MADRID, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 15: Kelvin Wilson (R) of Celtic gets his header saved by Thibaut Courtois of Atletico Madrid during the UEFA Europa League match bewteen Atletico Madrid and Celtic at Vicente Calderon Stadium on September 15, 2011 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
When AVB made his first summer signing in the form of a hulking 19 year old goalkeeper it took quite a few people by surprise. With Petr Cech still yet to reach 30 it seemed that this was pretty far down the list of priorities we should be addressing. All the same, Courtois was one of the best young goalkeeping prospects in Europe and was an absolute steal at about 1/3 the price of United's David De Gea. Almost as soon as the purchase was announced Chelsea confirmed that Courtois would be heading to Spain for the season to replace the departed De Gea. La Liga is now on it's winter break, so it seems as good a time as any to take a little deeper look at how Courtois has performed on the whole.
Evaluating a goalkeeper is a difficult thing to do. As the last line of defense they are often made the scapegoat for errors that are not of their making, but conversely they often receive too much praise for the fantastic work of the defenses in front of them. In the case of Atletico Madrid we probably deal with much more of the first issue than the second. Atletico have been an abysmal defensive unit for the majority of the season. While they have limited the shots on goal to a respectable 12 per game due to excellent amounts of possession, they've been allowing those 12 shots per game to be from very close range for the most part. The back four are near the top of La Liga in fouls committed which leads to an enormous amount of opportunities from set pieces. Combined with the fact that they are generally a very poor team in the air that tendency has led to an absurdly high number of point blank headers and volleys.
Atletico have also played quite a bit with an offside trap, which when working can neutralize a potent attacker. Unfortunately the back four hasn't been particularly effective with this tactic and has allowed an unusually high amount of free runs on goal. This has led to even more point blank shots at the keeper and probably was a large part of his red card winning tackle against Real Madrid.
Atletico's tendencies to allow free runs on goal and give away set pieces in dangerous positions does not play well to the strengths of Courtois. In typical young goal keeper fashion, Courtois tends to struggle occasionally making decisions on crosses. This has led to several easy goals for the opposition, but Courtois has been making notable improvement in this department as the season progressed. While he still makes questionable or slow decisions from time to time, the frequency of these miscues has been greatly reduced from the early going this season. At the current time he probably tries to punch too many of these crosses away and doesn't have enough faith in himself to catch them, but that is something that should come with experience in the future.
Big goalkeepers often struggle to deal with low close range shots, and Courtois has been no exception to this pattern so far. Unfortunately the offside trap that Atletico has struggled with has led to quite a few more of these chances than a keeper would normally be expected to face, but on the positive side Thibaut is being regularly exposed to a potential trouble while developing elsewhere. Where Courtois is looking notably better recently on crosses, he hasn't shown nearly the same type of development in defending the low and close shot. Hopefully this comes with more exposure in the second half, it will bear watching regardless.
At this point those appear to be the only two weaknesses that are regularly notable with Courtois in net. His positioning in general has been far better than I'd have expected, and his reflexes have been second to none (especially when considering his massive size). He deals exceptionally well with high shots and does a nice job of coming off his line and making himself "big". He doesn't struggle with controlling the ball on longer shots very often, and when he can't catch them he generally clears them out of harms way convincingly. He's been getting rave reviews throughout La Liga already, but placed in front of a defense that didn't regularly expose his weaknesses I could see him being considered among the best keepers in the league. That said, I'm glad he's currently sitting in front of a back line that will challenge him to this degree.
When playing the ball out of the back Courtois generally shows a fair amount of poise. His throws are usually accurate and well placed and he's often fairly quick to distribute. Kicking the long ball doesn't appear to be a particular strength at this point in time. I wouldn't say he's poor at it exactly, but he's not all that accurate either. At the current time Courtois is much more suited to building up out of the back rather than playing the long ball to a Drogba like one-man front line. Hopefully this is something that will come in time as this is yet another trait that doesn't tend to be prevalent in younger keepers.
As far as this loan goes, Courtois has been an overwhelming success. He almost immediately established himself as a first choice keeper and hasn't had anything resembling a rough patch which would dislodge him from that perch. He's also been given his first start as the Belgian national side's keeper, making him the youngest player to ever start in net for the tiny country. Having seen the vast majority of his games this season I can honestly say I wouldn't have much of a concern if he was asked to replace Petr Cech in the very near future, and that's something I couldn't have said 6 months ago. Despite his recent struggles there is little reason to believe that Cech is in any danger of losing his job, but it's nice to know that should something Stephen Hunt-like happen again we have as good a plan B as any team in the world playing regularly in Spain. Regardless of whether or not he ever dislodges Cech this appears to have been a brilliant piece of business as he's likely come close to doubling his value with his performance thus far this season.
At the mid point of this season, Atletico sit 10th in the table on 19 points. They currently sit 5 points out of the European places with a very similar goal differential to their competition (there are only 5 teams in Spain with positive GD...competitive). They are still alive in Europa and will be facing Lazio in the first home/away knockout round in the middle of February. They will resume domestic play January 7th against Malaga with Courtois likely still in net. Here's hoping the second half of the season sees Atletico climb back into the European places as Courtois is likely to remain there next season as well. So far so good on Thibaut Courtois...