On Twitter this morning I passed comment on Shay Given’s non-performance in Euro 2012. Having only seen commentary suggesting that Given was ‘merely having a poor tournament but remains a great keeper on his day’ or that he was ‘past his best but one of the best of the Premier League era’ I was pleasant surprised when my assertion that the Irish keeper has been shot for a good few years, and was never all that in the first place, was backed by a several others.
One Villa supporting friend of mine, himself an astute observer of the round ball game, scoffed when I suggested last summer that Given’s big money transfer to the West Midlands amounted to Alex McLeish’s poorest piece of business in a summer of stiffs – but now concedes that I was (almost – thanks to Alan Hutton) right. Amongst all the ill tempered bluster around Liverpool’s shonky understanding of Sabermetrics, there’s little doubting that Villa’s signing of the 35 year old Given on a big money, 5 year contract looks far less of a ‘Moneyball’ purchase than that of Andy Carroll.
Over time a few people have asked me why I rate Given so little. I thought it apt to explore this a little in relation to his national number two, Keiren Westwood, and the man has replaced him as Newcastle’s long term custodian, Tim Krul – both themselves Brunton Park alumni.
Taking Given first. There is little doubting that, in his prime, the Irish custodian possessed stupendous reflexes. It is this mastery of the ‘TV save’ upon which he forged the stellar reputation which as hit the buffers in the past week – in Championship Manager terms, there is little doubting that Given in his prime was a ‘Shot Stopping 20′ guy. During his time on Tyneside he worked behind some notoriously porous defences – the names Dabizas, Charvet, Distin and Bernard don’t exactly inspire confidence and this fact perhaps gilded Given’s reputation yet further.
My problem with Given was born of a conviction that he was often making mistake covering saves. By this I don’t mean that he was covering for the lumbering lummoxes in front of him (though that often was the case) but that his last minute interventions covered his own shortcomings – in coming for crosses, in positioning, but particularly in marshalling his defence.
It is positioning that is Westwood’s main strength. In his time at Brunton Park the Sunderland number two made a reputation by producing the type of wonder save that is still talked about in hushed tones within the City Walls. But how is that different from Given, whose own fingertips were writ large on Match of the Day three weeks in every four throughout the last decade?
Spatial awareness. Where Given saves always seem to involve desperate, last minute reactions to a course of events, Westwood’s are born out of an acute knowledge and instinct for the travel of the ball. During his Carlisle spell he was rarely caught out of position – not for him the need to adjust from his heels to make a save, nor the racy, nailbiting tips that have become Given’s trademark.
Where Given’s saves bely a man living on edge, unable to control attacks other than by standing on his line and jumping, Westwood’s innate ability to choose the correct starting position gives him the march on his illustrious rival. Even in Westwood’s most famous Carlisle save – this astonishing fingertip touch from Jermaine Beckford – his early movement means he is in just the right place to act in the event of an early strike from range. Had he stayed on his line, as Given surely would have, the net would bulge.
Westwood’s top moment in a Sunderland shirt thus far has been a magnificent double save against Manchester United whilst deputising for Simon Mignolet. The save reacted to a near post Wayne Rooney header and a Patrice Evra follow up. It is a save that the vintage Given would have added to a collection of his very best. It is also one he would not have made. The reason? Spatial awareness again. The Euros have highlighted Given’s deficiencies inside his own six yard box – to borrow from cricket he looks like a batter who has no idea where his off stump is – only with Given the goal is a rather bigger target than three timbers. Were he faced with a similar situation to that which befell Westwood against United, he’d have hesitated and been beaten first time by Rooney – don’t agree? Rewatch Cassano’s goal from last night.
However, all this passes over what is, in my view, Given’s chief deficiency – his inability to use the whole 18 yards that are ‘his’ to effect a save. Given’s relationship with his own goal line is probably what lost him his place in the Manchester City side to Joe Hart and precipitated his move to Villa. But it is in comparison to his former Geordieland team-mate Krul that this is most striking.
Much has been made of Krul’s comfort on the ball, and ability to start attacks from the back rather than punt long – they make them like that in the Netherlands (see also Michel Vorm). However, my enduring memory of Krul at Carlisle and what has impressed me again this season is his absolute command of the box. Krul makes ‘saves’ simply by coming to meet players, by shepherding them away from goal and by buying time for his defenders to atone for their mistakes – it is prevention not cure.
I distinctly recall one occasion where he came to meet MK Dons striker Aaron Wilbraham only for the burly frontman to attempt to fire across him into the top corner – Krul’s actions allowed him to fire out a bucket hand and smash the ball onto the cross-bar. The game stayed 2-0 at half-time and Carlisle went on to win 3-2. I can’t help thinking that Given would have stayed put and the Blues would have lost – that’s the difference between a good ‘keeper and a superb one.
Krul was, ironically, the third keeper Carlisle used to replace Westwood following on from Ben Williams (now of Colchester) and Spurs perennial loanee Ben Alnwick. He was easily the best, so good that some (myself include) whispered heretically that he may even be better than our much loved and recently departed ‘Plastic Paddy’. To see them on either side of the Tyne/Wear clash in the Premier League can’t help bring a smile to Carlisle faces.
The fourth keeper I ought to mention is Carlisle’s current custodian and token Cumbrian – Adam Collin. Signed from non-league Workington, Collin was for a time the third choice goalkeeper at Newcastle behind, you’ve guessed it – Shay Given. It’s thus unsurprising to see some of Given’s strengths and weaknesses in his game.
Like Given, Collin is an outrageously good shot stopper. His tendency to flap about in his box is also a cause of much debate – my own view is that he catches more than he misses and helps relieve a lot of pressure at tough moments and I’d rather that than the goal line ‘concrete shoes’ of either Given or his predecessor Williams. Perhaps the closest comparator is, though, in their respective command of their defences. Last season Carlisle’s defence, like those of mid 2000s Newcastle or 2011/12 Aston Villa was horrendous and arguably cost the team a play-off spot.
Many thought this highlighted Collin’s deficiencies as a talker and organiser and as slow off his line in sight of danger - and they may well be right too. Carlisle’s centre half pairing of Murphy and Livesey looked like world beaters in front of the vocal, outstanding Keiren Westwood. It’s worth then noting the constant in the ‘comical’ defending of both Robson’s ‘great’ Newcastle sides and that at Villa Park last year – a man wedded to the goal line and who, perhaps, exacerbated inherent problems. Shay Given.
Ultimately Collin fights a losing battle with the Brunton Park ghosts of Westwood and Krul – he is comfortably amongst League One’s best keepers but such laurels come from elsewhere and rarely his own fans. There’s a certain poetic irony that they themselves, by quirk of fate, fight with the memory and the past of the man from whom he learnt his game.
But that’s the point – Collin is a good League One keeper, one would hope that a man lauded as at the top of his game internationally didn’t make the same mistakes. Given is and does – that’s his problem in a nutshell.
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