Legendary Juventus and Italian national team goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon said, “You score goals as a kid. Then you grow up stupid and become a goalkeeper.” After almost two decades in goal for the Azzurri, Buffon has made a living apparently being stupid. Fortunately for Barcelona, Claudio Bravo and Marc-André ter Stegen also decided to be “stupid” when they grew up and they both have already helped the club capture a number of titles across several competitions. Ter Stegen has played in and won a Champions League final while Bravo has anchored a much-improved defense that has won back-to-back La Liga titles.
At the start of last season, Marc-André ter Stegen suffered an injury and Luis Enrique was given the easy choice of making Claudio Bravo his starter in net. While Bravo was given the goalkeeping duties for La Liga competitions, ter Stegen was given the responsibility of holding down the posts for all other competitions, including the Copa del Rey and Champions League. With the goalkeeping position divided between the two keepers and Barcelona succeeding, Luis Enrique won the treble and looked like a genius for his choice to platoon the two keepers in the manner that he did. Yet, the disparity of games between the elder Claudio Bravo and younger ter Stegen was a storyline to be buried deep under the accolades and trophies.
Fastforwarding to the start of the current campaign, the Barcelona coaching staff kept their keeper plans firmly under wraps as the season began against Sevilla in the UEFA Super Cup. Ter Stegen got the start, but then allowed four goals in the contest that would need extra time to be decided. He made a start in La Liga as well, midway through September, and picked up a 2-1 win against Atlético Madrid.
Once Claudio Bravo recovered, however, he took back his spot as the starting goalkeeper for La Liga clashes. He would remain in that role for the duration of the season until an injury took him out of the last few contests.
It has been a remarkable year for the 33-year-old Chilean, starting at the conclusion of last season with his first La Liga title with Barcelona. This success must have gotten him in the mood for winning titles, as he captained his country last summer in the 2015 Copa América. He excelled on his home soil, partnering with former Barcelona winger Alexis Sánchez as the leaders of a Chile team that would win the tournament against South American powerhouses Brazil and Argentina. In March, he became the first Chilean with 100 caps, long surpassing Nelson Tapia in the record books as the most important goalkeeper in Chile’s international history.
Bravo followed up his Copa América trophy by starting 36 games this season for Barcelona. He helped the team to turn around a leaking defense from the first month of the season as Luis Enrique’s men found their form with Lionel Messi ailing.
Meanwhile, rumors of Marc-André ter Stegen becoming restless on the bench so often started to create a buzz that the young German would look for a full-time starting role elsewhere. The 24-year-old started 27 games across all competitions with one appearance as a substitute. With Euro 2016 on the horizon, ter Stegen must have been getting uncomfortable with the notion that a lack of consistent club starts would affect his chances of beating out other top German goalkeepers.
Luckily for ter Stegen, German national coach Joachim Low rewarded the goalkeeper for his efforts this season with a spot on the provisional roster, though only three goalies made the cut and ter Stegen should find himself battling with Bayer Leverkusen’s stopper Bernd Leno for the backup role behind Bayern Munich’s Manuel Neuer. Being six years younger than Neuer, ter Stegen is obviously pining to take over the starting spot for the reigning World Cup champions when Neuer eventually bows out. Being the top keeper at Barcelona would put a player in pole position for such an honor, but playing second fiddle may not.
Behind Bravo and ter Stegen this season was 27-year-old Jordi Masip, who started three games and also played in three games as a substitute. It’s still undecided if Masip will return as the third goalkeeper for next season, with the Barcelona B duo of 20-year-old Jose Suarez and 22-year-old Adrian Ortola waiting in the wings for a call from the first team.
Young goalies in La Masia are beginning to get wise to the understanding that Barcelona have invested in ter Stegen for the long-term. In the last few years, highly touted stoppers Fabrice Ondoa, Andre Onana and Dennis Otto, all promising teenagers, have decided to look for opportunities elsewhere.
For next season, it should be assumed that ter Stegen will take on a heavier workload than simply cup competitions. Yet, the same might have been assumed coming into the current campaign, but Bravo proved too reliable and ter Stegen made too many mistakes in the early part with his more aggressive style. The ceiling for ter Stegen is higher than Bravo’s, with the German’s style and potential being conveniently compared to countryman Neuer’s. The only way that the German can reach this level is with games, and Luis Enrique may find a compromise by rotating both keepers in La Liga and giving ter Stegen the majority of the cup games.
Luis Enrique has never been one to make decisions based on players who consider to leave, and if he believes that Bravo should still be the first choice for all La Liga competitions next season, then Cules can expect to see the Chilean in net.
However, and considering Bravo only has a few seasons of top-class football left, the Asturian manager should prioritise the development of ter Stegen rather than force him to wait for years on end while frustratingly waiting on the bench.