Gianluigi Buffon has dominated in goal for the Italian national team for twenty years. Until he retired from international duties in 2018, there was practically no room for another goalkeeper unless he was injured. But, just as Buffon was approaching the end of his career in the National team, another young goalkeeper with the same name emerged with arrogance: Gianluigi Donnarumma. Donnarumma's precocious talent earned him the role of AC Milan's starting goalkeeper in 2015/16 before he was 17 years old. His debut in the National Team came as a result in 2016 and as soon as Buffon decided to say enough, for Luigi Di Biagio first and Roberto Mancini after there was no doubt about who should be the legendary goalkeeper's heir. Good performances in the 15 games with the Azzurri jersey have cemented his place. In the meantime, however, the decline of Milan, especially during this season and the emergence of other Italian goalkeepers, young and less young, also allow us to question his position. Should we expect another twenty years of domination between the posts from another Gianluigi, or will there be opportunities for other goalkeepers, too?
To answer the question, I used StatsBomb data to examine the performance of the main Italian goalkeepers this season. Alex Meret (22), Napoli
After alternating with David Ospina during the past season, Alex Meret has earned the trust of Carlo Ancelotti, becoming the undisputed owner of Napoli’s goal. Meret, who is two years older than Donnarumma, joined from Udinese last season, for a reported fee of €35 million, after two years on loan at SPAL. He has already been called up to the National Team multiple times (starting in 2016), but he has not yet had the opportunity to make his debut with Italy. Napoli’s season is not going according to plans and things could go sideways anytime, but their goalkeeper is not the one to point your finger at. Although Meret is not having an amazing season, his performances are consistent with expectations. So far, he saved 0.12 goals above average in total (0.01 per 90), a metric obtained by subtracting the number of goals conceded form the total post-shot expected goals of non-penalty shots on target faced, good enough for 14th best goalkeeper in the league among those with at least 600 minutes played. Meret also saved one penalty out of the three he faced, so accounting for that, the total number of goals saved above average increases to 0.80. That's a decent output so far, but far from the highs of last season, when he saved 4.27 goals above average or 0.30 per 90 minutes, penalties excluded. A decline that may also have been due to the increase in the average quality of the shots on target he faced, which rose to 0.294 xG on average (+22.5% compared to 2018/19). StatsBomb collect also Positioning Errors, a metric that measures how far from the optimal position for facing a shot the Goalkeeper is on average. In this regard, Meret has been one of the best in the league during his young Serie A career: his 1.53 PErr is an elite value and good enough for top-6 in Italy. Claims or CCAA%, a stylistic metric that describes how likely the Goalkeeper is to attempt to claim a claimable pass, versus the average Goalkeeper Attempted Claim Rate, tell us Meret is not more aggressive than the average goalkeeper when it comes to claims. Meret is the goalkeeper who plays the fewest long balls in the league (3.78 per 90) and whose pass length is the shortest in the league (29.59) and from his radar, when can also say he is confident when distributing the ball short and will pass to team-mates under pressure as Napoli tend to build up from the back in order to drag opponents out of position and open space to make the play progress. That's an attitude that makes him really suitable for the brand of football that Roberto Mancini established within the national side.
Salvatore Sirigu (32), Torino
Torino’s goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu, 12 years older than Donnarumma and 9 years younger than Buffon, seems destined to be the second-choice goalkeeper of the National team for the totality of his career. But, Torino's strong 2018-19 season could launch him and put him in serious competition with the goalkeeper of Milan, especially given that a good portion of their surprisingly successful campaign depended on his saves. Sirigu conceded 35 non-penalty goals in 2018-19, saving an astonishing 8.68 goals above average (0.24 per 90), the second-best total in the league, topped just by Alessio Cragno (9.93 GSAA), who himself would be under consideration for this list if he was fit. He also saved two out of four penalties, raising the total to almost 10 goals saved above average (9.58). This season his team is doing worse, but the ex-Paris Saint Germain goalie has kept his excellent form averaging an even better 0.32 GSAA per 90 and a save percentage of 79% (3% higher than last season). In terms of positioning errors, he is as good as Meret, but while Napoli’s keeper barely plays the long ball, Sirigu is the keeper who attempts it the most (9.59 per 90), with a success rate of 53% (4th in the league). His distribution style could be a point against him, but Sirigu does have experience playing in a possession-based team while at PSG and he is a proven reliable goalkeeper of a caliber that would be starting for many, if not most, European national teams.
Pierluigi Gollini (24), Atalanta
This is the third full season at Atalanta for Pierluigi Gollini, but the first in which he is the undisputed owner of the first choice mantle in goal. Gian Piero Gasperini and the board of Atalanta decided to hand him the job this summer, and they certainly have no reason to regret that decision. Indeed, Etrit Berisha, who Gollini split time with last season, performed worse than the average keeper last season, while Gollini has rewarded the faith shown in him this year by saving 1.36 goals above average since being handed the full time job. He has faced fewer shots on target than Meret and Sirigu, but the average xG per shot of the ones he has faced is way higher at 0.36. That explains why despite his 68% save percentage being the lowest in the league, he's on this list. Given the shots he's faced, an average keeper would only be making saves 64% of the time. In comparison to the other two keepers examined, he is more aggressive on claims, but still ranks just 10th in the league in CCAA%. What really stands out is his goalkeeping aggressive distance, which measures how far from the goal the keeper is coming to perform defensive actions. Only Donnarumma performs his actions further from goal than Gollini, emphasizing that not only is Gollini playing in a system that encourages the keeper to be aggressive, but that he is not scared of leaving the posts to perform sweeper keeper actions. Another number related to his modern interpretation of the role is his passing percentage under pressure, 71%, the highest among Italian goalkeepers in the league this season. For comparison, Meret completes just 52% of his pressured passes. Gollini isn't simply focused on short distribution either as he attempts 6.13 long balls, while his average pass length is 39.49. Gollini is currently an outsider for the national team job, as he still has yet to debut with the “Maglia Azzurra”. He is probably ranked fourth in Mancini’s preferences, but due to his steady improvement and the modern traits of his style could be a serious candidate to feature the future international competitions.
Gianluigi Donnarumma (20), AC Milan
Last but not least is the goalkeeper who is currently the starter of the Italian National Team, Gianluigi Donnarumma. It is impressive to think that at just 20 years old he already has 185 appearances with AC Milan, and has been their top choice in goals since 2015-16. What stands out immediately from his radar is how Donnarumma has performed so far this season exactly like the average goalkeeper: he conceded 14 non-penalty goals from a post-shot xG of 13.96. However, he's also added two penalty saves, which increases the total to 0.93 GSAA, penalties included. Last season he saved 5.07 GSAA, and his average of 0.16 per 90 was the 5th best in the league among keepers with 1800 minutes played. In a season where everything is going wrong for AC Milan, Donnarumma remains one of the few bright spots. While it's true shot stopping is arguably the most important quality of a goalkeeper, Donnarumma has been elite in every other goalkeeper metric. His impressive physical presence and athleticism means he can show impressive confidence when it comes to claiming the ball: he has a CCAA of 11% the highest value among goalkeepers in the top-5 European leagues. He has also developed sweeper-keeper’s attitudes with just Ederson Moraes and Roman Bürki performing defensive action further from their goal than him in all Europe. He plays 6.87 long balls per 90, with an average pass length of 36.25., but he plays more open play passes than Gollini and Meret on average (19.41, 18.40 and 17.45, respectively). Despite the volume, his passing choices are often safe as he passes the ball into danger less than one time out of ten times. Concerning his passing, it is interesting to highlight how his positive outcome score is the highest of the goalkeepers analyzed meaning that the possessions he is involved in tend to be valuable for the team. By definition, a positive outcome is recorded when any of the following events happening within 20 seconds of a goalkeeper's pass (for that GK's team): free kicks earned in the attacking half, corner kicks earned, shots attempted, and penalties earned. Probably this won't be his career season in terms of shot stopping, but at 20, Donnarumma is the best and most complete goalkeeper in Serie A along with Wojciech Szczęsny. That's why he's the first choice of the National team, ahead of two excellent young goalkeepers like Meret and Gollini, both older than him but with less experience in terms of games played. The only one who could challenge his status is Sirigu, who has more caps than him and is clearly the best shot-stopper of the league over the last year, but for the next twenty years, the goalkeeper of the national team could continue to be named Gianluigi. Header image courtesy of the Press Association