By Matt Jones
During Roberto Martinez’s Everton tenure, there weren’t many times the club’s fanbase were longing for Tim Howard between the sticks. But the FA Cup quarter-final tie with Arsenal on March 8, 2014 was one.
Joel Robles, the Toffees’ cup ‘keeper at the time, stepped in that day and in the first period, was in close proximity to the 9,000 travelling Evertonians who had packed out one end of the Emirates Stadium. It was an uncomfortable 45 minutes for them all.
The Spaniard was hesitant, clumsy and distracted, his afternoon epitomised by a skewed punch onto his own bar from Bacary Sagna’s cross. It was the kind of gaffe that gets etched into the memory of those in attendance.
Although the ‘keeper could do little about any of the goals conceded in a subsequent 4-1 loss, Joel was written off by plenty that day, with some degree of credence. Fast forward three years, the 26-year-old has done his utmost to prove those naysayers wrong.
On reflection, perhaps it’s not a huge surprise. Robles comes from a strong goalkeeping background, learning his trade at Atletico Madrid and considered a genuine competitor to David De Gea, arguably the best in his position on the planet at Manchester United, and Sergio Asenjo, the proud protector of the best defensive record in La Liga with Villarreal at the time of writing.
When De Gea departed, Robles was set to become first choice at the Vicente Calderon, but a certain Thibaut Courtois joined on loan from Chelsea and he was usurped. The following season he moved to Wigan on loan, shone to help the Latics win the FA Cup and followed Martinez to Everton.
Inconsistencies like those aforementioned blighted his rare appearances under the Catalan, at least until he was given the gloves on a long-term basis last season in place of a toiling Howard. And just as his blossoming begun, Ronald Koeman arrived and instilled Maarten Stekelenburg as his first choice.
Robles was forced to wait once again. But after replacing the Dutch international in the loss to Liverpool, he has grasped his latest chance wholeheartedly.
After another commanding performance in the 0-0 draw against Middlesbrough in inclement conditions at the Riverside Stadium—his fifth clean sheet in 10 league starts—the debate about Robles’ status at Everton is reaching a crescendo. Is the long-term goalkeeper fans have called for on their books after all?
It’s difficult to say with certainty exactly what a goalkeeper is, especially in comparison to other positions on the pitch. A No. 1 for a side like Everton, pushing to be involved in the top four shakeup, and a side lower down the table require completely different credentials.
As Everton progress, the hope is the man between the posts will have less to do and while that may sounds like a preferable situation for a stopper, it brings its own challenges.
Goalkeepers who have shone this season for modest sides—Tom Heaton at Burnley and Jordan Pickford at Sunderland, for example—have been busy. Yet if there were lulls in their involvement would they be so attuned to danger? Are they adept at springing into life sporadically?
That trait is what separates the goalkeeping elite from the bourgeoisie. De Gea, Gianluigi Buffon and Manuel Neuer can go hours, even weeks, without being seriously tested. Yet they’re perennially alert.
As things stand, Everton don’t really need, nor could they attract, a goalkeeper of such calibre. They require a hybrid of the two to fill the posts at Goodison Park as they seek to make a step forward. Joel is a man that’s beginning to tick more and more of those boxes.
Since he started on Boxing Day against Leicester City, statistically he’s shone. Per Squawka, no stopper has kept more clean sheets in that time, while his claim success rate is perfect. Overall, while he’s only averaged 2.10 saves per game, he makes three stops for every goal against him, better than De Gea (2.10), Courtois (2.47) and Hugo Lloris (2.56).
There have been some critical saves among them too. At Palace, a low parry from Scott Dann with the scores level proved vital, with Everton pushing on to win the game. Against AFC Bournemouth, Robles sprung to his right to keep out what would have been an equalising strike from Harry Arter.
In the tussle with Stoke City, the Spaniard kept Everton in the game at 1-0 down. And at Boro, his grab from Rudy Gestede’s thunderous header was enough to earn the Toffees a dogged draw. All, theoretically, were point-winning contributions.
There’s added extras too. Joel is always looking to distribute quickly, is authoritative in his organisation of the defence and sharp off his line; not to mention speedy is in his pursuit to join celebrations at the other end of the pitch.
In terms of commanding his area, he continues to grow in confidence too, helping alleviate pressure by utilising his rangy somatotype to full effect, plucking crosses out of the air almost impudently. It’s arguably the most impressive segment of his game and for a player who was so lost under the high ball at Arsenal almost three years ago, it’s testament to his willingness to learn and improve.
Given those early struggles and the doubts implanted in the psyche of Evertonians, it feels like an enormous leap to anoint Robles as the club’s No. 1. Yet based solely on the level of his recent displays, not to mention the gradual progression he continues to make, those who feel Joel is ready can say so with increasing conviction.