It is one of the ironies of this Premier League season that Aston Villa will turn up at Manchester United tomorrow night without a clean sheet in 17 matches – the worst run of any top-flight club – yet also with arguably the division's best-performing goalkeeper between their posts.
"Going to be a hot one!" was Brad Guzan's tweet on the opening day of the campaign, and it has certainly been that and more for the American international who, playing in front of a young, error-prone Villa defence, has made more saves than any other Premier League custodian – 200 to date this season, with doubtless a few more to follow at Old Trafford tomorrow.
Relegation-threatened Villa may have leaked a club-record 60 Premier League goals already, but without Guzan it could have been far worse, as anyone who witnessed his trio of world-class saves in last month's crucial win over relegation rivals QPR would testify. It cannot have been easy, not least that dismal December afternoon when Chelsea put eight goals past him, and it begs the question of how his form and confidence have survived a season spent in the line of fire.
"As a goalkeeper it's so important to be mentally strong," he explains. "For a goalkeeper you have to have a short memory. Whether you play good or bad you have to be able to put it behind you very quickly, especially in a game.
"You may face a save in the first minute, the second minute, the third; they may just come straight back at you, one after another. You have to be able to put that behind you. If they've scored one, the mentality has to be, 'Don't let them score two', and if they've scored two, 'Don't let them score three'."
Guzan's efforts have been all the more impressive given that his previous four campaigns with Villa yielded just eight League appearances. He had looked set for pastures new when his contract ended last summer but, instead, the newly installed Paul Lambert persuaded him to return and sign a new deal, promising his chance would come. He duly replaced Shay Given after Villa's second game, and has not looked back.
"It was important to be playing first-team football," reflects the 28-year-old Chicago native. "It was a long wait [and] to have the chance to play week in, week out has been fantastic, but the next thing on the list is to pick up enough points."
Brad Friedel, his compatriot and former Villa team-mate, spoke recently of Guzan's sheer physical strength and courage, and the need for these qualities in a goalkeeper was underlined this week by the spectacle of David De Gea, the Manchester United goalkeeper, being flattened by a flying Andy Carroll at Upton Park. Guzan does not share Sir Alex Ferguson's view that Carroll's challenge warranted a red card, but has sympathy for De Gea.
"You saw what went on in the Man Utd v West Ham game [with] the shirt-pulling, the blocks, the pushing, shoving, stepping on toes," he says. "It all goes on during set-plays and corners. It's about seeing what you can get away with and pushing the line." The dirty tricks on goalkeepers do not end there either, Guzan explains. "You get jabs around the mid-section and below the belt. You try to fight it off but sometimes it's not nice. You just try to get on with it and hope the ref sees it."
The burly Guzan looks better equipped to handle the rough stuff than most, and takes a philosophical stance, arguing that referees generally do "a good job". He adds: "There are people who will say goalkeepers are protected too much; if you are on the wrong end, you will say we need more. It's a case-by-case situation.
"It is a physical position – you have to be brave, strong, commanding, and make your presence felt. You have to be able to deal with crosses, with balls in the box. There will be times when you come and clean out the striker and there will be times when you are lying flat on your back and seeing stars. You have to be able to dust yourself off and go again."
That has been the story of Villa's season, yet Guzan believes their young defensive unit has improved – "They have definitely got stronger, physically, mentally" – and finds further cause for optimism in the form of striker Christian Benteke, a PFA Young Player of the Year nominee. The Belgian memorably left Chris Smalling in a heap on the floor when setting up Villa's first goal in their 3-2 home loss to United in November, and Guzan warns that his physical presence could unsettle United, and De Gea, again tomorrow night. "Christian is a handful [with] his ability in the air; he is strong, a force to be reckoned with. For opposition goalkeepers you have to be aware of that threat."
Not that Benteke would dare to bother Guzan on the training ground. "Never, he knows better – he knows he will get a right hook!" laughs a man who has learned to roll with the punches.
Guzan: A blank check
Villa last kept a clean sheet, against Stoke, on 8 December last year, though Guzan did achieve shut-outs for the US in World Cup qualifiers against Costa Rica and Mexico last month – the first in a Denver blizzard, the second in the heat of Mexico City's Azteca Stadium.Reuse content