Real Madrid: Thibaut Courtois deserves better from his defense

Real Madrid, Thibaut Courtois (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
Real Madrid, Thibaut Courtois (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images) /

Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois has been very good this season, but you wouldn’t know it based on the basic statistics.

Last season, Real Madrid won their 34th La Liga title behind an elite defense. Not a single defense in Europe’s top five leagues allowed fewer total goals. Raphael Varane and Sergio Ramos were at their absolute best down the stretch of the season, and you could not find a better fullback duo in European football than Dani Carvajal and Ferland Mendy.

But the real star of the show was Thibaut Courtois. The Zamora Trophy winner, Courtois had one of the greatest seasons by a Real Madrid goalkeeper in history. He made saves that most keepers could only dream of stopping, finishing La Liga as the leader in save percentage and clean sheet percentage. And he performed at this level after many fans wondered if he could even lose the starting job to Alphonse Areola!

Courtois proved every doubter wrong last season, and there were a lot of reasonable doubts after his dreadful 2018-2019 season and poor start to 2019-2020. In the end, Courtois had an even better season than Atletico Madrid’s Jan Oblak, which might be the highest possible praise a La Liga goalkeeper can receive. Because Oblak might be the best keeper in the entire world.

The Belgian isn’t among La Liga’s leaders in the 2020-2021 season, though. He is outside the top 10 in goals allowed per 90 minutes, 8th in clean sheet percentage, and 7th in save percentage. Courtois’ numbers are above the league average, but they are below the word-class standard he set in 2019-2020.

Thibaut Courtois has kept Real Madrid in some tight games this season

Yet when you watch Real Madrid matches, you don’t notice any drop-off in Courtois’ play this season. At the start of 2020-2021, he made the same outstanding saves that he did last season, keeping Real in some matches. They surely would not have kept a clean sheet against Levante without Courtois in goal, and while the club allowed two goals to Real Betis, they won at the Benito Villamarin because of a few of Courtois’ top-drawer stops. And who can forget how he robbed Alexander Isak on Matchday 1?

The reality is that Courtois has been excellent, but his defense has not. That’s why Courtois ranks higher in save percentage than he does in goals allowed per 90. He and Elche’s Edgar Badia are the only goalkeepers in La Liga with a save percentage of at least 75 percent to play on teams allowing more than one goal per 90 minutes, according to

Out of any statistic, that specific one speaks volumes about the difference in quality between Courtois and the defense. Ferland Mendy and Sergio Ramos have played well this season, but just about everyone else has been below their standard. Dani Carvajal’s injury at right back certainly hasn’t helped matters for Courtois.

The loss to Valencia at the Mestalla summed up a lot of Real’s defense problems. Errors from Marcelo and Lucas Vazquez on the flanks. Uncharacteristically sub-standard play from Raphael Varane. Three penalties allowed. Individual errors. Little defensive help from the midfield. Bad giveaways making the back four look worse than they are. Courtois’ goal exposed.

Next. Real Madrid Quarter-Season Report Card for Sergio Ramos. dark

It will take a team effort to solve Real’s issues on both ends of the pitch, and the lack of defending as a team has been a surprising concern. But amidst all the issues, at least Real Madrid fans can say that their goalkeeper continues to perform at a high level. He just needs his defenders to do a lot better by him when club football returns after the November international break.