Ben Foster has been on the receiving end of plenty of flack following our 4-3 victory over City yesterday but one of our favourite bloggers, Penguin United, is fighting his corner.
So that’s it. It’s official, apparently. If you read the papers and the blogs today, Ben Foster is not good enough for United, and never will be.
Really, can we make that sort of judgment yet? After a run of only seven games, three of which have been clean sheets, with a constantly-changing fruit machine of a defence in front of him? Not for my money.
Obviously Foster had a shocker yesterday, and was responsible for the goal we conceded against Arsenal. But he has also made some stunning saves, the like of which we rarely see from EVDS these days, for all the latter’s assured kicking and good judgment. It is a goalkeeper’s lot to have his saves forgotten and his errors remembered (the opposite of many strikers, who can gloss over missing a few sitters with a last minute goal), but surely our fans can remember six weeks worth of football.
In those six weeks, Foster has demonstrated superb reflexes, good reach when coming out for crosses and good judgment on when to punch or catch when he gets there. For the most part, his distribution has been good, keeping the ball alive well and making good choices between the easy ball to a full back and the harder ball to a more advanced player. He has also, on occasion, demonstrated very good temperament indeed, such as following up his mistake at Arsenal with a superb save which kept us in the game.
He has also shown some weaknesses. His distribution is affected by the fact that he is painfully one-footed – no co-incidence that both his kicking debacles yesterday (one unpunished, the other not so) were on his right foot. He has let in a goal which should have been a routine save, and he has sometimes looked a little hesitant in one-on-one situations. His judgment on crosses is not perfect, although it is far from disastrous and better than Kusczcak’s will ever be.
If you think that the weaknesses mean that he should be discarded despite the strengths, or if you expect him to be the finished product the first time he has a run in a the side, then you clearly don’t have much of an appreciation of the travails of keepers at the highest level.
You must have got so spoilt by watching Peter Schmeichel (one of the best and most complete keepers in the world ever, by the way) for so many years that you think such excellence should be standard. You’ve clearly forgotten that it took Fergie six years of scouring the globe to find a proper replacement for the Great Dane, and that many top European sides have keepers who are often liabilities. Think Dida of AC Milan, Dudek for years at Liverpool, Lehmann and now Almunia at Arsenal, almost every Spanish keeper except Casillas. Barthez was one of the best keepers of his time and capable of mind-boggling saves, but despite one near-perfect season found the relentless pressure of expectation too much.
Keeping at the very top level is very different to keeping for even a mid-table Premiership side. You’ll probably only have two or three saves to make all match, but all are crucial since a draw is not good enough. You probably won’t touch the ball, or even be near the ball, for prolonged periods of play, and when you do it will just be to take a goal kick or receive a backpass. You don’t get to make strings of saves, the adrenalin doesn’t pump, you’re unlikely to be the hero – this is cold-blooded, steely-eyed perfectionism.
The last time Foster played six first team games in a row was at Watford over two years ago. At Watford, he repeatedly demonstrated all those qualities I mentioned above – he was many Watford fans’ player of the season. There, he was under siege constantly, and constantly rose to the task of being the gallant last line of defence, the only thing stemming the tide. What he will have been learning over the last few weeks is how different a mentality is required of a United keeper – and he will have learned a very great deal. Even more since he hasn’t had the luxury (afforded to EVDS for so much of his United career) of playing behind a settled, world-class defence.
Yesterday, he had an absolute shocker. He made an error in the 13th minute which put his team on the back foot after a flying start – there was nowhere to hide, it was 100% his fault. And then he was made to live with it, oh and how. He didn’t have any chance to make a save of note until the 86th minute, when he tipped away Wright-Phillips’ near post shot, and even then it was fairly routine. He will have learned a lot about himself in that time, but his head will have been reeling. When Bellamy bore down on him in the 89th minute, he couldn’t decide whether to come and narrow the angle or stand tall and try to deal with the shot – both would have been fine, but he did something in the middle that made the striker’s life easier. And so his day got worse.
Rio’s contribution to the third goal and Owen’s winner will have made him feel a lot better about himself, but he knows now much better than before what he needs to do. He will welcome the break he’ll get when EVDS comes back – the spotlight can be punishing indeed on goalkeepers, especially when your own fans are nervous about how you will perform.
I, for one, think he’ll come back stronger from that. I think he has proved that whilst he is not The Answer right now, he has the potential to be The Answer at some point. Maybe I’ll be proved wrong, but nobody should be ruling him out until he has at least had a second chance later in the season.