The Goalkeeper Situation at Olympiakos
Well, hello everyone! I’m very excited to be writing my first blog for the Gate 7 International Website. You probably won’t see too much writing on here from me; I do enough writing for my PhD as it is, and I don’t want to take too much away from the wonderful and creative blog team we have assembled here. But sometimes, when passion is sparked, I will drop in with a piece here and there, so keep your eyes open. Anyway, I hope you enjoy this piece, and if you do, feel free to leave a comment, send us some feedback, or share with a friend who you think might enjoy the site.
It’s that time of year for Olympiakos: the season is almost over, and talking points are few and far between (of course, aside from the European Super League debacle, which is hopefully out of headlines for the near future). Despite being over two months from July 1, when the summer transfer window will open, rumors of new signings for Olympiakos are already dominating the news. But here at Gate 7 International, we always find things to talk about. I’d like to direct your attention to something slightly different, concerning a few players who are already employed by our club. This is partially inspired by the Asteras Tripolis game that took place today, a relatively unexciting 1-0 victory where the most notable takeaway was possibly a rare appearance for reserve goalkeeper Ogmundur Kristinsson. The 31-year-old goalkeeper, signed from AEL Larisa last summer, has only made a paltry four appearances for the club and was left off the European squad for the season. In fact, in many Greek Super League games he didn’t even crack the bench, a role that was more often given to a youngster by the name of Kostas Tzolakis. Tzolakis, who broke into the first team last season at age 17, had been an admirable replacement for Sa, all things considered, when called upon, and has generally been the #2 option for the position this year. His omission today (as well as in the three Greek Cup games in which Kristinsson featured earlier this season) surprised and annoyed many Olympiakos fans, including some on the Gate 7 International team. The management of these two players with next season and beyond on the radar provides an interesting problem for Pedro Martins and the rest of the staff.
Now, let’s get some facts straight. First of all, it goes without saying that Jose Sa, the Olympiakos starter who has played the lion’s share of games between the sticks for the club since Pedro Martins’ arrival, is a top goalkeeper. I personally believe many fans take him for granted; he has been so consistently good for these last three years that it is almost hard to imagine an Olympiakos squad without his name in it. His calming presence in defense, his confidence in nervy situations, and his passion for the game of football are just a few traits that make him arguably the best player at our club. However, it has to be said: when we have players as good as Jose Sa in our team, it is likely that they will not be staying for long. Big clubs abroad, mostly in Spain and Portugal, have been linked with Sa since the end of last season, and I personally believe he would not be with us now if he hadn’t suffered a hand injury toward the end of last season. This year though, he is healthy and may be on his way out, begging the question, “Who do we replace him with?”
The obvious answer would be that we will find a GK on the market and bring them in from another club. However, Kristinsson has made the case in his appearances that he does not want to be counted out. Today against Asteras, he didn’t get tested a whole lot, but he was resolute and confident when called upon. More notably, he was very proactive in distribution and unafraid to sweep out of his box to make the necessary play (something we do not see as frequently with Sa). Kristinsson is an experienced keeper with several good years still ahead of him, and if you ask our favorite AEL supporter Michael Vissini, he might have been the only thing standing between Larisa and relegation last season. If you don’t believe him, watch Larisa (who currently sit second from the bottom in the Super League) play today… sorry Michael. Kristinsson has first-team experience in the Dutch Eredivisie as well as the Swedish first division, and has been capped 17 times for his native Iceland. But, I would personally be uncomfortable moving forward with him as the starter. We’ve only seen him for four games all season, and while he has looked good, the Asteras side he has faced today (who are yet to win a game in the playoffs) are by far the best team he has played against for us. What will he do when we inevitably get drawn up against PSG or Manchester City next year in Europe? The bottom line for me is that he might have what it takes to start for our club, but I am not convinced yet.
If we keep Kristinsson at the club and allow him to compete with a new signing (or Sa, if Sa doesn’t leave) for the #1 spot, we will once again be leaving Kostas Tzolakis out to dry. Let me make something clear: Tzolakis is one of the best goalkeepers in his age class, worldwide. There might not be another position on the pitch where experience is as valuable as it is between the sticks. This is why top goalkeepers routinely play into their forties, and why 18-year-old GK’s rarely even crack the bench of their first teams. To demonstrate this, let’s look at some of the best goalkeepers of our generation, and see when they got their start. Gianluigi Buffon, who is remarkably still playing for Juventus at age 43, made his debut at 17 years, 9 months old, in Serie A with Parma. Iker Casillas first played for Real Madrid at 18 years, 3 months (fun fact: three days later, he would play against Olympiakos in the Champions League, making him the youngest goalkeeper in the competition’s history at the time). Manuel Neuer, a personal favorite of mine, didn’t crack the first team of Schalke until he was 20 years old. Kostas Tzolakis debuted for Olympiakos at 17 years, 3 months old, younger than all of the legendary keepers I have just mentioned, and even more impressively, did so in a very meaningful game in the hostile atmosphere that is Toumba Stadium. In other words, Tzolakis is a special young player. According to Transfermarkt, there is not a single goalkeeper on the entire planet who is more valuable than Tzolakis and also younger. In the appearances that he has played, Tzolakis has looked a bit nervy at times, but overall has been very impressive for his age. I haven’t checked this officially, but I highly doubt anyone as young as Tzolakis kept a clean sheet in a cup final last year. He is young, a bit skinny, and inexperienced, but it is easy to see from watching him play that he is one for the future.
So what do we do with him? Well, the first thing I would say is that he should have played today. I understand that due to Kristinsson having yet to appear in a Super League match this season, playing today ensured that he would have a trophy to his name, but I would have at least liked to see Tzolakis for the second half of the game. The discussion relates back to a topic we have discussed dozens of times on the podcast: the team’s inability to give youngsters a chance. Time and time again, youngsters like Vassilis Sourlis (who wasn’t even on the bench against Asteras, by the way), Apostolos Apostolopolous, Tasos Tselios, and more, are available to play in meaningless games and are passed up on for players like Tiago Silva, who have no future at this club. It should also be mentioned that Ilias Karagyris, who is a few months older than Tzolakis and has featured for Greece at the U-19 level, is another player who is seldom given the opportunity to gain experience at the senior level. Even players like Kostas Tsimikas, Marious Vrousai, and Thanasis Androutsos needed to prove themselves abroad before being given a real shot in Martins’ team. There is a trade-off between giving young players time on the pitch and playing your best players with an eye on winning, and Martins seems to be very far on the latter side of that, as we all know. However, that doesn’t make it any less frustrating when our young players are snubbed in meaningless, fan-less games against Asteras that we can win anyways with a weakened team. Games like this are vital for the development and experience that young players need, and the opportunities that the club is wasting do not come often. I found myself asking the question, “If not now, when?”, when I saw the team sheet before today’s game. The league is clinched, and we will have a flurry of June friendlies to gauge Kristinsson’s viability as a goalkeeper. In the end, the best decision for Tzolakis is probably a loan, which is unfortunate, because he would more than do the job as a second goalkeeper for smaller games or cup ties to give Jose Sa (or whoever becomes the starter) a rest. If Kristinsson does stay, I strongly urge Olympiakos to find a loan for Tzolakis, because if he is not given the game time to develop, we will have wasted the best young talent the club has.