Real Madrid’s 2019-2020 season’s incredible defensive effort saw the club only concede 25 goals in the domestic league on their way to securing the club’s 34th La Liga title. While it was inevitable that the players wouldn’t be able to replicate that impeccable defensive record again, very few people expected the considerable drop-off in defensive quality that has ensued this season (Real Madrid have conceded 37 goals in 37 matches in all competitions). Granted, the club have struggled mightily with injuries, especially to key defensive players like Sergio Ramos, Dani Carvajal, and Fede Valverde, and the heavy congestion of fixtures due to the late start of the season (as well as playing in multiple competitions) has fatigued the squad greatly.
One player however, hasn’t seen a dip in his quality since last season: Thibaut Courtois. While the Belgian shot-stopper had a rough start to his second stint in Madrid, he’s grown to become one of Los Blancos’ most reliable players. He was excellent last season, being a key factor in the club’s incredible defensive record, and this season he’s saved the club from embarrassment more than once with his top-notch goalkeeping abilities.
As can be seen in the graphic above, Courtois has ranked above the average for all La Liga goalkeepers this season in terms of Post-Shot Expected Goals (PSxG). For those who are unfamiliar with the metric, Post-Shot Expected Goals evaluates the probability that a shot goes in, factoring in the goalkeeper’s chance of saving the shot. Real Madrid (and Thibaut Courtois specifically) have been expected to concede 23.7 goals in their 28 La Liga matches this season. However, Courtois has only conceded 23, proving that the Belgian has performed better than he statistically should have by almost one goal.
While this may not may not seem like much of an over-performance, it has great underlying meaning. As can be seen in the above visual, there are only a few goalkeepers that have been better than Courtois in terms of PSxG this season- Jan Oblak, who no one can deny has had the season of a lifetime, Marc Andre ter Stegen, who has been good, but was injured at the start of the season and his numbers are skewed in a positive direction due to playing less matches, and Ebiar’s Marko Dmitrovic, who has quietly had a class season. The fact that Courtois is still performing at a consistently high level despite Real Madrid’s defensive shortcomings this season proves how good he really is.
If you missed my last article (check it out here), I discussed Real Madrid’s set piece dominance this season. A huge reason for that has been Thibaut Courtois. Courtois uses his 6’7’’ frame to win 8.5% of the crosses that enter his penalty area, a relatively high number considering the other ball-winners that he has in his defense, like Sergio Ramos, Raphael Varane, and Casemiro. His penalty box presence has been a big reason that Real Madrid have only conceded 6 goals from crossing set pieces this season, two being from free kicks and four from corners.
When it comes to penalty kicks, Courtois has seen some improvement from last season, while the rest of the team hasn’t. Real Madrid have conceded nine penalties this season (up from 4 last season), and Courtois has saved two of them (a 22.2% save rate, the highest of any season in his career). Last season, Courtois only faced two of the four penalties that Real Madrid conceded, and he failed to save either of them.
In possession, there are a few interesting trends that deserve some discussion. First, in each season at Real Madrid, Courtois has progressively gotten more touches on the ball than he did in the season prior. This season he’s averaged 36.4 touches per match, up from 33.9 in the 2019/20 season and 32.7 in the 2018/19 season (interestingly enough, he only averaged 32.3 touches each match in his last season at Chelsea). He’s also completed more short-range passes this season, 16.0 per match, and he’s completing short passes at a higher rate than ever before (99.8%). He’s also attempting more longer passes (14.0) this season, and he’s completing them at a much higher rate (54.7%) than he has in previous seasons in Madrid (up from 45.8% last season).
This increase in both the volume of passes he’s attempting and the rate that he’s completing them is very telling to how important he is to this Real Madrid side, and how he’s adjusting to the new trend of goalkeepers being sound in possession. Florentino Perez didn’t buy Courtois back in the summer of 2018 with his ball-playing skills in mind, but it’s reassuring to see these small improvements in his possession-based play each year from Thibaut.
There’s only been one issue with Courtois’ increased time on the ball this season; he’s made more errors in possession. In all competitions this season, Courtois has made five errors that have led to opponent shots, up from only two last season (and he didn’t make any errors in his first season in Madrid). Courtois has been known to make the occasional misplaced pass or take too long on the ball, and you can guarantee at least one moment each match from Courtois that’ll make you hold your breath as an opponent chases him around the penalty area with the ball at his feet, or someone comes very close to blocking one of his clearances.
While this season hasn’t been perfect by any stretch for Real Madrid, one can’t argue that Thibaut Courtois has been anything short of monumental for Los Blancos. His shot-stopping abilities are amongst the best in the world, and his improvements in his possession play are looking quite promising. While he might not have gotten off on the best foot in Madrid, he has grown to become one of the most important players in Real Madrid’s squad.