Five goal-less draws on a single Sunday afternoon in Serie A were enough to provoke panic among some observers—”Help! The goals have disappeared” ran the headline in Gazzetta dello Sport—and boredom for many others. But for a select group it must have meant sheer footballing ecstasy.
Nil-nil is the perfect result, because it shows total equilibrium between the attack and defence of the two teams on the pitch, declared the great pre-war player and post-war manager Annibale Frossi once upon a time. The sentiment was later famously echoed by Gianni Brera, the journalist who, more than any other individual, helped to create and define the entire language of football in Italy.
Samir Handanovic might not share such beliefs, but like most goalkeepers he wont be too sad as long as one team fail to get on the scoresheet. And nobody did more to preserve a stalemate this Sunday at the Stadio Atleti Azzurri DItalia. Having already displayed great bravery to deny Atalantas Ezequiel Schelotto in the first half, the Udinese goalkeeper showed off his superlative reflexes to first push a Federico Peluso daisy-cutter round the post and then block a close range header from Simone Tiribocchi in the second.
It is becoming a familiar story. In six league games this season, Handanovic has been beaten only once by a Stephan El Shaarawy strike for Milan in mid-September. An Udinese team who became renowned last season for their swashbuckling approach and sometimes reckless commitment to attacking football are instead this year establishing themselves as the hardest team to score against in the division.
Not that Handanovic himself really understands what all the fuss is about. “The goalkeeper is there to make saves. If not, what is he there to do?” he shrugged after the game against Atalanta. In the face of such humility, others were forced to speak on his behalf. “He is the best goalkeeper in Europe,” said the Atalanta coach Stefano Colantuono. “His save from Tiribocchi was worth a goal.”
Of course, he has been doing this for some time. Last season Handanovic became famous for his penalty-stopping antics, with a record-breaking six saved in Serie A over the course of the campaign, but he has always hated being described as a situational specialist. “I feel like a complete goalkeeper, I dont want to be categorised like that,” he protested. While everyone focused on his penalty record, far less was written about the fact that from 5 February to 20 March he went a league-best 704 minutes without conceding a goal of any variety.
A lean but powerful 6ft 4in, Handanovic possesses many of the same qualities as his idol, Gigi Buffon. He makes no bones about the fact that he modelled his game after that of the Juventus goalkeeper. “For me he represents the latest evolution of goalkeepers as a species,” says Handanovic. “He played tall when nobody else was doing it, and he was smart with his feet when many of us were still finding that a problem. There are many little details to his game that are now standard, but which before him few were doing.”
The man who signed Handanovic for Udinese, Pierpaolo Marino—now the general director at Atalanta—suggested on Sunday that the player was already playing at the same level as Buffon. He was certainly acquired for a far more modest fee. While Buffon admittedly already performing by that stage at a world class level set Juventus back more than £30m, Handanovic was acquired by Marino from Slovenias NK Domzale in 2004 for just £40,000.
From there it was a familiar tale for anyone acquainted with the Udinese business model. Handanovic was loaned out to Treviso, then Lazio, then Rimini to gain experience, with his only disappointing experience coming at the former dropped after conceding three goals in his first six games and never reinstated. The following season, at Rimini, he was widely acknowledged as the second-best goalkeeper in Serie B behind Buffon himself. In 2007-08, following the departure of Morgan De Sanctis to Sevilla, his chance at Udinese arrived; Handanovic has never looked back since.
But as everyone knows, the Udinese model also relies on moving players on once they have achieved a sufficient market value. When Corriere della Sera described the goalkeeper as the new Alexis Sánchez yesterday, the implication was double. Barring a sudden downturn in form, Handanovic already looks set to be this summers most high-profile departure. “How many points is Handanovic worth each season? Fifteen? Twenty?” pondered Sebastiano Vernazza in yesterdays Gazzetta dello Sport. “And how much money is he worth? 15m? 20m? In June we will find out.”
In the end the fee will likely depend on which teams are in need of a goalkeeper come next summer, but that he will depart seems overwhelmingly likely. Gino Pozzo, son of the club’s owner Giampaolo, would say only after the game against Atalanta that the club did not intend to sell any big players in the January window. Departures in June are an inevitable necessity for a club who rely so heavily on sales to balance their books. Handanovic will not be allowed to leave on the cheap, though. Two years ago a bid of £10m was rejected from Bayern Munich, and the player is under contract to 2016.
That may come as scant consolation to a fanbase for whom any success is invariably tinged by the knowledge that the key protagonists will not be around to sustain it past the end of a given campaign. But if Udinese are unbeaten after six top-flight games for the first time in their history then that has to do with a lot more than just a goalkeeper. Indeed, as good as Handanovic has been, he is hardly the only reason for their defensive record.
While all the focus was on Sánchez this summer, Udinese also lost their most reliable centre-back in Cristin Zapata and yet their back line has looked if anything more stable than ever. Danilo, acquired from Palmeiras in the summer, has slotted seamlessly into Zapata’s spot in the heart of the Udinese defence, while Dusan Basta has been similarly impressive at wing-back since returning to the side after a full season lost to injury. Their back-ups, too, have impressed when called upon.
In fact, if Udinese fans should fear losing anyone in the summer it might not be a player but the manager Francesco Guidolin. The man who led his team from zero points after four games to a spot in the Champions League qualifiers, reinventing Sánchez along the way, was not dealt an easy set of cards this summer, losing not only his most creative forward and his best centre-back but also his most reliable midfielder in Gokhan Inler. Yet rather than indulge in self-pity, he simply kept working, reshaping last season’s 3-4-3 into a 3-5-1-1 that best takes advantage of the present squad.
While Handanovic will certainly not be easily replaced, the club at least have a man in mind—Zeljko Brkic, a 25-year-old Serbian keeper signed from Vojvodina in the summer and loaned out immediately to Siena, where he has already collected three clean sheets in six appearances. Sadly for Udinese, there is not yet a precedent for developing the next great coaching prospects in a similar manner.