Keylor Navas: Zidane’s last line of defence

Keylor Navas: A player who conflicts opinion but was a vital member of Zidane’s all-conquering Los Blancos side

In August 2015, just over a year after signing for Real Madrid from Levante, Keylor Navas was used as a makeweight in the prospective signing of David de Gea from Manchester United. The deal fell through, too late to be ratified by the respective English and Spanish leagues, so de Gea stayed in Manchester and Navas remained in Madrid. Since then, the Costa Rican keeper has won three UEFA Champions League titles and one La Liga title. Navas went from Iker Casillas’ understudy to Zinedine Zidane’s gallant last line of defence.

The failed transfer to Manchester United marked a critical turning point in Navas’ Real Madrid career, as he started the 2015/16 season under Rafa Benitez in stunning form. He had faced 113 shots in the first nine La Liga games, conceding just three. He saved two penalties and won Real points against Granada, Málaga, and Atheltic Bilbao. MARCA also wrote after his extraordinary display against Celta Vigo: “Navas does not save shots, he flies: he stopped a bullet from Orellana, a shot at point-blank range from Aspas, a missile from Hernández”.

Navas also drew adoration from Real personnel too, with Lucas Vázquez claiming his level was “spectacular”, and club legend Emilio Butragueño describing him as “sensational”, his saves “miraculous”. Navas also demonstrated a determination in training sessions that was outstanding as he worked his way into the first team where he remained for three consecutive seasons. Lowe wrote in the 2015/16 season that the keeper’s attention to detail was “striking”, stressing how Navas analyses his performances habitually, repeating his drills “endlessly”.

Why, then, was the jury out during Navas’ peak years? With Real Madrid linked with de Gea, Thibaut Courtois, and Kepa Arrizabalaga for so long, why was it that Florentino Perez was so insistent on Real signing a replacement for Navas?

Robbie Dunne argued, in May 2018 before Courtois’ £35 million move to Real last August, that the idea of Navas holding the jersey for its eventual rightful owner is “one of the greatest follies around”. Dunne also lauds Navas’s ability to “convince over and over again”, praising the keeper’s mentality when his position was deemed under threat numerous times at Real.

However, the idea that Navas is not the elite-level goalkeeper that Real Madrid perhaps need is not a “great folly” necessarily. If Real had signed de Gea, they would have been signing the best goalkeeper in the world, and Courtois is not far behind the Manchester United keeper. At 31 years of age, it would not be unreasonable to suggest that Real may have perceived that upgrading their goalkeeper position with de Gea or Courtois would be beneficial going forward. The club would recognise Navas’ fundamental importance to the team over the last four seasons and replace him with a goalkeeper enjoying the peak of their career.

In the same way that Navas put in some astonishing performances in Real’s run to the final in the Champions League last season in particular, the Costa Rican also made significant blunders. In the second leg of the quarter-final against Juventus at the Bernabéu, Navas failed to prevent The Old Lady’s second goal at his near post from Mario Mandžukić. Navas also made a calamitous mistake for Juve’s third goal on the night, dropping Douglas Costa’s cross from the right to allow Blaise Matuidi a simple finish from close range. Michael Searles for the Daily Mail wrote after the match that Navas is “no stranger to blunders” and “almost cost his side their third successive Champions League” against Juventus.

Furthermore, in Real’s first leg of the semi-final against Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena, Navas was solely to blame for Joshua Kimmich’s opening goal. Kimmich simply had to direct his shot at the centre of the Real goal to score because Navas got his positioning horribly wrong, perceiving that the German would cut the ball back across goal to the advancing Robert Lewandowski.

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After the domestic club season had finished, representing Costa Rica in a friendly against England at Elland Road, Navas could only watch as Marcus Rashford’s thundering strike from 30 yards out whistled into his right top corner. At half-time, Lee Dixon labelled Navas ‘the most overrated goalkeeper in world football’ in an unexpected attack on the Costa Rican. Upon closer inspection, it is clear that Rashford applied a dipping motion to the ball which would have had the likes of de Gea or Courtois equally flailing. The criticism against Navas is within Dixon’s rights as a pundit, but his claims were exaggerated in the same way he believes the keeper’s talents are.

Although Navas made some high profile errors last season, it would be totally fair to assert that his importance to the Real team was equally as pronounced. During the second half of Real’s away leg to Bayern in the Champions League last season, Navas made a stupendous save to deny David Alaba, whose shot took a substantial deflection of Raphael Varane’s hip, sending the ball flying towards the bottom corner, only for the keeper to reach out a strong right hand to rebuff the Austrian’s effort.

In the return leg at the Bernabéu, Navas’ protected Los Blancos‘ narrow lead marvellously and was the team’s saviour that night. Bayern centre-half Mats Hummels found space on the right of Real’s penalty area in the second period, unleashing a shot towards the bottom corner, only for Navas to launch himself across goal to preserve his side’s aggregate lead. Even better was Navas’ denial of Corentin Tolisso, who struck the ball into the ground and seemingly over the sprawling Real ‘keeper, who got his body down expertly to swat the Frenchman’s shot away from danger.

Despite the criticism that Navas has received during his time at Real Madrid, his devotion to the club is a pleasing aspect of his personal journey as a footballer when placed in the context of the signing of Courtois in August. Navas claimed at the time, “I have as much enthusiasm for leaving as I do for dying”, emphasising his personal commitment to Real despite his apparent displacement by the Belgian.

It is precisely Navas’ class during the summer that makes him a consummate professional off the pitch, as well as on it. Fighting for his position is not new for Navas, and he claimed in August that he has “never felt like an undisputed starter”, affirming:  “you have to win your place every day and train 100 per cent always”. Over four years on from Sid Lowe’s lauding of the Costa Rican’s excellent work ethic in training, the ‘keeper has demonstrated his enduring professionalism when it has perhaps not been reciprocated during his Real Madrid career. He has had to prove himself before and it may not be a surprise if he does it again at the highest level.

By Charlie Pritchard

Part of our Number Ones series

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