comparison to how grand he once was.
In this article, Barça Universal will analyse his entire campaign, considering both the external and internal factors that have led to the German’s drop in level. It is crucial for the Blaugranas that ter Stegen brings his level back up, which he is more than capable of doing. Having a keeper who is performing just below average cannot suffice for a team like Barcelona, who deploy such a high line. However, there is no doubt that ter Stegen can soon return to his former self — one of the best goalkeepers in the world.
No help, ft. the defence
Unfortunately for ter Stegen, it is difficult to feel entirely assured in himself when he cannot even feel assured in his own defence. It is no secret that the Catalan defence defence has been a leaky faucet all season, with individuals faltering all over the backline. Additionally, Ronald Koeman’s subpar tactics have led to a failure in the club’s ability to maintain solid defensive structures, or even adequate off-the-ball effort to defend in tight situations.
Having conceded 38 goals in 38 games, Barça’s defence has been indigent throughout the season, further pressing the importance of acquiring a world-class centre-back. Their xGA has been 40.93 in the league season, meaning that either luck or moments of individual brilliance have saved them from registering a truly embarrassing goals-against tally. That might be on the mend, however, as Barcelona bring in Emerson and Eric Garcia.
Mistakes from Clement Lenglet, Oscar Mingueza, and Gerard Piqué have been thoroughly repetitive throughout the season, leading to a drop in level both for ter Stegen and for the team. Further, the struggle terribly to defend the wings has persisted for over a decade. With Jordi Alba, Sergiño Dest, and Sergi Roberto all lacking tremendous defensive qualities, the Blaugranas often get exploited out wide, leaving pockets of space to be exploited by almost all opponents.
Therefore, what is already a tough job for ter Stegen becomes nearly impossible. An unreliable, leaky defence means that Barça’s defensive problems are beyond just individuals. Singular mistakes, tactical and structural failures, and homogeneity of full-back profiles mean that in several scenarios where they shouldn’t be conceding goals, they do.
For instance, in the eight fixtures before Barça’s game against Eibar, ter Stegen conceded 12 goals from 25 shots on target (and an xG tally of just 8), meaning that the Blaugranas essentially conceded four goals more than they should have. Therefore, ter Stegen begins to shoulder a large load of the blame for the defensive frailties, even if they are exclusive from him.
However, it is not that ter Stegen has not been a part of the problem. Several advanced metrics portray a very different picture; from performing leaps and bounds better than most of Europe’s goalkeepers, ter Stegen has performed below even the average level of goalkeepers this season, saving fewer shots than he ‘should’, just as Barcelona have been scoring less than they should.
Conceding more than he should be
Apart from suffering the difficulties of guarding a goal with a poor defence in front of him, ter Stegen has not, by any means, performed exceptionally this season. Put concisely; we can infer that the German keeper has conceded more goals than he should have this season. Using PSxG, defined by Fbref as ‘expected goals based on how likely the goalkeeper is to save the shot’, we can understand why ter Stegen has underperformed individually.
In La Liga, ter Stegen’s PSxG is 29. This means that, based on factors such as the quality of shots faced, distance between the shooter and the goal, etc., we can determine the quality of shots he has faced, and consequently, how many goals he should have conceded. Accordingly, the 29-year-old should have conceded 29 goals in La Liga. However, he has conceded 32.
This puts his PSxG-GA tally at -3. Underperforming PSxG is a sign of an abysmal season for any goalkeeper. It effectively means that he has been letting shots and chances slip by, which he truly shouldn’t have. In fact, he ranks at the 56th percentile for PSxG-GA, meaning that almost half of the goalkeepers in La Liga are performing better than ter Stegen.
Looking at some of the other top level goalkeepers in Spain, we can see just how poorly ter Stegen has performed. La Liga winning goalkeeper Jan Oblak’s PSxG-GA is a highly impressive +6.8. Courtois has a tally of +1.9. It is even more surprising knowing that ter Stegen’s PSxG-GA was once a jaw-dropping +7.7 in the 2017/18 La Liga season.
In addition, ter Stegen has surprisingly been poor at sweeping throughout the whole season, performing only 0.71 defensive actions outside the box per 90. Analysing the German’s individual mistakes displays the same.
One too many mistakes: A loss of confidence?
Beyond just statistical analysis, it is evident that ter Stegen has been making mistakes throughout the campaign that he shouldn’t be. His poor sweeping record is at a level far too low for a team such as Barça; in fact, he is only in the 66th percentile for defensive actions outside the box per 90. In a team with such a high line – aggressive sweeps, intelligent anticipations, and killing moves before they begin are crucial skills a keeper must possess.
However, it almost feels as if ter Stegen is overly protective and far too afraid to attempt sweeps at times. For instance, against Paris-Saint Germain, ter Stegen made a poor error of judgement when Leonardo Paredes’ long pass reached Florenzi on the right-wing, who was left with acres of space to send in a cross into the box even though he had mistimed his first touch.
Here, the 29-year-old shot-stopper could have easily charged off his line and stopped Florenzi from reaching the ball in the first place. Anticipation and timing such as this is crucial for a Blaugrana goalkeeper, as chances like these come in abundance for opposition teams, thanks to their high line.
Another error, on the opposite spectrum, by ter Stegen displays once again his poor sweeping anticipation. This time, against Atletico Madrid in November last year, ter Stegen anticipated a chance to sweep, but mistimed his movement totally, allowing an entirely empty net for Yannick Carrasco to blast Atletico ahead in the fixture.
Here, ter Stegen bravely comes off his line to stop the move. However, with Carrasco having enough time and space to control the ball, the German essentially gave away an empty net to the Belgian, who finished the chance with ease.
Errors have seemingly become a recurring theme of ter Stegen’s campaign. His lack of confidence to make decisions and commit to different directions between the sticks have seen him concede some ridiculously simple chances. For example, the first goal conceded against Celta Vigo at the Camp Nou was, by all means, one of the easiest shots the German has conceded all season.
Here, ter Stegen simply had to anticipate the attempt to save it. The shot was not a powerful one, nor one that was going into the far corner. However, ter Stegen was staunchly still in his position, unable to dive in time to save Santi Mina’s shot. It didn’t help that a poorly positioned Gerard Piqué blocked the former Borrusia goalkeeper’s line of sight; however, an easy attempt such as this should have easily been saved nonetheless.
Injury woes: Affecting the German’s performances?
It is no secret that the German National has been suffering from injuries for quite some time now. With persistent knee issues nagging him throughout his career, ter Stegen opted to undergo the knife on his right patellor tendon in August 2019. This ruled him out for two-and-a-half months of action, during which Barça’s number two keeper Neto put up a bright string of displays.
However, after returning, ter Stegen has not entirely been himself. With constant irritations in his knee, the surgery was meant to both prevent such injuries going forward, as well as prepare the German to return to his best level. However, these problems seemingly persisted throughout the season.
Ter Stegen, whether troubled by his poor defence or his own knee issues (or perhaps a combination of both), has simply been a peg below his usual performances, which does not make things easier since Die Mannschaft never seem to deter from Manuel Neuer in goal anyway. Therefore, it came as no surprise when he announced that he would once again undergo complementary intervention on his knee, effectively ruling him out for the Euros.
Perhaps his consistent injury woes can explain the drop in his performances. His inability to exert himself while sweeping, or his grounded feet which have left him on the spot several times this season, allowing easy goals to be conceded could both have come as factors of his troublesome physical conditions. Such problems make both a physical and a psychological impact; without his best fitness, ter Stegen has struggled to be the fearsome brick wall he once was.
Not all poor: Ter Stegen’s brilliant moments
Even in what has been a rather poor season for the German, he managed to put in some fantastic displays throughout the season. One such stunning performance was against Atletico Madrid at the Camp Nou. The German keeper seemed back to his very best, able to save nearly everything headed his way. With six saves, five of them coming from inside the box, ter Stegen was nearly unbeatable on a sunny May afternoon against the to-be Spanish champions.
Another stellar performance from the Gerrman goalkeeper came in the Spanish Super Cup semi-final against Real Sociedad. Ter Stegen was perhaps the sole reason Barça even reached the final, given his two phenomenal penalty saves in the shootout. Back-to-back penalty saves from the 29-year-old meant that Riqui Puig’s deciding penalty helped them through to the finals.
Another fabulous performance from him came in the Copa del Rey against Sevilla, in the second leg of the semi-final. Coming into the fixture 2-0 down, it was crucial that Barça remained a brick-wall in defence, as conceding a single goal would have essentially killed the tie. Luckily for the Blaugranas, ter Stegen showed up when it mattered, coming in clutch with three fantastic saves. Most notably, it was his penalty save against Lucas Ocampos’ effort that kept Barcelona in the competition, which would later become the only taste of silverware for the Catalonian club.
Perhaps the greatest asset in ter Stegen’s locker is his jaw-dropping distribution. Arguably the best ball-playing goalkeeper in the world, it is almost impossible for the German to misplace a pass. In fact, in the whole La Liga season, ter Stegen did not misplace a single short-pass, coming in with a staggering 100% completion rate. He also completed 98.7% of his medium-range passes.
Under pressure, ter Stegen is perhaps the best goalkeeper in the world, as he will find a player to locate or pass the ball to, without losing possession, in nearly any situation or against any high-press from the opposition.
What next for the German?
Many fans are beginning to lose their confidence in Marc-Ándres ter Stegen. For two seasons running, he has been underperforming his PSxG, but more than that, he has been unable to come in clutch the way he so often used to a few years ago. His performances in big games throughout the season have been far cries from his performance in the 2016/17 El Classico in the Santiago Bernabeu; a game in which the German made a record 12 saves.
Regardless, it isn’t easy to imagine Barcelona selling ter Stegen. He is only 29-years-old, and he has been an integral part of their success over the last seven years. A temporary drop in form would probably not justify selling him. With him undergoing another therapeutic intervention, a break from action could perhaps see the German return to his best level.
Additionally, it is crucial that Joan Laporta’s reinforces Barcelona’s defence. Options such as Eric Garcia, Emerson Royal, or perhaps Pau Torres could go a great deal in revolutionising the Blaugranas’ defence. The confidence of a goalkeeper and his defence go hand-in-hand; the better the defence, the better the goalkeeper. If Laporta and co truly want the best of Stegen once again, they will have to invest tremendously in strengthening the defence.
By no means is ter Stegen past his prime. Most world-class goalkeepers perform at a very high level until a very late age; the German shot-stopper may not even be halfway through his potential Blaugrana career yet. If he manages to stay fit (and gets complimented with a structurally sound defence) it is not just a possibility but a probability that the best of ter Stegen is yet to come.
Rating ter Stegen’s season
To conclude this article, we will be rating ter Stegen’s season on a scale of 10. Several factors such as performance-to-expectation, clutch moments, consistency, shot-stopping, distribution, and various performances have been considered while rating his season. Considering all these variables, Barça Universal rates Marc-Ándres ter Stegen’s seventh campaign in the Catalan Captial a 5.5.
The reason that his score is so low is mainly that he has performed far below expectation. His failure to show up in big moments such as the El Clasico and the fixtures against PSG or the second leg in Juventus have truly made the Blaugranas suffer. Ter Stegen failed to cover his near-post on several occasions, such as in the third goal conceded against Levante at the Camp Nou.
His failure to sweep on several occasions and errors in judgment have been detrimental to his own performances and the team. Conceding three more goals than he should have in La Liga is a beyond poor return for a goalkeeper who has often been considered amongst the world’s best, especially when he used to once save almost eight goals more than he should have in a previous season, based on the PSxG-GA metric.
Hopefully, reinforcements in defence, tactical reorganisation, and the resolution of ter Stegen’s injury problems can work in tandem to bring him back to his highest level once and for all. No doubt, the German goalkeeper is already a Blaugrana legend. But now, it is time for him to step up when his team need him the most because if not, someone is waiting to take over. Lacking clutch players throughout the squad, Barça need players who can show up in the moments when it counts the most.