FootballPremier League

Alisson Becker: How a world record fee turned into a bargain in no time at all

February 12, 2020

WHO doesn’t love a sliding doors moment? What could have been different, and how things might have changed if an alternative decision had been made, or a random factor had gone another way.

Around football we do it all the time; trying to measure the impact of players, managers or moments. Some cases are more compelling than others. For Liverpool there is an example that many may now have forgotten: the signing of Alisson Becker from Roma.

At £67million, then a world-record fee for a goalkeeper, Alisson is often talked about as a “no brainer” – as Liverpool just paying the money, getting the best and reaping the benefits. Yet it could have all been so different.

First, there was the small matter of nosing ahead of Real Madrid and Chelsea, two clubs who were both in the market for an international-class goalkeeper in the summer of 2018. Real had just beaten Liverpool in the Champions League, thanks in no small part to the performance of Loris Karius.

After it became obvious in pre-season that Karius could not be rehabilitated at Liverpool after the devastating mistakes of that Kiev final, it was clear the Reds needed to act fast. But at what price? Roma were all too aware of the interest in Alisson, and the eagerness of Liverpool, Chelsea and Real to sign him. Initially, it seemed like a move to the Bernabeu was inevitable, with reports detailing agreed terms and a five-year deal.

Then, with a sky-high price tag also presenting a significant barrier, there was every chance Liverpool could have kicked off the season with Danny Ward, now back up at Leicester City, in goal. Yet those doors began to slide and suddenly a welcome mat for Alisson to step on to was rolled out at Anfield.

The 27-year-old Brazilian has since spoken of being made to feel more welcome by Liverpool in negotiations. And it was clear his will to make a move to Merseyside happen played a big part. Florentino Pérez, the president of Madrid, tried to grandstand around the fee – “For this price, Liverpool can buy him” – but there was clearly more to it. 

The eventual price toppled the £32.6m transfer record for a goalkeeper that Juventus paid Parma for Gianluigi Buffon in 2001 and the £35m Manchester City shelled out to tempt Ederson from Benfica in 2017.  And it left many pondering publicly whether Liverpool’s money men got it wrong.

Less than two years on, with 75 appearances for the Reds to his name, it looks like a bargain. Alisson has been nothing short of sensational, proving himself to be in the very top bracket of goalkeepers worldwide. This season’s title charge follows last season’s Champions League triumph, and Alisson has played a big part in both.

Everyone remembers his point-blank block to deny Arkadiusz Milik in the 89th minute of a must-win Champions League match with Napoli that Liverpool led 1-0 at the time. But among the heart-pumping glory of beating Barcelona 4-0 at Anfield – Trent Alexander Arnold’s corner, the goals from Divock Origi and Gini Wijnaldum – what of the five saves from Alisson, including two from ‘big chances’, which Opta says are “a situation where a player should reasonably be expected to score”?

And how about the final itself? Alisson made eight saves as Liverpool beat Spurs 2-0 in June – and a habit of performing to his best on the biggest of occasions has continued ever since. Alisson ended his debut season in the Premier League with the Golden Glove as a reward for 21 clean sheets. He also ended the campaign with an 80.1 per cent save success rate – the second highest in Europe’s top five leagues and bettered only by Atletico Madrid’s Jan Oblak. The Yashin Trophy and The Best FIFA Goalkeeper trophy quickly followed. 

This season, despite an injury on the opening day in the match against Norwich that forced him to miss seven league games, and a red card versus Brighton that resulted in a one-game suspension, no keeper has kept more clean sheets than Alisson in the Premier League. A counter-argument would be that the general brilliance of Liverpool’s defence, and Liverpool in general right now, is bound to help.

Yet a deeper dive into the statistics tells you he is a very special goalkeeper. Statsbomb rate Alisson as the best in the Premier League – and two of their metrics jump out for any remaining doubters. The first is goals saved above average, which calculates – given the quality of chance faced – how many goals a goalkeeper should concede. That is then compared to how many goals the keeper has actually conceded.

Allisson is top of the Premier League charts by some distance – with 11.3 per cent of his saves being over what he would be expected to stop. His nearest challenger on that score is Crystal Palace’s Vicente Guaita with 7.7 per cent. Another from Statsbomb is save percentage – the percentage of on-target shots that a goalkeeper saves. Again, it is Alisson leading the way with 87 per cent.

The careers of both Karius and Ward since the doors opened just the way Liverpool wanted them to in the summer of 2018 suggest a very different reality could have played out minus Alisson. And as for the argument that it was just about paying big money?

Just a short time after Alisson arrived, Chelsea broke the record goalkeeper transfer by forking out £71m for Kepa Arrizabalaga. He is currently ranked as the worst performing goalkeeper in the league using the Statsbomb metrics, conceding 5.5 per cent more goals than he would be expected to, and with a save percentage of on-target shots of only 59.4 per cent.

Whether it was luck, judgement, skill or a combination of all three, there will be absolutely no regrets around the signing of Alisson inside Anfield. And at Chelsea? Well perhaps they wish those doors had been sliding a different way when it came to Kepa.