Scouting the Top Four Options to Replace Keylor Navas at Real Madrid

LISBON, PORTUGAL - NOVEMBER 21: Real Madrid's head coach Zinedine Zidane from France during the Real Madrid Press Conference before the UEFA Champions League match between Sporting CP and Real Madrid at Estadio Jose Alvalade on November 21, 2016 in Lisbon, Portugal. (Photo by Gualter Fatia/Getty Images)
LISBON, PORTUGAL - NOVEMBER 21: Real Madrid's head coach Zinedine Zidane from France during the Real Madrid Press Conference before the UEFA Champions League match between Sporting CP and Real Madrid at Estadio Jose Alvalade on November 21, 2016 in Lisbon, Portugal. (Photo by Gualter Fatia/Getty Images) /
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Thibaut Courtois

Photo by Kieran Galvin/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Photo by Kieran Galvin/NurPhoto via Getty Images) /

Perhaps the second-most likely choice for Navas’ replacement lies in Chelsea’s Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois. Madrid fans may be haunted by memories of Courtois from his time at cross-town rivals Atletico Madrid, where he was named Man of the Match in Atleti’s victory over Real in the 2013 Copa Del Rey Final.

Courtois went on to guide Atletico Madrid to a league championship the following season (2013-2014), claiming the Ricardo Zamora Trophy for the lowest goals-to-game ratio in back to back seasons.

Contract extension talks between Courtois and his London club have reportedly been put on hold, sparking further rumors that Courtois might be Madrid-bound in the summer. There are rumors afoot that Chelsea are looking to replace their want-away striker Diego Costa with Madrid’s Alvaro Morata, and might be open to a swap.

Real Madrid aren’t the only ones infatuated with Courtois, as he has also recently become the titular subject of a Belgian pop-song:


Real Madrid could enjoy a number of benefits from signing Courtois to replace Navas. First, there is his age. At only 24 years of age, Courtois is still very young for a keeper, and has a lot of time left operating at the highest levels of football.

However, his relatively young age does not demonstrate a lack of experience, as Courtois already has a substantial CV, having played in domestic cup finals, Champions League finals, and having won league titles both in La Liga and the EPL. Real Madrid would gain a keeper who has been winning trophies at the highest levels for years, and stands to continue to do so for the better part of the next decade.

Courtois is a shot-stopping machine who also has no problem physically commanding his area. At 6’6’’, he comes in at nearly two inches taller than David de Gea, an inch taller than Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and just an inch shorter than walking man-mountain Peter Crouch.

When you add an enormous wing span and a composed demeanor, that makes Courtois, in the words of We Aint Got No History’s Graham MacAree, “probably the best in the world at cutting off crosses.”

Rob Swan describes Courtois as “calmness personified,” writing that the keeper “oozes calmness and his defenders know they can trust him 100 per cent to make the right decisions.” Real Madrid could certainly use a level-head at the back to balance out the passionate but rarely-calm forces in their back line like Sergio Ramos.


Courtois has certainly produced some impressive clean sheet figures, but it should be remembered that he has always thrived in systems that were already prone to stifle opponents’ offensive production like Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid or Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea. There are serious questions whether he would be able to reproduce his success with Madrid’s less-than-stable backline.

At the age of 24, Courtois is still learning how to lead from the back. He suffers from occasional problems with communication, and while being able to physically command his penalty era, he often is less successful at organizing the defensive players within it.

It was a communicative breakdown in the back line which cost Courtois’ Belgium in their loss against Italy. Additionally, Mourinho once cited Petr Cech’s “mental focus” and ability “to communicate to the team” in his decision to bench Courtois in a crucial league match against Everton.

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  • Typically, this doesn’t matter, as Courtois can compensate for his communicative flaws with sheer physical prowess, imposing himself on the box in lieu of organizing the defense. Additionally, Courtois has usually been able to delegate the duties of organizing the back line to vocal center back leaders like Diego Godin, or John Terry.

    However, in less organized systems, such as Chelsea’s leaky setup under Antonio Conte before switching to their now-rampant 3-at-the-back system, Courtois is prone to getting pulled out of position. We can observe this flaw in the highlights from Arsenal’s 3-0 thrashing that precipitated Conte’s tactical switch.

    Another weakness that has previously been identified in Courtois’ game is his distribution. An excellent article from goalkeeping analysis blog View From the Crossbar (herein, VFTCB) argues Courois’ biggest weakness is his distribution, especially when playing the ball from the ground:

    "But if [Bayern Munich’s Manuel] Neuer’s accuracy with the ball on the deck is what sets him apart then for Thibaut Courtois it is his Achilles heel. For all Courtois’s dominance in the air and shot stopping ability he’s never been truly comfortable with distribution. In particular from his feet."

    Comparing Courtois’ distribution to that of other top EPL keepers at the time (October 2014), VFTCB (using the Squawka Player Comparison Matrix), found that Courtois’ had, on average, a much longer average length of pass (43.89 m), and a lower pass completion accuracy (60%).

    From this data, VFTCB concludes that either, A: “Courtois has been told to miss out the Chelsea back four when distributing the ball and aim primarily for the midfield,” or, B: “Mourinho doesn’t have confidence in Courtois’s ability to go short.”

    (Photo by Kieran Galvin/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
    (Photo by Kieran Galvin/NurPhoto via Getty Images) /

    Another good thing about Courtois being young is that he is still learning and improving all the time. And it seems as if his play with his feet is one area that he’s been seeking to improve. In an interview with Sky Sports’ Adam Bate, Courtois discusses how he worked on improving his footwork as he identified it as an area of his game that needs improvement: “My footwork was something I had to improve and I’ve focused on that. In every aspect you have to look for perfection.”

    In the same interview, Courtois points out how working in Conte’s 3-at-the-back system has forced him to improve his passing at his feet: “I’ve played a lot with the team and my passing is now much better… I’m more confident and I’m trying to play. It helps as they play fast so you have to adapt to their rhythm. Then you get better with your feet as well.” It looks like his footwork is indeed improving, given the fancy tricks he’s pulling on Diego Costa in training (see tweet below).

    Courtois’ focused effort at improving his footwork and distribution is paying dividends. Compare, for example, his distribution figures above to the ones in the below chart comparing all of the keepers in this article, also generated from Squawka:

    Courtois’ average pass length this season has gone way down, and his accuracy has gone way up. If these are the metrics by which VFTCB concludes that Courtois’ needs to work on his distribution at the feet, then it’s safe to say he’s been heeding that advice.

    Desirability (1-10):

    10 –  If I had my way, Real Madrid would go all-in on Thibaut Courtois. He is a young, intelligent, composed player with title-winning experience whose skills are evenly balanced between shot-stopping and commanding the box. If he can continue to improve on his communication, organization, distribution, and footwork, Courtois could be one of, if not the best goalkeeper in the world for the next five to ten years.

    Likelihood (1-10):

    8 – If Real Madrid cannot land their white whale in de Gea, they will almost certainly make Courtois their next target. Some British tabloids like The Sun claim that Real Madrid have already made signing Courtois their top priority over the likes of de Gea, and that Courtois is “already planning his summer move to Real Madrid.”

    I am highly skeptical of this claim. Overtures in the press such as these always recur whenever contract talks are delayed. I believe that Perez is more likely to go for the Spanish starlet, although if that falls through, expect Courtois to be next on Perez’ list.