In the summer of 2018, if you asked any football fan who the top three goalkeepers are in the world, one of the names they would suggest would be Marc-Andre ter Stegen. The shot-stopper had just come off the best season in his career. At 26, such a fantastic record meant that the only path should have been forward. Surely he would improve.
Oh, how wrong was that conjecture. In a short span of three years, ter Stegen went from an untouchable alongside the likes of Lionel Messi to an expendable. The player touted to rival the legendary Manuel Neuer had begun to walk down the path of Joe Hart.
In a striking resemblance to the English international, ter Stegen too reached his peak before mistakes began trickling into his performances.
Just one clown in a circus
Barcelona have been astonishingly woeful in recent seasons. A complete capitulation against Celta Vigo after being 3-0 up is the latest in a long line of hilarious defensive catastrophes. Is ter Stegen the only reason for this mess? Certainly not.
With a defence as unstable as Barcelona’s, conceding goals is inevitable. As the years have passed, Barcelona’s defence has become progressively leakier. Pressing is half-hearted, movement is sluggish, and fitness seems to be at an all-time low. Breaking open, the Blaugrana is now a simple counterattack away, evidenced by Real Madrid’s recent El Clasico victory.
Minimizing the risk of conceding from counters is essential to offer ter Stegen as much protection as possible.
The six-second rule, a tactic used by the best coaches such as Pep Guardiola, could help therein. A high-pressing technique that aims to nullify any attempt at counters from opposition teams to win the ball back within six seconds after losing it.
This must be an integral part of any team claiming to utilize possession-based football. Unfortunately for Culers, it seems that Barcelona is following the 15-second rule.
Undeniably though, it’s not just the defence that is entirely at fault either. Ter Stegen has a save percentage of just 61.3% in the league. This happens to be peanuts compared to the 72.7% of Thibaut Courtois or the unreal 82.6% of Yassine Bounou. Essentially, ter Stegen saved only 61.3% of the shots he faced, which is a massive dip from his 71.6% from last season.
If we are going to criticize ter Stegen then we must also appreciate his strengths, the biggest of which is his distribution. Many hail the Barcelona number one as one of the best goalkeepers in the world with the ball at his feet. His level-headedness and awareness are unrivalled. Bar the occasional slip-up, ter Stegen’s passing is on par with many midfielders in professional football.
He is regarded by many as having ‘Barcelona DNA’. In fact, MATS is often the centre of jokes involving the possibility of him playing in midfield. But this happens to be part of the problem. He is not a midfielder. While any Barça keeper needs to be adept with the ball, his primary role is to avoid conceding goals.
Ter Stegen’s recent form has seen him fail miserably in this basic aspect. He has been conceding an average of 1.2 goals per 90 in the league this season. He has also underperformed on his PSxG (post-shot expected goals) by 1.6. This means that he has conceded 1.6 goals more than expected. To put that into perspective, he overperformed his PSxG by 7.7 in the 2017-18 season.
This dip in form has not been gradual either. His statistical numbers were on the decline ever since a miraculous 2017-18 season. Thus, this begs the question: Why is he declining in the first place? A keeper’s prime is in his early 30s and not at an age of 26. One possible answer comes to mind: injuries.
Impact of injuries
Ter Stegen has been ever-present in goal for Barcelona. Hence, one can be forgiven for overlooking the knee issues he has been struggling with for the last four years. His poor form may be irrespective of the injury, but the possibility of its impact cannot be ruled out.
Before 2018, the German never missed more than 24 days of action a season. Yet since then, he has been out for 31, 78, and 103 days respectively. With every year forward in time, the severity of his injury has only increased. Every summer, the club confirms that the German has been ‘playing with pain’ throughout the season.
How does this impact ter Stegen? To answer this, we must understand the mindset of a goalkeeper. Saving a shot consists of three important stages: Anticipation, judgment, and the actual dive. The first part is all about the attacker and trying to predict his moves. Is he going to take an early shot at the near post, or is he going to take his time and curl it into the top corner?
Once a keeper has an answer, the next big step is to decide how to react. Simply knowing the ball’s trajectory is not going to prevent goals. You need to judge when you need to dive, and in what manner you need to spread your body to cover the largest area in front of the goal. Finally comes the dive, where you act on your judgment and move towards the ball. Timing is key.
A knee injury can and will certainly influence the third stage directly. Not being able to launch with the required power means that you will miss your target. More importantly, though, such a situation may also impact the other stages.
The curious case of judgment
Judgment comes naturally to most players and can be improved through experience. In the case of the shot-stopper, however, it seems to be declining. On deeper analysis though, this perplexing result begins looking like an expected occurrence.
Injuries severely hamper a player’s performance. Even Manuel Neuer went through a similar phase not too long ago. Unlike the Bayern Munich captain though, ter Stegen’s fall coincided with a general defensive collapse at Barcelona. Thus, his relatively understandable mistakes in previous years were magnified exponentially by the abominable backline.
Naturally, he became one of the scapegoats for a Blaugrana mob out for blood. This probably led to him making irrational decisions and naive mistakes. From fumbling simple crosses, to leaving his near post wide open, to rushing out of the box like a madman, the list goes on. Moreover, his lack of confidence likely worsened his fear of a relapse and may have resulted in him holding back from pushing his body to the limits
While these reasons for his decline are speculative, they do indeed make sense. Much like a self-fulfilling prophecy, Ter Stegen fixed his fate once he succumbed to the pressure.
The situation is quite plain: Ter Stegen is on a downhill trajectory. His mistakes are costing Barcelona dearly, and president Joan Laporta does not have the luxury to sit back and let the situation sort itself out. Considering the horrendous state of affairs, immediate change is a necessity.
The club must thus pick one of two paths: sell him and earn some cash while they can or hope he regains form soon.
Both options are viable. On one hand, selling him could fetch up to €55 million. This is a hefty sum for a club in such financial distress. The Azulgaranas could buy a reliable alternative and still have some additional money left to spend. Yet replacing Ter Stegen could indeed become a tough task. There’s no guarantee the new keeper could replicate their form from previous clubs.
At the same time, keeping Ter Stegen could be a worthwhile risk. The German has proven that can be is world-class. With Xavi’s arrival comes a new medical staff, more intense training, and a change in atmosphere. The Barça legend’s new system could potentially provide better protection to the keeper and thus help him recover both physically and mentally.
Given these two scenarios, the margins are slim and either choice could easily go awry. So what should Laporta choose?
Enter Xavi: A possible middle ground?
With the appointment of Xavi comes an exciting range of possibilities. The former captain has played under managers like Frank Rijkaard, Pep Guardiola, and Luis Enrique. He knows what Barcelona need and judging by his words, he intends to revamp the astonishingly lazy and negligent attitude displayed by his predecessors.
Xavi had the opportunity to play with a similarly mistake-prone, although somewhat younger, Ter Stegen. He has seen firsthand how Luis Enrique changed the keeper’s mindset for the better, which will in turn help him revamp Ter Stegen’s confidence.
In any case, signing a replacement in January is an absurd idea and one that has a much higher chance of failure. Thus, the club’s best bet would be to keep Ter Stegen – at least until the summer transfer window.
That said, this doesn’t mean that MATS gets a free ticket into the starting eleven. Xavi must not hesitate to drop him to the bench. If the club is going to have to suffer from keeper mistakes, why not let someone like Inaki Pena have a go? He is inexperienced, but if Ter Stegen does not learn from his mistakes then maybe Inaki will.
The remaining part of the season is crucial for the German. He must pick himself up and face the difficulty like a professional. The past is all but a memory. It’s the present that matters. He has everything he needs to succeed: a new coach, a possibly improved defence, and a fresh set of opportunities. If he fails, then it must be made clear that the exit door is very much open.