Oh, to be Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho right now. The man has the life of luxury when it comes to goalkeeping this season. His current keeper, Chelsea legend Petr Cech, has been between the pipes for the past decade. Usually, as long as an experienced keeper’s form hasn’t dipped, he has the job until it does. However, the 32-year-old Cech has a young Belgian breathing down his neck. Thibaut Courtois, only 22, is coming off a world-class resume-builder of a season with La Liga-winning Atletico Madrid and World Cup quarterfinalist Belgium. Ten years separate the two keepers, but not much else. How in the world does Mourinho decide who gets the gig?
Well, that may be a bit misleading, considering Mou could use one in league play and the other in Champions League contests. If Cech isn’t careful, he could see his role diminished from last season in this way. Fortunately, he still brings quite a bit to the table. The Czech Republic international has had better years at Chelsea, but still put in a solid 2013-14 campaign. According to Squawka.com, of the 20 EPL keepers who made at least 20 appearances, he conceded the least amount of goals, while picking up 16 clean sheets in his 34 EPL games. That’s excellent work, albeit partly due to Mourinho’s philosophy and Chelsea’s stout defense. Still, Squawka’s performance score (which uses advanced stats to rank keepers) found Cech as the fourth-best EPL netminder last season.
Yet it may be Cech’s intangibles that win him the job. He has been through everything with Chelsea: winning 4 FA Cups, 3 EPL titles, a Europa League and a Champions League title. There’s something to be said for the mere presence of a seasoned, heady presence in goal. It has to have a calming effect on a team, knowing you have a certain reliability behind you.
Not that Courtois isn’t reliable. In fact, he was as consistently great as any La Liga (or European, for that matter) goalkeeper last season. While his league-leading 20 clean sheets speak for themselves, Squawka ranks him 3rd among 2013-14 La Liga keepers. All of this played a huge part in Atletico’s league-winning season. However, none of this considers any of his stellar play outside of La Liga. In the Champions League, Courtois was immense in big moments, particularly (and ironically) against Chelsea in their semifinal matchup. Then there was this summer’s World Cup, where Courtois only conceded 3 goals in Belgium’s 5 matches.
Beyond his obvious talent, Courtois’ youth and athleticism may ultimately give him the edge over Cech. The former is only an inch taller, but has younger legs and less propensity for injury. Not only that, but now Courtois even has his own big game experience after his three season stint with Atletico, winning a Europa League, a Copa del Rey, and a La Liga title in his time there (not to mention shutting out Real Madrid for over 90 minutes in the 2014 Champions League final). It’s hard to think of any 22-year-old keepers with that kind of clutch play under their belt.
Of course, you can’t ignore the Mourinho Factor in all of this. The brilliant, antagonistic, or enigmatic (it all depends on who you ask) manager is known for his micro-managing skills. Of all the EPL managers, he might be the most capable at deftly handling this situation, especially when you consider he chose to start a 22-year-old Petr Cech for Chelsea in 2004. Back then, superb Italian keeper Carlo Cudicini was replaced by Mourinho in favor of young Cech. Ten years later, does the same scenario play out over the next several months at Stamford Bridge?
I wouldn’t rush to sell your stock in Cech quite yet, though. Cudicini never had the value to Chelsea that Cech has now, and you have to consider the relationship Mou and Cech have built up over the years. Recently, Cech was given the vice-captaincy after Frank Lampard, another Chelsea legend, departed. Also, Cech is just nine clean sheets short of David James’s Premier League record, which he should easily capture if he starts enough league games this coming season. If Courtois quickly becomes The Man at Stamford, it will not be an easy decision for Mourinho to make.
And yet, no matter how tough it is, he (and Chelsea fans) can only shake their head in disbelief at the world-class talent they have in net. These are the types of luxurious, “good problems” only the rich have to deal with, kind of like trying to decide if you shall take your Lamborghini or Aston Martin to the upscale market near your million-dollar mansion. So don’t have too much sympathy for Mourinho while he chooses between a veteran club legend and a young upstart who could morph into the world’s best keeper. It’s hard to lose no matter who he picks.