It being a sunny Saturday morning I skipped to the local post office to pick up a registered package from Madrid. I went early to beat the crowds, but also because the post office in Spain has a poor reputation. The saying ‘Tan lento como los correos’ (as slow as the post) can refer to the arrival of the post, the slow movement of a midfield player who takes too long to make a pass, or simply the snail-like behaviour of the employees at any branch, who always seem to have something better to do than attend to the public. It’s a great national tradition, but mindful of its truth, I turn up quite early.
Taking my ticket, I join the queue only to find myself standing behind another early bird, the ex-Spain goalkeeper Luis Arconada. Interested by this chance morning encounter with a legend, I’m surprised to note that he’s shorter than me – and I’m no giant. However, at the age of 63 he still cuts an imposing figure, and is built like the proverbial barn-door. He played 68 times for Spain, and was a one-club man, turning out for Real Sociedad between 1974 and 1989, the period coinciding with their only two league titles to date, a King’s Cup title and a European Cup semi-final appearance. He was one of the undisputed greats. There is still a little ditty in the city that goes ‘No pasa nada, tenemos a Arconada!’ (Don’t worry, we’ve got Arconada!), such was his reputation as a shot-stopper.
However, in Saturday-morning mortal mode, the great man suddenly shifts in the queue and shoots off sideways to the ticket dispenser. As he re-joins the queue in front of me, he remarks in my direction ‘Getting old eh? I’d forgotten to get my ticket’. People behind shuffle slightly, as one imagines people might shuffle when in the presence of gods. So I shuffle too, just as the number display shows 40 – my number but really Arconada’s, if he’d remembered when he came in. He has an unfeasibly large jaw, as if he could swallow a deer whole.
I offer him my ticket, but he refuses politely. ‘No – please’ I tell him (in Spanish), ‘you were here before me, and so really it’s your turn’. Not wanting to attract too much attention to himself, he decides to take up my offer, and nods in silent gratitude. We exchange tickets, and a huge hand drops his chit into my smaller mitt. In the end, I leave slightly before him, and as he follows me to the exit door I half glance behind and fantasise absurdly about tossing my package to his immediate right – a tricky one, a little bit low and bouncy. Would instinct kick in, and would he throw himself instantly to the post-office floor? You’ll be relieved to know that I decided against it, whereupon we both walked out onto the street and into our separate lives.
Arriving home, I had a look on the internet for Arconada footage, which is easy to find. The most interesting thing however, when you look into goalie-related stuff in the past, is how the game has changed so radically for the net guardians since Arconada’s time. He retired in 1990, an era just before the pass-back rule was implemented. Goalkeepers back then were neither obliged to be sweepers nor expected to initiate play like proto-midfielders. They either threw the ball out (when was the last time you saw that?) or simply confined themselves to the hoof down the middle, aiming roughly beyond the centre-circle. This in turn bred a generation of skull-damaged centre-backs, all broken teeth and no-nonsense hard stuff. Now it’s rather different, at least in Spain.
The back-pass rule was actually introduced in 1992, but it seemed to take a long time for it to completely change the way football is played. Now goalkeepers for top clubs are bred specifically on a diet which produces some vestige of ball-playing ability. Before, ball-juggling ‘loco’ goalies were confined to South America, where players grew up playing ‘fulbito’ in limited spaces, requiring goalies to be a part of the whole scheme. When Pep Guardiola horrified Manchester by sending Joe Hart into exile and buying the Chilean Claudio Bravo from Barcelona, he was buying the best of the bunch when it came to passing and touch. The problem for Guardiola, of course, was that the rest of his defence were unused to such emphasis on ‘build-from-the-back’ (hereon BFTB) and the entire project has been scuppered on the lack of a mutual understanding of such a system, specifically between Bravo and his defence.
The fault is not Bravo’s, but rather the lack of real conviction in the Premier League for BFTB. It is more prevalent than before, but unless you have centre-backs (cue David Luiz) who are comfortable receiving passes with their back to a marauding forward, or full-backs who are happy to initiate play in their own halves (cue Danny Rose), you have a problem Houston. It’s odd that Guardiola failed to see this.
Victor Valdes, a decent ball-playing goalkeeper in his time at Barcelona, is now performing heroics at struggling Middlesbrough, but is rarely required to initiate play. In Spain however, it has become a necessary part of the CV. You suspect that Arconada just wouldn’t get a sniff now, certainly not at a top club. But it goes further than even this weird consideration, that a keeper of Arconada’s ability wouldn’t make the cut nowadays. Goalies don’t just require ball skills, they require tactical vision too.
Watching Gero Rulli playing for Real Sociedad at Alavés on Saturday, in yet another Basque derby, was informative in this respect. Coach Eusebio, a member of the Dream Team that in many ways initiated the BFTB paradigm in Spain (Guardiola and Ronald Koeman were part of that too), has implanted an obsessive BFTB system, requiring the young Argentine keeper to almost never hoof it downfield. It makes for nervous watching at times, and Sociedad’s defenders need to keep cool heads. It’s working, but sometimes you just pray for Diego Simeone’s view on this matter, once telling the giant Thibaut Courtois, ‘Si te metes en un lío, a la mierda con el balon!’ (If you get into trouble, just kick the ball into the sh**). Atlético Madrid have other ways of retrieving the ball, by fair means or foul (watch out Leicester!) and are prepared to dispense with the tiki-taka when necessary – but in general it is very rare to see a goalkeeper punt the ball downfield in the Spanish top flight.
A goalkeeper (like Rulli) can be technically proficient with his feet, but does he make the right passes? Goalkeepers putting a defender under pressure in a risky position is a more common sight nowadays in La Liga, but it remains true that the top clubs can no longer aspire for success with a goalkeeper whose ball-play is poor. Iker Casillas, considered one of the best in Spain’s history, is actually pretty woeful in this regard. Diego López, who controversially replaced him (under both Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelloti), was a much more reliable kicker.
Barcelona sold Bravo but now have two ball-playing keepers in Marc-André Ter Stegen and Jasper Cillessen. Ter Stegen suffers from the occasional delusion that he’s Franz Beckenbauer reborn, but he’s perfectly capable of initiating play. Keylor Navas is good too, although to a lesser degree. Of the smaller sides, Sporting’s Diego Mariño stands out, and Bilbao’s new keeper Kepa looks like a good distributor.
Talking of matters more general, Atlético defeated Sevilla 3-1 in the weekend’s big game, and moved to within two points of the third-placed Andalusians. Real Madrid won a tough one at Bilbao and Barcelona beat Valencia 4-2, after riding a couple of scares. In the nether regions, Sporting beat Granada 3-1 and gave themselves some hope, whilst probably condemning their opponents. Osasuna remain firmly sunken, with a paltry eleven points. The international break comes now, with hostilities resuming at the end of the month. Until then.