Cast your minds back to this time last year, and for all Chelsea’s headline-grabbing signings such as Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas, the main talking point at Stamford Bridge focused on the goalkeeping situation.
For good reason: the man who had been between the sticks for over a decade, forming the last line of defence for one of the meanest back fours in Premier League history, was on the verge of losing his place.
Putting the pressure on the great Petr Cech was his young understudy, Thibaut Courtois, the 22-year-old who had performed so impressively on loan at Atletico Madrid, including a Champions League semi-final win against his parent club. Courtois had already established himself as Belgium’s number one – now was his time to do the same at club level.
One year on, and with Cech now reluctantly allowed to join rivals Arsenal, Courtois finds himself in the reverse position: he is now the number one, the direct target of his understudy, and those in the media.
David James is someone who knows a thing or two about the pressures that come with the gloves, and he became the first high-profile pundit to take aim, claiming that Courtois’ age could result in a drop of form that could jeopardise his place.
Speaking on behalf of BT Sport, James said: “Courtois won the league and didn’t concede that many goals, but he didn’t have the sort of season you’d associate with his seasons prior to that when he was at Atletico Madrid.
“I couldn’t wait for him to come to the Premier League and thought Cech’s record of only conceding 15 goals in a season would be under threat. But it didn’t transpire like that. Last season maybe it was new to him but he’s going to have to improve this season otherwise (Asmir) Begovic will have an opportunity to really fight for that position.”
Of course there is an argument to say that James’ criticism is unduly harsh. A goalkeeper who conceded only 30 goals, kept 12 clean sheets, made 75 saves and who finished a champion might well be considered beyond reproach.
But a closer look at the stats suggest that James, who registered a Premier League record 170 clean sheets, might be onto something when claiming that Courtois doesn’t yet compare to Cech (who is on 168), and that Mourinho may well give Begovic his chance at some point during the season.
Just twice in Cech’s ten seasons at Chelsea before being displaced by Courtois did he register only 12 clean sheets or under. In fact, in his first season when he was the same age as Courtois is now, Cech turn in a Premier League record of 24 clean sheets. Even Cech’s final season as Chelsea number one saw him keep more clean sheets (16), concede fewer goals (24) and make more saves (82) than in Courtois’ first campaign.
But while there can be little argument that Courtois has a way to go to usurp his predecessor in the top-flight stats department, what about the new man reaching for his crown?
While Asmir Begovic can’t be expected to compete in clean sheets given his Premier League appearances have been in the colours of Portsmouth and Stoke respectively, his five recent years as Potters number one do suggest that Courtois has a fight on his hands.
His last five seasons average eight clean sheets, 37 goals conceded and a whopping 98 saves per campaign. Impressive for a Stoke team whose highest Premier League finish in that time is ninth place.
Begovic’s age, at 28-years-old, is widely accepted to be a time when a goalkeeper is at his peak, and should Courtois’ comparative youth result in a form dip – with James citing Joe Hart as a prime example of this being the case – then the odds of 17/20 for Courtois to play under 35.5 league games for Chelsea this season could well reward those who side with the stats, not to mention the Premier League’s clean sheet king.