Goalkeeper awards 2021-22: Best shot-stopper, most improved, breakout star and more

(Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Is it pre-season already?

From the sights and smells of new jerseys to the pings of hourly transfer updates, the off-season leading up to the 2022-23 season is well underway. But as excited as I am for the new season, I'm not quite ready to let go of 2021-22 just yet. It was entertaining and bonkers, from the Premier League title race coming down to the last day to Real Madrid relying on comeback after comeback (and some Thibaut Courtois magic) to claim yet another UEFA Champions League title.

Not to mention all of the ridiculous individual achievements, from Karim Benzema and Robert Lewandowski's scoring exploits to Kevin De Bruyne bossing things in Manchester City's midfield.

But before the new season kicks off, I want to take one last look at the goalkeepers and dish out some awards for the men between the sticks. 2021-22 showcased some of the finest goalkeeper performances in the world, and it's time those goalkeepers get their due beyond the standard Goalkeeper of the Season awards normally given to the guy with the most clean sheets.

From honouring the best 1-v-1 goalkeeper to highlighting the new faces breaking in, here are my awards for the 2021-22 season.

All stats pulled from FBref.com.

The You Shall Not Pass award, for best shot-stopper: Jose Sa

It would've been a tall ask for most goalkeepers to replace Wolverhampton Wanderers fan favourite Rui Patrício, but Jose Sa sure made it look easy. The 29-year-old goalkeeper was among Europe's top goalkeepers in 2021-22, particularly when it came to shot-stopping.

Across the top five European Leagues, Sa ranked eighth in saves made (120), second in save percentage (79.3%) and second in goals saved above expected (+9.2). He's the only goalkeeper from the big five leagues to make a top-10 appearance in all three of those shot-stopping stats.

But the stats don't tell the whole story. From his quick thinking in split-second situations to the way he moved his feet in order to set up his saves, Sa was as close to unbeatable as any goalkeeper got last season.

Honourable mention: Thibaut Courtois

The Face-To-Face award, for best 1-v-1 goalkeeper: Alisson Becker

1-v-1s are supposed to be advantageous for attackers. But for Alisson Becker, the odds are normally in his favour.

For anyone who's been following the Brazilian this season, it's no secret why he's the world's top 1-v-1 goalkeeper. He times his sweeps to perfection, choosing when to rush out (when an opponent takes a heavy touch, for example) and when to stay put (when the ball is close to their feet) with such ease and speed that it's as if the world moves in slow motion for him.

Alisson has also mastered various 1-v-1 techniques, from the block, with one knee up, the other leg down to prevent nutmegs, and arms low; to his own combination, the spread-smother, which sees him drop a knee to the ground and spread his arms out to prevent players from rounding him, but keep his head and chest up to form a barrier against a shot.

According to some advanced stats, Alisson saved more than eight goals last season during 1-v-1s, nearly double as much as the next best Premier League goalkeeper. When it comes to 1-v-1s, Alisson is clearly in a class of his own.

Honourable mention: Illan Meslier

The Nice To Sweep You award, for best sweeper: Manuel Riemann

Football fans are accustomed to a German goalkeeper named Manuel being the world's best sweeper-keeper. But in this case, my award isn't going to Manuel Neuer -- it's going to Manuel Riemann of VfL Bochum. In 31 Bundesliga games last season, the 33-year-old performed 62 defensive actions outside of his penalty area -- one of only three goalkeepers in the top European leagues to eclipse the 60-mark. On average he performed two defensive actions per game, the most in the big five leagues.

Riemann's success comes down to a few traits he borrowed from Neuer. For one, he often had a high starting position, which allowed him to get a head start on his sweeps. He's also comfortable playing outside of his 18-yard box; Riemann's average position when performing defensive actions was around 18.4 yards away from his goal line, the second farthest in Europe behind Neuer. And like Neuer, he had the smarts to know when to challenge an attack and when to drop back to his line, which limited his errors.

The Bundesliga is no stranger to sweeper-keepers, and with Bochum living to see another season in the top flight, expect more successful Riemann sweeps next season.

Honourable mention: Nick Pope

The How May I Assist You? award for best passer: Ederson Moraes

Of all the awards in this piece, this is the one I went back and forth the most on, between Ederson Moraes and Alisson Becker.

Between the two Brazilian goalkeepers, I'd argue that Ederson is the more complete passer. Per WhoScored, Ederson was the only Premier League starting goalkeeper who completed more than 50% of all the long balls he attempted last season (he completed 59.3% of those passes, per WhoScored). He also completed 99.0% of all the short passes he attempted in the Premier League last season, which isn't far off of Alisson's mark of 99.2%.

But the stats don't tell the whole story -- watching Ederson pass the ball with accuracy and composure is like watching art in motion. Unlike most goalkeepers who tend to excel in one part of passing, (short passes, long passes or a specific type of pass), Ederson does not have an apparent weakness, strength or area of focus.

Watch any Ederson passing compilation and you can see how complete his skill set is from delivering short passes and long balls, distributing from goal kicks, and not losing his focus when an opponent is closing him down.

The emotions I feel watching Ederson play each pass with such poise and accuracy are the same emotions I felt watching Manuel Neuer revolutionize sweeper-keeping for the first time -- and 2021-22 was no different.

Honourable mention: Alisson Becker

The Don't Count Me Out award, for most improved goalkeeper: David de Gea

This is a controversial pick for some, given that David de Gea hasn't improved much (if at all) from a modern goalkeeping perspective (sweeping, catching crosses, and playing passes). But De Gea has always been more a pure shot-stopper, and after a few average (if not underwhelming) seasons in that regard, I think we finally saw the old De Gea -- the quick-reacting shot-stopper adept with both his hands and feet -- again last season.

From a statistical perspective, there's a pretty clear improvement in his shot-stopping. After three seasons in which he averaged 0.1 goals saved above average twice and never exceeded a mark of plus-2.1, De Gea saved 6.7 goals above expected last season, a mark just 1.8 goals shy of his incredible 2017-18 mark of plus-8.5. His save percentage also improved, jumping from a 67.1% mark in 2020-21 to 69.5% last season. This, despite facing about 1.33 more shots per game and having to make about one save more per appearance.

But for me, the biggest sign of improvement is how comfortable he looked making saves again. He was playing on the balls of his feet, his movement was swift, and he effortlessly switched between different techniques and stances when the time called for it. He even saved three non-shootout penalties, something he hadn't done in years.

Some doubters may still have questions about his effectiveness in other aspects, but from a pure shot-stopping perspective, it felt like the old De Gea was back last season.

Honourable mention: Alexander Nübel

The Oldie But Goldie award, for best over-35 goalkeeper: Lukasz Fabianski

It's generally accepted that the average goalkeeper retires later than the average outfielder. Despite that, it doesn't make the top-level performances of goalkeepers like 37-year-old Lukasz Fabianski any less impressive.

Fabianski has been a consistent performer for West Ham United since he joined the club in 2018, and 2021-22 was no different. He was the third-oldest goalkeeper to make a Premier League appearance last season and was among the league's leaders in saves made (105, seventh) and goals saved above expected (plus-4.0, sixth). He also saved a higher percentage of non-shootout penalties (60%) than every other goalkeeper in the big five leagues.

Fabianski's durability and explosiveness are key reasons he's still a reliable goalkeeper at his age. He's made 37 or more appearances nearly every season since turning 30 in 2015; and his explosiveness, powered by his arm swing and mastery of the power step, allows him to spring into the air with speed and height not usually expected of veteran goalkeepers.

Honourable mention: Claudio Bravo

The Future Is Now award, for best U-23 goalkeeper: Luis Maximiano

Last season, only six U-23 goalkeepers made 30 or more appearances in the big five European leagues -- and while it's hard to argue against Robert Sanchez being the best of them, I think former Granada goalkeeper Luis Maximiano is a worthy recipient of this award.

The Portuguese goalkeeper faced 170 shots last season (second among U-23 goalkeepers, behind only Illan Meslier) -- and turned aside 121 of them. It was the most saves by a LaLiga goalkeeper last season.

Even with the heavy workload, Maximiano still maintained a decent save percentage of 71.2% (slightly less than Sanchez's and Aaron Ramsdale's tallies), and saved 5.3 goals above expected, the third most among all LaLiga goalkeepers and the ninth most among goalkeepers in the big five leagues.

Despite his efforts, Maximiano wasn't able to prevent Granada from being relegated, but it did earn him a €10.5m move to Lazio, where he's set to become the club's No. 1 goalkeeper after Thomas Strakosha and Pepe Reina's departures.

Honourable mention: Robert Sanchez

My Time Is Now award, for breakout star: Stefan Ortega

There was a point in time when new Manchester City signing Stefan Ortega seemed destined to stay stuck in Germany's lower leagues. Prior to winning the 2.Bundesliga title with Arminia Bielefeld in 2020, Ortega had spent the first nine seasons of his career in the 3.Liga and the 2.Bundesliga. But once he got a taste of first-division football following Bielefeld's promotion, he never looked back.

After a successful 2020-21 season that saw his Bielefeld survive relegation, Ortega's performances hit another level in 2021-22. He made more saves than any other Bundesliga goalkeeper (124), kept the second-highest save percentage in the league, and saved more goals above expected than all but three of the big five leagues' goalkeepers (plus-7.4 goals saved above expected).

Ortega has garnered comparisons to Keylor Navas to his cat-like reactions and agility, which he showed in the past against the likes of Bayern Munich and VfL Wolfsburg. That's good news for Manchester City, who will likely rely on those same qualities during their domestic cup runs.

Honourable mention: Alex Remiro