Cech and Courtois: A Conundrum

There are problems, and there are so-called ‘first world problems’. You know the drill; which latest technological advancement to purchase, what to do when your wireless internet drops for five seconds, that sort of thing.

At Chelsea Football Club, they too face decisions of this nature now and then, and chief amongst them is what to do about their goalkeeping situation. They’re blessed to find themselves in the luxurious position of having a legendary veteran incumbent in Petr Cech, and a world-class youngster in Thibaut Courtois ready to step in and ensure that the gloves are well worn for the best part of the next twenty years.

By acting swiftly and astutely in the summer of 2010, the Blues have created a pipeline which is doubtless the envy of clubs worldwide. However, despite the obvious benefits of having a ready-made replacement on their books, the powers that be at Stamford Bridge must manage the coming months and years very delicately to ensure that they take maximum gain from their impressive groundwork.

Petr Cech is not to be cast aside just yet. Nobody is calling for that to happen, certainly not after his heroics in Munich last May, and his place as probably Chelsea’s greatest all-time number one is assured for a long time to come. He’s had a few bumps in the road (and to the head) in his almost nine years of service, but there are few stoppers in the game who offer what he does. He’s a spritely 30 years of age with possibly another decade left in him at the top level.

Thibaut Courtois, however, is a player of immense ability and staggering potential. Not yet 21, he is the best goalkeeper in Spain, a Europa League winner and a first choice Belgian international; a team packed with intriguing players who may make quite the splash on the world stage in Brazil in 2014. Clean sheets come naturally, especially at home, where he is currently putting up record sequences of dominance. He has handled every step up in his career with an air of superiority and casual shrug of the shoulders, as if it’s all too easy for him.

Thanks to the sheer volume of live football made available to the discerning football fan, Chelsea fans are as aware as anyone of Courtois’ many strengths, with Sky’s coverage of the Spanish Primera Division regularly featuring his Atlético Madrid side. He creates excitement but also anxiety, for the fans are keen to ensure that for once, the loan system works in the club’s favour and the fruits of their labour are harvested in SW6.

News of Barcelona’s Victor Valdés apparently seeking to depart the Nou Camp caused some consternation amongst Courtois fans as the Catalan club quickly tabbed the Belgian as one of a select few replacements for Valdés, and with Cech showing no sign of being ready to move on in London, it could conceivably appeal to the player to move on up in La Liga. They’re the marquee name in world football and the reality is that very few players would turn down such an opportunity.

This is why Chelsea have to make some very important decisions in the near future. At some point in the next eighteen months they will have to choose between Cech and Courtois. A point in time will come where their respective development paths will cross – as Cech hits his downward curve and Courtois continues on an upwards trajectory – and ordinarily this would be the time to make the change.

Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen particularly soon. For now, Courtois is happy playing in Spain, and Atlético are happy to continue receiving the loan services of an elite player. The arrangement will probably continue into a third season for 2013-14, which will suit all parties, particularly the player, who will be looking to assure his place as a starter at the World Cup at the end of the season. Bringing him back to sit on the bench as a backup or as a rotation option is asking for trouble; either the player’s development goes to pot or you create a goalkeeping controversy which affects everyone involved and has a negative outcome.

Whenever a change is made, be it Courtois or someone else, it has to be ‘final’. There can be no phasing out period, for as brutal as it might sound and appear, the team can only benefit from a complete change rather than a gradual transition. They must pick one and run with them.

Looking towards the medium term, ambition will certainly have to play a part. Courtois’ maiden Chelsea contract runs until the summer of 2016, which coincides with the expiration of Cech’s latest extension. Cech will be 34, Courtois of course still ten years his junior at 24, two years older than the Czech was when he displaced Carlo Cudicini upon Jose Mourinho’s arrival.

Three and a half years is a long time away though, and although nobody seems to be particularly bothered about rushing into a decision, football can change in an instant. Another lengthy injury to Cech, as terrible as it would be, would likely see Courtois’ arrival sped up. On the flip side, if the young pretender receives an offer he would find hard to turn down, he could make life very hard for his parent club, who whilst getting a nice transfer fee for him would then be back to square one in finding a successor.

Cech has acknowledged that to hold off Courtois’ advances, he has to continue to be better than him. Right now, he is just that, and for every brilliant thing the Atlético loanee can offer, Cech has the additional benefit of many years at the very top and the mental nous required to continue to hone his craft. He has spoken at length of the preparation and psychology behind his Munich excellence, and there really is no substitute for exposure to those situations.

Yet players will only get that experience if they’re given the chance. Mourinho made the bold move to ditch Cudicini – who was a top-three Premier League goalkeeper aged nearly 31 – upon his arrival and was thoroughly vindicated. He figured that he had very little to lose in terms of comparative ability at that juncture, but a veritable wealth of riches to reap by going with Cech.

That will be the decisive factor in this particular conundrum. We don’t know who’s going to make it, and therefore we don’t have an insight into when it’s going to be made. Rafael Benitez’s replacement (as there surely must be one…) might repeat Mourinho’s trick and decide that Cech’s time is up. It would be a decision made far too prematurely, for sure, but it might well happen.

Chelsea are incredibly fortunate to have a player who is an inch taller than Cech, left-footed like Cech, and comprehensively dominant and commanding in his penalty area like Cech. He is, if you like, the very picture of the player you would want to succeed him. They’ve put themselves into the position to be able to do so, but must tread carefully to ensure it’s done both at the right time, and at all.

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