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Is Solari Right to Start Thibaut Courtois?

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Courtios vs Navas is a never ending debate. Who should be the de facto starter?

Real Madrid v Atletico Madrid - UEFA Super Cup Previews
Courtois warming up against Atletico in the UEFA Super Cup even though Navas would start the game
Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

After the World Cup, Florentino Perez decided to do the unthinkable and buy a goalkeeper to replace Keylor Navas — the goalkeeper who led Real Madrid to three Champions League Finals wins in a row. En route, Keylor saved the mistakes of Marcelo and Sergio Ramos on that left side an unthinkable amount of times.

Real Madrid signed Thibau Courtoi this summer, and it wasn’t the first time president Florentino Perez tried to replace Keylor Navas. The first was a fax machine mistake — the David De Gea fiasco — that Real Madrid fans remember all too well. It seemed that Perez was playing into the Spanish media narrative of trying to get as many Spanish national team players into this squad. Van Gaal then told De Gea he would not play him until he signed a new deal. De Gea felt he would lose his starting Spanish job for the Euro 2016 if he did not sign a deal, so he inked the deal and Keylor was kept in place.

Fast forward to the beginning of 2018. Perez again was trying to replace Keylor with a Spanish national team keeper — Kepa Arrizabalaga —but this time Zidane denied the move. Afterwards, Kepa went on to sign a new deal with his release clause being raised, which Chelsea activated to replace the new Madrid keeper, Thibaut Courtois.

Perez has been looking for a long-term goalkeeper since Iker Casillas was transferred to Porto. Navas was brought in for a short-term solution — not a long-term solution. After an outstanding World Cup in his prime, Perez decided to purchase the Costa Rican. Navas then spent his first year splitting time with Casillas under Ancelotti.

In the summer of 2018, Courtois would go on to cost Perez a measly €35 million — a bargain when you compare him to Kepa who went on to cost Chelsea € 80 million (becoming the most expensive keeper of all time in the process.

And this is the Courtois who won the Golden Gloves this past summer at the World Cup for being the best goalkeeper in the tournament — beating out the likes or Hugo Lloris, Alisson Becker, and David De Gea. Some Madridistas thought Perez bringing in Courtois was pointless because the team had a very capable keeper already in place. Every time Courtois lets up a goal you can scroll through comment sections seeing fans commenting that Navas would’ve saved that.

Which brings the question forward: wWho should be starting for Madrid?

Comparing goalkeepers is not easy, and it goes beyond statistics. Some factors that go into making a goalkeeper elite: distribution, aerial presence, reflexes, positioning and athleticism. Now all statistics can measure these traits, so we have to go by eye test. Any stats we look at here will be between Navas’s numbers from 2017-2018; and for Courtois it will be this season’s stats.

Aerial Presence

This is the most straight forward attribute to discuss between the two keepers. Courtois is one of the tallest keepers in the world at 6’6”; while Navas is a paltry 6’1”. Courtois is the type of keeper Florentino Perez has tried to bring in but was never successful. To start, there was the best keeper of all time to many in Iker Casillas, who is beloved by Madridistas everywhere, and fans were upset with his mistreatment from his departure of the club, but his fall from grace was quite immense. Diego Lopez was at the club twice as was Kiko Casilla, both were brought in to bring competition to both Iker Casillas and Keylor Navas throughout the years. Both were taller and less athletic keepers, and had the aerial presence that both Casillas and Navas lacked — but neither had as much talent as the keepers in front of them. Now Perez has brought in another keeper with a great aerial presence who can get to crosses with ease — but he also happens to have immense talent.

Edge: Courtois

Distribution

Distribution is hard to calculate. It is more than just staring at a passing percentage. When watching every Madrid game there are some obvious takeaways. Navas is better at playing long balls then Courtois. It is something I have grown quite frustrated with when watching Courtois play every game other than Copa Del Rey since Solari took over. I felt Navas was good at his long ball distribution, though Whoscored.com rates both at being poor in this category. Something Courtois does truly excel at is playing balls out to the wings with his throws. I never knew he was this good at doing that. His feet could use work, but Navas has played with the club for a few years now and Madrid tends to play out of the back a decent amount — not as much as Barcelona, but a lot more than Chelsea did under Conte.

Navas has the edge with foot work and long balls, but Courtois’ passing with his hands is the best I have ever seen. The way he plays the ball into the path of Carvajal, Reguilon, Marcelo and Odriozola is impressive and allows the team to counter and get the ball up the pitch before some of the smaller La Liga teams can settle into their low block. When looking at Navas’s pass-completion percentage, he is around 76% compared to Courtois’s 73%.

Edge: Navas

Athleticism

This is almost as straight forward as the aerial presence section. Navas is by far the better athlete when comparing the two. Navas is a lot quicker off his line — which for this Madrid team is important. The backline is caught out of position usually too high up on the pitch and having a keeper who is there to come off the line is essential to a team like this. This has been known to be as a sweeper keeper, and Navas is the epitome of this. For a goalkeeper to be able to read these situations and use their athleticism to react to the situation is key — especially when the other team is trying to break down the backline. Courtois is getting better at reading these situations, he has improved in this area since his arrival in the capital city, but he’s no Navas and won’t be because he lacks the athleticism that Navas has.

Edge: Navas

Reflexes

Real Madrid had the best reflexive keeper in the world from 1999-2015 with Iker Casillas. They haven’t found it easy to replace San Iker, but they’ve tried, and they haven’t done too bad. Both Navas and Courtois are both known to have great reflexes. Look at the kick-save Courtois had to make in the 46th minute against Levante this past weekend; and Navas has shown his reflexes on several occasions as well.

Whoscored.com has reflexes as a strength for both keepers, and its hard to say who is better, but after watching Courtois in the World Cup — he gets the nod. If this was two years earlier Navas would get the nod, but Navas’s reflexes have regressed since he has been in the Spanish capital. Courtois was watched closely by Madridistas across the world during the World Cup with all the rumours going around of his return to Madrid, and he impressed with his reflexes during the tournament, with his performances there being a major reason for his signing.

Edge: Courtois

Positioning

Having correct positioning can be the difference between a save and a goal. Sometimes having the perfect angle can prevent the attacker from getting a good shot off as he gets discouraged at the potential angle of his shot. When you have the height of Courtois, along with his wingspan, it’s easier to cover your angles in comparison to the height of Navas.

But with Navas’ athleticism, it allows him to come off his line and cut off angles another way. Both keepers cut angles and position themselves in different ways which allow them to get to balls easier. Courtois uses his height and wingspan to cut the angles and take up part of the net. Navas uses his athleticism to help position himself to cut the space between the ball and the net by coming off his line. This is another close attribute between the two because both know how to use their strengthen to help themselves make saves.

Edge: Courtois

Statistical Breakdown

As noted earlier, when dissecting the statistics of both players, it doesn’t tell the whole story — but it does paint a picture. Navas’s statistics will be from last season, and Courtois’s will be from this season. Just for the sake of it, we will throw the World Cup in there.

The statistical break down shows some interesting trends. It seems Navas is better in La Liga, but Courtois does better in spotlights such as the Champions League and World Cup. Comparing World Cup statistics is difficult because the teams played in two completely different formations, different tactics, and there was a huge gulf in talent between the two squads. Most importantly, Courtois had played four more games than Navas and was outstanding the entire tournament, winning the Golden Gloves.

The perfect solution for the predicament of which keeper to start at Real Madrid? Play Navas in the league; and Courtois in the cups. But I say that carefully, because there is never a perfect solution — both players would feel they have the right to be number one.

There is one thing that clearly separates the two keepers, and that is age. Navas is 32 and Courtois is 26. Navas is close to the same type of keeper that Iker Casillas was in his downfall at Madrid. Maybe Florentino was trying to cover himself just in case Navas has a decline, and though Florentino has been looking to find a long term solution at the goalkeeper position for a few years now, Navas was always a reliable keeper — one of the best in the world.

Maybe now is the time to move on with the rising price tag of players. Courtois, for a keeper with his age, height, and wingspan, was a bargain. The Belgian seems ecstatic to be at the club and has deemed it a dream move for him. Madridistas everywhere thank Keylor Navas for everything he has brought the club in these past few years; but now might be the time for a new era, and now is the time for Courtois to take the reigns of Real Madrid’s number 1.

Solari has the cojones to bench the keeper who won so much for the team, and Zidane was too loyal to Navas to replace him — but it is time to look toward the future.