The 2020-21 season effectively highlighted the significance of goalkeepers and defenders in a side with the majority of the top five European leagues being dominated by defensive teams.
Lille's historic Ligue 1 win was built around an impenetrable defense, with Les Dogues conceding the fewest number of goals in the entire continent. Atletico Madrid seconded this hypothesis as Diego Simeone's side romped to their 11th La Liga title on the back of Jan Oblak and Co.
Best goalkeepers of the 2020-21 season, statistically
The aforementioned Slovenian shot-stopper claimed the Zamora Trophy for the fifth time in his career, by keeping 18 clean sheets in La Liga last season. In England, Manchester City's Ederson was awarded the Golden Glove for his 19 clean sheets.
Peter Gulacsi and Mike Maignan won similar awards for keeping 15 and 21 clean sheets in the Bundesliga and Ligue 1, respectively. Samir Handanovic and Gianluigi Donnarumma shared the spoils in Serie A, with both goalkeepers amassing 14 clean sheets last season.
On the continental stage, Champions League winner Edouard Mendy managed an impressive nine clean sheets in his debut season with Chelsea. Dinamo Zagreb's Dominik Livakovic and title-winning Villareal's Geronimo Rulli were responsible for keeping the highest number of clean sheets in the Europa League. Neither of them conceded a goal in six games.
Although goalkeepers are primarily entrusted with keeping the ball out of the net, modern football has ushered in a revolution. Many goalkeepers across Europe are now comfortable playing out from the back to help their team's cause. In this segment, we profile the five best goalkeepers with the best ball distribution in the world right now:
#5 Emiliano Martinez (Aston Villa and Argentina)
Emiliano Martinez has experienced a meteoric rise to prominence, shining for both club and country last season. The Argentine goalkeeper was instrumental in Aston Villa's respectable 11th place finish and topped it off by carrying his national side to Copa America glory.
Martinez kept four clean sheets throughout the competition, famously making three consecutive saves in the penalty shootout against Colombia to send Argentina to the final. The 28-year-old shot-stopper was named the tournament's best goalkeeper for his heroics.
In a career-altering transfer, Martinez decided to swap Arsenal's bench for a starting birth at Villa Park on the back of a brilliant FA Cup win. The Independiente graduate dazzled the footballing world in his debut season with the Lions, keeping an admirable 15 clean sheets. Moreover, his 29.8 passes per game ranked him ninth in the Premier League amongst goalkeepers last season.
Adept in creating decent chances from his spot between the sticks, Martinez provided 7 meticulous long balls per game in the 2021-22 season. His precise delivery and sublime range easily qualify him as one of the best distributors of the ball.
#4 Marc-André ter Stegen (Barcelona and Germany)
A long-time heir to Manuel Neuer's throne as Germany's number one, Marc-André ter Stegen has been a consistent performer for Barcelona over the past few seasons. The 29-year-old goalkeeper was signed by the Blaugrana in 2014 for a bargain rate of €12m. Ter Stegen has been nothing short of a revelation for Barcelona, going on to play 278 games for the Catalan giants.
The German goalkeeper offers much more than your average shot-stopper. In addition to his superb reflexes and astute range, Ter Stegen is excellent with his feet. His ball-playing ability is on-par with a hoard of outfield players and is often responsible for dispatching some of the most exquisite passes in the game.
The former Borussia Mönchengladbach goalkeeper famously concluded the 2019-20 La Liga campaign with two beautiful assists to his name.
In what is considered to be a below par season according to his ridiculously high standards, Ter Stegen averaged 2.5 saves per game, almost identical to Zamora Trophy winner Jan Oblak.
However, the most interesting aspect of the German's game was his pinpoint ball distribution. Ter Stegen laid out a decent 4.6 accurate long balls per game last season but, unlike the rest of his competition, managed to balance it out by only giving the ball away 3.4 times in a game.
Barcelona are soaring headfirst into some uncharted territories in this post-Messi era and will require as much stability as they can muster. In Ter Stegen, the Blaugrana not only have one of the best goalkeepers in the world, but also a specialist in passing.