A few months ago, I surmised that, despite the enduring drama of deadline day, Keylor Navas’ demeanor would allow him to thrive. Admittedly I felt quite proud of myself during the first weeks of the season as he proved me right, but even I didn’t expect Navas to reach his current heights.
At the current rate, the Costa Rican’s end of season “best saves” compilation may win the director an Oscar.
In just two short months, Navas has emerged from a relative afterthought in what seemed to be an inevitable De Gea deal to the talk of the footballing world for his seemingly miraculous ability to keep the ball out of the net. A friend of mine has resorted to calling him “Lord and Saver,” a moniker befitting of the very religious goalkeeper, but what he’s become more than anything is the hero of the Bernabeu. From makeweight on Aug. 31st to “Mr. Save” less than two months later, calling it a fairytale story would be doing Navas a disservice. His performances have been very real, and he’s earned every ounce of praise he’s gotten this season.
There’s been this false narrative being bandied about regarding Madrid’s improved defense under Rafa Benitez. Yes, Casemiro’s introduction into the center of the park has given Madrid a true ball winner, and Raphael Varane’s full-time insertion into the starting lineup is paying dividends, but it wouldn’t be amiss to say that Madrid’s defensive record this season could almost wholly be attributed to Navas’ performance in goal. And it’s backed up by the statistics as well.
On current form, Navas is a prime example of how much confidence can affect a player on the pitch. Like most keepers, Navas possesses a sort of mean streak when he plays. He tends to be overly aggressive at times, but he’s somehow able to temper this with pragmatism as well.
Above all he’s decisive, Navas’ decision-making is so swift that he’s often a step ahead of his defenders at times. Dashing off his line like a one man wrecking crew, he often appears at the doorstep of forwards before they can even look up at the goal, as he did below to thwart Granada forward Youseff El-Arabi:
It’s taken a lot to beat Navas this season, something that’s only happened three times in nine games. Sabin Merino’s well-executed header was caused by a quick break and a defense error from Pepe. Against Atletico, a mix up in defense lead to a late Luciano Vietto goal after right back Alvaro Arbeloa lost his man on the wing. And this past weekend, it took a wonder strike from La Liga’s player of the season so far, Nolito, to beat the Costa Rican.
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Sandwiched in between those three goals has been a series of spellbinding saves from Navas, who’s spared Madrid’s blushes time and time again.
Frankly, no one should be really surprised by Navas’ performances this season. It’s reminiscent of what he did the last time he started a full season, a couple years ago at Levante. Navas was properly awarded as the “Best Goalkeeper in La Liga” that season, beating out then Atletico keeper Thibaut Courtious. But it was only at the 2014 FIFA World Cup when the world started to take notice.
Last year, in his brief appearances, Navas appeared timid and understandably out of form. Most of the time he was hardly called upon to do anything of note but it was clear he wasn’t up to his usual level. It all culminated in this uncharacteristic error near the end of last season.
This called into question his preparedness. It’s one thing to be an all-action keeper for relegation fodder, where every save is almost surprising in the sense that the expectations of the fans, the club, and the board are already so muted that almost anything good is seen as a positive. Performing for a club as massive as Madrid is completely the opposite. Every miniscule decision is viewed through a telescopic lens, dissected, over-analyzed and cataloged. It’s an entirely different experience.
And it tends to manifest itself on the pitch as well. Keeping one’s focus when your team dominates for the majority of the match is an under-appreciated skill. It’s far easier to remain active when you are being peppered with shots for 90 minutes, yet Keylor has managed to succeed in both environments. Navas’ ability to maintain his focus amid not only the transition to a bigger team but with the weight of the entire transfer window on his back has been remarkable.
The proof has been clear this season. With adequate match practice in addition to the support of his teammates and the coaching staff, Navas has excelled. But in many ways his performance this campaign is also due in large part to a low-profile hire by Madrid earlier this year.
Back in June, as part of Rafa Benitez’s plan to revamp the Madrid backroom, the club hired Luis Llopis to be the Director of Goalkeepers for the entire Madrid Academy. Llopis worked extensively with Navas at Levante UD during Navas’ breakout season, and his training methods are generally revered around the league. In fact, just a cursory look at his nuanced and unorthodox sessions give excellent insight into how Navas has honed his shot-stopping ability. Not one to stick to the book, Llopis loves to employ a series of props and obstacles designed to mimic real life situations in the box.
These ricochets and deflections in training help make Navas more prepared for the unpredictability of a matchday. Needless to say, it’s been working.
Unsurprisingly, rumors emerged this morning from Marca that a new deal may be on the cards, despite the fact that Florentino Perez may still have De Gea on his mind. The particulars that make the De Gea transfer appealing for Perez haven’t changed – he’s young, he’s world class and perhaps most importantly he’s Spanish.
But life is built upon changed plans, and few have ever adapted as well as Navas. He’s forced the hand of the one of the most ruthless presidents in the sport, winning over a city in the process.