These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts — are now a regular thing. All previous editions can be found here.
When Thibaut Courtois first signed for Real Madrid back in 2018, he had few supporters in European football. Chelsea fans had scathing thoughts on him as he departed London. Atletico Madrid fans had already labelled him a traitor, and Real Madrid fans were annoyed to lose Keylor Navas — one of the fan favourites for his loveable nature and hand during the three-peat dynasty.
Courtois lost even more support in his first two seasons or so at the club by not living up to his standard. Real Madrid conceded goals regularly and Courtois wasn’t keeping much out. There is also the fact that he wasn’t doing much wrong or making many mistakes either — he just wasn’t displaying the world class saves that were anticipated.
Things hit a particular rough patch in 2019, when Courtois was subbed out at half-time of a Champions League group stage game between Real Madrid and Club Brugge at the Bernabeu because of a stomach flu. His replacement keeper, Alphonse Areola, had a good cameo, notably making a leap to catch a ball one-handed in the air. Fans started to call for Areola to start.
All that seems unbelievably silly now, and is only brought up to highlight how far Courtois has come, how deep he’s dug to unearth his greatness again, how he finally has the international respect he thoroughly deserves, and how patience can reap the most beautiful of fruits.
“Back in England, I don’t get enough respect,” Courtois said pitch-side after Real Madrid won their 14th Champions League title. “So, well, I showed it today. I wanted to put some respect on my name there”.
During that final, Courtois put in one of the greatest goalkeeping performances in club history — keeping out a barrage of Liverpool attacks and point-blank shots. What’s staggering is that it may not have been his best performance of the season; just the most clutch. When the stakes mattered the most, he rose — and that’s what makes this particular masterclass elevate above the rest.
And everyone saw it — including those who didn’t see him enough. Those who watched him regularly already were treated, nay, privileged, to his weekly brilliance. To us, the final was not a surprise, just a jaw-dropping visual experience that iced an already otherworldly season.
“Trust me, I can’t believe what Thibaut Courtois did tonight, guys,” Carlo Ancelotti said after the game. “Unbelievable.”
“There was a magazine [FourFourTwo] in England,” Courtois explained. “The didn’t put me in the top 10 goalkeepers in the world by the way.”
What’s a staggering omission in a list like that seems even crazier now that Courtois is arguably a top-three Balon D’or candidate. The award itself will undoubtedly go to Karim Benzema (please, let’s get this award right this year, voters) but in terms of value to their team, it’s hard to argue many other pure MVPs in the world. If you take Courtois out of this Real Madrid team they don’t win the European title. Their run may very well have ended back in February.
Courtois made 56 saves in this year’s Champions League — the most of anyone in the competition. Next on that list: Gerónimo Rulli with 41. Courtois’s opponent in the final, Alisson Becker, saved 28 shots. No goalkeeper in the tournament had a better post-shot xG-GA than Courtois (+5.1).
Courtois wasn’t nearly as busy in the League — where he saved 88 shots (2.04 shots per 90, compared to 4.09 in the Champions League). Although he was great in La Liga, it was Europe where he took his guardianship to a transcendent level — decisive in every single knockout tie before officially morphing into Gandalf in Paris.
And what makes Courtois so special now, somehow beyond all of that, is that he’s the perfect Real Madrid goalkeeper — the exact super-human that the club has needed in nets through so many periods in its history.
Real Madrid’s opponents had a combined xG of 19 in this year’s Champions League. The only team that conceded more was Benfica (19.5). Courtois saw 92 crosses flung into his penalty area. The only two goalkeepers who faced more were Odisseas Vlachodimos (Benfica) and Gerónimo Rulli (Villarreal).
Courtois was this great on that volume, and Real Madrid can entrust him unwaveringly. Being a goalkeeper at this club means you have to be a master of taming chaos. You can’t merely be comfortable with open football and waves of shots; you have to thrive in it — laugh in its adversity.
Why Courtois is so great now is the same reason Iker Casillas was so great at his peak. It’s not just that they’re both the best — it’s that they’re the best with (often) shambolic defending, and the best during the biggest of matches and tensest of moments. Casillas was assailed mercilessly. He came through with miracles time and time again while the defense melted. Ray Hudson used to call him the octopus for good reason. Courtois is starting to bring me back to those Casillas years. That’s the highest of compliments.
Next season, Courtois moves into year five of his Real Madrid journey. He has missed less than 10 games in the process. He is durable, reliable. He’s been (at least) in the top-2 in La Liga in save percentage in each of the last three seasons. Ditto for goals against per 90 and clean sheets. Had Real Madrid not wrapped up La Liga early this year, Courtois would’ve likely topped the league in minutes played for the second consecutive season.
Courtois, 30, just wrapped his best season to date in the same campaign he faced the most shots on target (116) than in any of his Real Madrid seasons. 2021 - 2022 was also his best PSxG to date since the metric became available in 2017. His short passing remains good up until 30 yards, where he hits outlets at a near 100% clip.
There was no doubt among Real Madrid and La Liga fans that Courtois was a different breed. There was a certain satisfaction, though, seeing him transcend on the global stage multiple times this season before hosting the trophy for the world to see. Now it’s undeniable beyond La Liga itself, and the numbers back it up in convincing fashion: Courtois was the best goalkeeper in Europe in the 2021 - 2022 season.