Treble winners having doubts? They should be. FC Barcelona are nursing their wounds after conceding four goals in a single match for the third time in less than two months. Barça’s defeat against Celta was the team’s first in La Liga, and one simply can’t go without highlighting the fact that this defeat came with Marc-André ter Stegen between the sticks.
The young German has been handed the chance to become Barça’s full-time goalkeeper courtesy of Claudio Bravo’s muscle injury, but what we have seen from him since he took over is shaky play. The question now is whether Barcelona should go hard on the former Gladbach shot-stopper.
In terms of raw numbers, Ter Stegen’s record this season is nothing short of dismal. In six matches played across four official competitions, the German has let in a massive 15 goals, a record which translates into 2.5 goals conceded per match, which is hardly a record a goalkeeper playing for arguably the world’s best team should boast.
Of course, in order to get a clear picture of how much Ter Stegen is at fault for this record, one point must be noted. Barcelona’s defence, no matter how much we hate to admit it, has been nowhere near the levels of reliability it demonstrated en route to the treble last season. Therefore, it is fair to say that on more than occasion, Ter Stegen was brutally exposed by his defenders.
However, that does not take away from the fact that the German has let in some perfectly avoidable goals, most notably last weekend against Levante, when he completely missed a routine cross and allowed the visitors to score their only goal of the match.
Yesterday, against Celta, Ter Stegen was once again exposed by his defenders, but could have done more to prevent the opposition’s first and third goals. Nolito showed the highest kind of footballing IQ to take his chances after catching the German slightly off his line, with Ter Stegen covering surprisingly little ground when he came off his line to intercept Iago Aspas.
Ter Stegen’s error on Wednesday lay more in the detail than the obvious. Speaking from experience, I can safely say that playing as a goalkeeper is the toughest task one can have on a football pitch. There are lots of things you need to be careful about, and nine times out of 10 you are made to pay for the slightest error you might make, unlike outfield players, whose errors usually need to be more than obvious for them to be punished.
It is becoming increasingly apparent the Ter Stegen is not entirely comfortable. Let’s not forget that he only made his Liga debut two weeks ago. He may have spent a year watching his team play in this league for a whole season but being out in the thick of the action is an entirely different thing. One may argue that Ter Stegen remained unfazed when tasked with keeping goal for the blaugrana at the Etihad, the Parc des Princes, or the Allianz Arena, but still the conditions at Liga stadiums remain tricky for those unfamiliar with them.
Being really exposed to the way Spanish football functions has certainly taken a toll on Ter Stegen’s morale. The German has generally come across as a very strong character during his Barça career so far. What really stands out about him is his enormous self-confidence, which almost certainly stems from his uncanny ability to hit 50-meter-plus passes and find his intended target ninety percent of the time. Not many goalkeepers can do that, and when a goalkeeper masters the art of passing it can give him enormous confidence. The forward-thinking goalkeeping coaches of our age often rant at their protégés that a goalkeeper should possess better footwork than the average outfield player. In reality though, very few have that ability, and thus Barça’s new-generation goalkeeper stands out.
Beyond doubt though, this type of play by a goalkeeper has a certain degree of risk associated with it. By charging high up the pitch, a goalkeeper may leave himself, as well as his backline, exposed to embarrassment. Ter Stegen knows that first hand, having come out for a header against Bilbao just outside the ‘D’ moments before Mikel San José scored the first of Bilbao’s four goals in the first leg of the Supercopa.
Yet the 23-year-old is certainly not the only one. Manuel Neuer, widely regarded as the world’s best goalkeeper, plays with a style arguably even more adventurous than Ter Stegen’s. The 29-year-old excels week-in, week-out, but he has had his fair share of embarrassing moments, like the one below. He never gets stick for it though.
Si la metía Guilavogui ni les contaba, que error de Neuer: pic.twitter.com/pLLMl9I2Ch
— VFL Wolfsburgo (@Wolfsburg_GO) September 22, 2015
The problem for Marc-André ter Stegen right now is that his playing style does not seem to go down well with the Spanish press. Journalists from both Madrid and Barcelona are at him like hawks, waiting for his next mistake so that they can take another shot at him and his playing style. This is perhaps the reason why Barça are ready to ban journalists from team flights, according to Mundo Deportivo.
The crucial variable right now is how Luis Enrique and his staff will deal with the situation. Lucho knows better than anyone that he now currently has a keeper with low morale and who is under immense pressure. Goalkeepers are the most vulnerable players when it comes to media scrutiny, but they also are the most volatile kind of players when it comes to self-esteem.
What Luis Enrique needs to decide right now is whether he is willing to sacrifice points and clean-sheet records to oversee Marc-André ter Stegen’s transition from a hugely promising goalkeeper to a world-class one. When Andoni Zubizarreta brought the German to Barcelona in 2014, everyone warned that Ter Stegen would make mistakes. Benching him right now would do even more damage, as it would imply that Lucho and José Ramón de la Fuente agree with the press. Barça shouldn’t make the mistakes they made with the late Robert Enke.
Ter Stegen needs support, and if he gets it he has the ability to turn things around. Luis Enrique needs to let him go through the process of winning everyone’s trust again and allow him to show why he believes he is better than Bravo. To do that though, he needs help, first and foremost from his defenders. Once he gets it, he will be master of his own fate.