Thibaut Courtois is the best young goalkeeper in the world. At just 21 he has already spent two years starting for Atletico Madrid, where he is on loan from Chelsea; a spell that has seen him break the La Liga record for minutes without conceding and this season on the back of his 20 clean sheets, saw the club lift the Copa Del Rey and secure a Champions League berth. The old flimsy, flaky Atletico defence is long gone, in no small part due to the enormous impact of Courtois.
But Chelsea have a problem. A good problem, one that will be the envy of almost every other team in the world, but a problem nonetheless. The issue is that their own goalkeeper, Petr Cech, has just enjoyed his best season in years and is still only 31. By normal football lore, this is the time goalkeepers are supposed to have their best years. Like Courtois, Cech arrived as a wonderkid goalkeeper but faced only the obstacle of the good, not great, Carlo Cudicini, so he was put straight in. The club bought Courtois as a 19-year-old prospect who they believed they could prepare the take over from Cech a few years down the line, perhaps they even had next summer in mind when they bought him. However, things have gone so well for both Courtois and Cech that they are faced with a decision they probably didn’t expect to make so quickly.
Remember, in 2011 when the club signed Courtois, Cech’s future was being questioned. He wasn’t the dominant figure of the Jose Mourinho years and there was a feeling he may have been on the downward slope. Perhaps because of the signing of Courtois, Cech has raised his game manifestly since. They also were probably not expecting that Courtois would get so good so quickly, forcing himself in to the equation. They want to keep the Belgian because in two years time he could be the best in the world, but they want to keep Cech because he is already near that level.
In terms of whether Courtois is ready to start for Chelsea, the answer is yes. However, at this stage he and Cech are pretty much level pegging in terms of ability. Both are tall with incredible reflexes, which means they can make saves others can’t, both have phenomenal penalty box presence and command and both are good distributors. The advantage Cech has is experience and leadership. The Chelsea defence is in transition post-Terry and neither Gary Cahill or David Luiz are defensive leaders. They need Cech to organise them and keep them in shape.
At Atletico, Courtois has been playing behind a defence which has an average age of 28, comprised of four internationals. He has been able to develop his goalkeeping techniques and qualities without the added concern of organising the defence. This is a similar situation to Cech’s own start at Chelsea as he had the pairing of Terry and Ricardo Carvalho in front, who didn’t need him to focus on them.
With this in mind, it would be best for Courtois to stay on loan for maybe another two years. He can return as a four-year starter, confident in his own game, and it gives Chelsea a chance to settle on a defence. It wouldn’t be optimum team-building strategy to put the whole defence in transition and sling in a young goalkeeper. Of course, he is playing in the Champions League for a top La Liga side so it is wonderful experience for him anyway.
The final consideration that makes Atletico his best home for the next couple of years is the expected new Chelsea manager, Jose Mourinho. Mourinho builds his teams from the defence out and prefers more experience, and having worked with Cech so successfully will surely favour him initially.
Courtois will be Chelsea’s goalkeeper in a couple of years and should be one of the best in the world by that point. Adding him in to a defence that has worked under Mourinho for two years previously is the best possible thing to do for Chelsea and Courtois.