FC Barcelona’s Marc-André ter Stegen has become one of the best goalkeepers in world football. Although he may have grown up in the Lower Rhine, his offensive and daring style of play makes it seem like he’d never played anywhere else except at the Catalan club. That is what’s behind his place in the Germany national side. We trace his journey to Barcelona ahead of Friday night’s friendly against Spain.
Back in the summer of 2014, there were doubters in Barcelona back when young German Marc-André ter Stegen was announced as the club’s new goalkeeper. In their recent history, Barcelona had had issues when signing goalkeepers from abroad as exemplified by the likes of Portugal’s Vítor Baía and Turkey’s Rüştü Reçber. At the time, only La Masia graduates Andoni Zubizarreta and Víctor Valdés had been successful behind the sticks at the Camp Nou as goalkeepers tended to have a rather thankless job in Barcelona’s aggressive, attack-minded system – often being left the sole keeper of the gate.
Four years on, the doubters have been silenced. The only question being asked nowadays in Barcelona about ter Stegen is whether the 25-year-old is one of the best goalkeepers in the world – if not the very best of them all.
However, this success story wasn’t written overnight and was as result of the meticulous eye for detail possessed by player and club alike. Searching for a replacement for Valdés, Zubizarreta (now in the role of sporting director) had ten different scouts look at ter Stegen at Mönchengladbach over a period of several years. They all came to the same conclusion: rarely had a player been so well-equipped to join a club with such a distinctive style and philosophy as Barcelona than ter Stegen. The goalkeeper pestered Zubizarreta with questions, took a keen interest in the club’s culture and mentality and began learning Spanish before moving to Barcelona himself. He also prepared himself for the change from a footballing perspective. He respects his heritage and the imperturbable self-confidence it has given him that his Spanish colleagues label ‘typically German’ yet he relates to his fellow goalkeepers like he was born a stone’s throw away from Barcelona’s infamous academy himself.
Marc-André’s capacity to play at the highest level was evident from the start of his time in Catalonia. Barcelona stalwarts such as Messi and, then captain, Xavi raved about his ability to distribute with both feet. Therefore, it was all the more frustrating for ter Stegen to only feature for Barcelona in cup competitions in his first two seasons. While ter Stegen was in goal for their victorious 2015 UEFA Champions League campaign, veteran Claudio Bravo - purchased in the same summer – was continually preferred in the league. Eventually, in the summer of 2016, the club made its decision on the future of the two goalkeepers and opted for ter Stegen.
Since then, the 25-year-old has been the undisputed number one at the club in spite of the purchase of the now Netherlands’ national team goalkeeper, Jasper Cillessen. With the security of his spot behind him, his progression has not only continued but accelerated as a player at club and international level. Ter Stegen was part of last summer’s victorious Confed Cup squad and, throughout the tournament, his presence in between the sticks helped Die Mannschaft progress. Aside from his shot-stopping skills, ter Stegen also possesses unrivalled ability with the ball at his feet. His confidence and assured nature with the ball eases pressure on not only his defence but the whole team and make him an even more exceptional goalkeeper.
In Spain, the 25-year-old has received plaudits for his impressive reflexes and, in the media, has been likened to a handball player due to his imposing build. This is something which Barcelona’s staff particularly cherish. While the goalkeeper may have little to do for large parts of the game due to his side controlling possession and the team’s ability to prevent potential counter-attacks in the opposition’s half with their tactical high press, when the other team do break through Barcelona’s ranks, they often have space in behind Barcelona’s high defensive line. Therefore, the few chances teams do create against Barcelona can be threatening ones and are often one-on-one situations – a battle between ter Stegen and the opposing forward. “You have to be ready for that,” said ter Stegen to El País. “The most important thing for a goalkeeper at this club isn’t your head or your hands for that matter, but your head,” he added.
A slot behind the high line of Barcelona’s defence in the intense environment of the Camp Nou would be a nerve-wracking one for most goalkeepers but ter Stegen is capable of dealing with it. He opts to close the gap by positioning himself further up the field himself and becomes an extra body for the defence to pass to when in possession, using his distributive capabilities to launch attacks himself. You can hear the crowd’s admiration when one of his inch-perfect passes lands directly on the toe of one of his teammates.
In Barcelona, they believe they’ve found their goalkeeper for the next decade and ter Stegen is happy where he is. He speaks excellent Spanish and has moved into the city centre with his partner. Zubizarreta played in goal at the Camp Nou for eight years, Valdés eleven. With time on his side, Ter Stegen could surpass them both.