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The Premier League Is Finally Paying For Goalkeepers — But The Best Is Still A Bargain

Goalkeepers have historically been the most undervalued players in the world soccer transfer market. Until very recently, even the richest teams in Europe rarely spent extravagantly to fill the position. When Juventus paid Parma $42 million1 for Gianluigi Buffon in 2001 — a record fee at the time — it was considered a staggering amount.2 But in today’s hyperinflated market, that price for a keeper of Buffon’s talents would look like a coup.

The world record fee for a keeper has been set three times in the past 14 months, all by Premier League teams. Manchester City was the first to break the record when it paid Benfica $45 million for Ederson in June 2017; Liverpool upped the ante this July by paying Roma $84 million for Alisson; less than a month later, Chelsea — with money earned from selling Thibaut Courtois to Spanish giants Real Madrid — paid Athletic Bilbao $91 million for Kepa Arrizabalaga, who wasn’t well-known outside of Spain.

Managers and pundits have long believed that keepers are at least as important as any other player on the pitch. But that idea finally looks to be coming into vogue among the people who control the money.

There’s little doubt that Ederson has made the Citizens better. The Brazilian’s 0.59 expected goals against per 90 minutes paced the league in 2017-18, and his ability with the ball at his feet made Pep Guardiola’s team an attacking threat from literally every inch of the pitch. (This is a particularly filthy example of Ederson’s magic.)

Though it’s early in the new season, it’s clear that Alisson is an upgrade over Loris Karius and Simon Mignolet in the Liverpool goal. Alisson led Italy’s Serie A in save percentage and goals against below average3 per 90 minutes a season ago, and he has kept three clean sheets in three games for the Reds, making him the only starting keeper in the Premier League who hasn’t conceded a goal in the new season. This should please fans at the Kop, who had to endure watching two keepers who ranked in the bottom 10 in save percentage4 a season ago.

Kepa’s 2017-18 numbers in Spain’s La Liga are similar to Courtois’s numbers from last season in the Premier League, and he’s been good in his first three starts for Chelsea. But that record transfer fee is a lot to live up to.

To understand how much impact a keeper can have on the Premier League table, look no further than Manchester United. The Red Devils inked a world-class keeper long before the current keeper bubble, and they’re reaping the rewards. Alisson’s and Kepa’s price tags — and Ederson’s to a lesser degree — make the $24 million that Manchester United paid Atletico Madrid for David De Gea in 2011 look like pocket change, especially when you consider the impact he’s had on his club’s success.

Manchester United scored the second fewest goals among the top six teams in the English Premier League in 2017-18. Despite its relative scoring dearth, United still managed to finish second in the table and secure its berth in the Champions League. De Gea’s play between the sticks ensured that Man U finished near the top of the table.

Sky Sports pundit and former English national team midfielder Steve McMahon — a former Liverpool player who doesn’t lavish praise on Manchester United without good reason — went as far as to say that De Gea’s play meant the difference between a second place and sixth place finish for United.5 De Gea’s numbers make it hard to deny that claim.

Among keepers who played in at least half of their team’s games in 2017-18, De Gea led the Premier League in both save percentage (81 percent) and goals against below average per 90 minutes (0.32). The Spaniard’s exploits in the net saved the Red Devils roughly 13 goals over the course of the season. And if Manchester United had been forced to replace De Gea with a Premier League goalie who put up perfectly average numbers, it would have conceded 17 more goals than it did.

It’s difficult to say exactly how many points Manchester United would have lost as a result of those extra concessions, but its goal deficit would have dropped from 40 to 23, one goal worse than fifth place Chelsea and on par with sixth place Arsenal. It’s not inconceivable that conceding 17 extra goals could translate to dropping 11 or more points — a scenario that would have left Manchester United on the outside looking in at Champions League qualification, and precisely where McMahon said the team would have finished without De Gea patrolling the goal mouth.

De Gea’s current value according to TransferMarkt is $82 million — less than what Liverpool paid for Alisson and what Chelsea paid for Kepa. Alisson and Kepa may one day have the kind of Premier League seasons that make their teams look better than they actually are, but De Gea has done so for seven consecutive seasons. If Buffon to Juventus for $42 million was a coup, De Gea to Manchester United for $24 million was the transfer market deal of the century.

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  1. At current exchange rates.

  2. Fair to say it ended up working out pretty well for Juve.

  3. A metric for how many goals a keeper prevents relative to the expectation of the shots opponents took.

  4. Among those who played at least 19 games.

  5. The difference between second place and sixth place in the Premier League means the difference between qualification for the Champions League and qualification for the Europa League — which could mean the difference between tens of millions of dollars in revenue.

Terrence Doyle is a writer based in Boston, where he obsesses over pizza and hockey.