Brian Clough, Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger were each convinced that a good goalkeeper — Peter Shilton, Peter Schmeichel and David Seaman on their respective title-winning sides at Nottingham Forest, Manchester United and Arsenal — could save their sides between 10 and 15 points a season.
As Manchester City prepare to face Liverpool this weekend, the long history of goalkeepers — good and bad — that has wrapped itself around these two clubs might make this old saying even more poignant.
In City’s case, the big question is have they finally found the man in Ederson Moraes who can do for them exactly what Schmeichel, Seaman and Shilton did for their clubs and be a deciding factor in the Premier League title returning to the Etihad for a third time in seven years?
City’s recent problems at this position are well-documented. From Joe Hart, England’s first choice and a regular at the Etihad from 2007-16, to his immediate replacement Claudio Bravo, Chile’s record cap holder, things have not gone smoothly between the sticks for the club.
This is nothing new, however. The goalkeeping position has caused headaches since City’s trophy-winning run in the 60s and early 70s.
Joe Corrigan failed to take off successfully and found himself dropped. That he fought back, regained his place in the first team and — by the mid 70s — had found a slot on the England squad was testament to his incredible willpower and attitude. That he never made it past nine international caps was due to the bad luck of finding himself competing with the aforementioned Shilton and a certain Ray Clemence of Liverpool.
Clemence stood between the posts at Anfield nearly 500 times before giving way to Bruce Grobelaar, a Zimbabwean who had fought for the Rhodesian Army in the Rhodesian Bush War before finding a place in British professional football.
Grobelaar was the archetypal “eccentric goalkeeper,” often leaving his line to perform the kind of duties today’s goalkeepers are regularly expected to do but in an era when the backpass could be picked up and defences did not expect the man at the back to frolic from goal and start playing the ball to feet.
Bravo arrived at City just over 12 months ago knowing exactly what to expect. Guardiola, an advocate of so-called sweeper keepers, had brought him to England to do what he professed Hart could not manage: come out, use his feet, pass and set attacks in motion with alert, adept balls to his midfielders.
This was quickly shown to be a flawed exercise, with Bravo caught horribly in an early season Manchester derby at Old Trafford. The game left a mark on the Chilean, who steadily became more erratic and less convincing as the season progressed to the extent that he eventually lost his place in the first team to Hart’s old understudy, Willy Caballero.
This was arguably one of the major turning points in Guardiola’s first attempt at trophy winning in England. With an already shaky defence shot of confidence, a major Achilles’ heel had been uncovered and was duly attacked by a variety of canny opponents.
To their credit, City have moved to correct the weakness. Bravo’s much-heralded arrival had initially pushed fan-favourite Hart out to Torino on loan. He subsequently went to West Ham, where he is still trying manfully to shore up his battered reputation. That Bravo is still with the club comes about as a result of the impasse with Hart. He’s been relegated to second choice by the expensive acquisition of Ederson from Benfica and has witnessed a sturdy and reliable start by his new Brazilian teammate.
The calmness and authority that was so obviously missing last season as Bravo’s confidence ebbed away like the evening tide is now there for all to see. After opening matches with little to do at Brighton and at home to Everton, Ederson found himself in the thick of a truly crazy game at Bournemouth, which required maximum concentration and huge agility to help his side to the most hard-earned three points.
That his concentration did not waver was one thing. That he was able — when called upon — to pull off the kind of elastic saves that seemed to be beyond his predecessor bodes well for the future.
Having proved his worth for Benfica in 2016 against Guardiola’s Bayern Munich squad in the Champions League, Ederson simply has to keep doing what he did in those two closely fought quarterfinal matches: race from his goal, pass accurately and confidently to feet and launch searing counter-attacks with incredibly accurate drop kicks to the wings.
If he can do all of this at City, those 15 extra points — exactly the margin City finished behind champions Chelsea last year — might just make all the difference for his new club.
Simon is one of ESPN FC’s Manchester City bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @bifana_bifana.