Ever-ready, rock-steady Sergio Romero
For the majority of Manchester United’s serene progress through the 2019/20 Europa League tournament, Sergio Romero was between the sticks, resuming his ongoing connection with this competition.
The Reds’ first-leg meeting with LASK in Austria may have taken place against unfamiliar opponents in a then wholly unique setting – our first ever behind-closed-doors fixture – but the 33-year-old stopper was a familiar face in goal for his seventh Europa League appearance of the season, and his 21st in total for United in this competition.
Romero’s subsequent shut-out in the Linzer Stadium was his 39th clean sheet in his 58th game for the club, providing just the latest instalment in an astonishing concessions record which outstrips every other goalkeeper in the club’s history. While Nick Culkin and Paul Rachubka can boast unblemished records of keeping goal for the Reds without ever conceding, their combined playing time of 104 first-team minutes render the duo statistical anomalies.
Despite playing with varying regularity in the last five seasons, Romero had kept clean sheets in almost exactly two-thirds of his games [before Wednesday's 2-1 second-leg win]. By comparison, for all the custodians in United’s history, only Edwin van der Sar and Roy Carroll were able to top clean sheets in just over half of their games.
The Argentinian’s record is impressive, especially coming in a supporting role to David De Gea, the man regarded by many – including United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – as the world’s best stopper. “It’s not easy,” Romero admitted late last year.“But I work every day for this chance to play, and then I am ready when it comes. I work hard, and I am at the best club in the world. I said I wanted to play for United one day when I was younger, and now I worked to get my chance.”
Back in February 2016, Romero marked his first outing in the Europa League for United with a world-class save to claw away Paul Onuachu’s header for Midtjylland and, although the Danes sprung an upset that evening with a 2-1 home win, Romero has gone unbeaten in his subsequent 20 ties in this competition, enjoying 16 wins and four draws. His 14 clean sheets in those 21 games perfectly mirrors his overall record for the Reds and, for senior goalkeeping coach Richard Hartis, the numbers are a product of Romero’s meticulous preparation.
“He’s obviously an experienced goalkeeper,” says Hartis. “He’s an international goalkeeper who has played in a World Cup final. I’ve found him to be extremely hard working. Very robust emotionally. He turns up to work every day and looks to better himself. Even now, at 33, he’s looking to make improvements to some fundamentals of his game, which is really refreshing.
“Good players adapt, so as players get a little bit older and the body slows down a little bit, the brain speeds up more. Sergio’s showing that adaptability. His thirst for knowledge means that he wants to come and see his clips after training, after the games, he’s still striving to improve, to be the best he can be. What that does is, for him, it gives him that level of consistency around his performance.
"He doesn't have big swings in readiness. He’s able to be ready, which is a skill in itself.
“He’s a very professional guy,” continues Hartis. "He takes his work seriously. I think since I’ve been back here he’s only missed one training session, so he’s on the grass, doing what’s asked of him, every single day. His mentality fits in with the other top keepers that I’ve had the opportunity to work with. Edwin van der Sar was like that. Sergio fits in with an elite-level goalkeeper.”
While the fundamental role of a goalkeeper remains the same – keep the round thing out of the net – Hartis concedes that the specifications of the position have evolved in tandem with football’s wider trends, putting greater demands on Romero and his fellow custodians to be ingrained in the collective’s approach to any given fixture.
“Now, teams attack with 11 and defend with 11,” says the coach, who spent 10 years at the Reds between 2000 and 2010 before rejoining for a second stint last summer. “The keepers are more integrated into the build phase, how you break the press. They have to understand how the opposition are pressing, they have to understand where their optimal support positions are, and the strengths of the players, as footballers, who they’re playing with. The out-of-possession game hasn’t changed that much other than maybe the balls are a little bit quicker and the players are a little bit quicker.
“Also the referee now, with VAR, has an effect, and many of these things are evolving. Good goalkeepers have to affect the game out of possession. They have to get a team playing when others can’t and save things that others can’t. That’s what goalkeepers here do. If you look at Sergio tactically, he’s very astute, so he processes lots of information very quickly with the game to help his decision-making, in the same way that David does.
“Experienced goalkeepers do that. They’ve got this big bank of knowledge that they can access and so when he’s asking questions about the opposition and how they press, that process becomes quite streamlined because he’s asking the really good questions that helps him get to what he needs to know really quickly. When we have the conversations around being either in or out of possession, the tactical requirements, Sergio picks it up really quickly because of his experience.”
That mentality underpins and facilitates Romero’s ability to adapt to an ever-revolving set of circumstances around his every appearance. In his Reds career, he has already faced 42 different clubs – one more than Fabien Barthez opposed in 139 appearances. But unfamiliarity isn’t just restricted to opponents; in his 60 outings, Sergio has played behind 53 different starting defensive combinations, and hasn’t had the same defence in successive games since both legs of the 2017 Europa League semi-final against Celta Vigo.
For that, Hartis is keen to share credit around. “I think that’s testament to the adaptability of the players – not just Sergio, but the players that he’s playing with,” he says. “I think it’s a testament to how the teams are prepared. To put a group of people on to the pitch who know their jobs is a sign of good leadership, good coaching, clear game-plans, clear understanding of the players and the players having a high ability to process that information quickly and be able to act on it. You need that if you’re going to play here because we don’t get a lot of preparation time for games.”
For an added dash of roulette, Romero had never played more than four successive games in the same competition until the midweek outing against LASK; a variable which has a considerable bearing for all players, but none more than goalkeepers. “The balls that we play with vary from competition to competition, so you have to have that adaptability,” says Hartis. “It might sound like a small thing, but the balls move in different ways, so being able to adjust from one ball to the next is a skill. It depends what you’re doing with them. Some of the balls move more quickly in the air than others, some of them will move quite violently when they’re struck at pace at the goal, and they vary with our schedule. You might only have a couple of days to prep with that particular ball, so that ability to adapt is very helpful for him to prep for those games. His adaptability and his mentality are reflected in the numbers that he puts up when he’s represented the football club.”
The goalposts may not be moving, but all around them is. Except, of course, for Sergio Romero; ever-ready and rock-steady.
This article first appeared in United Review, the official matchday programme.
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