The Belgian no.1 had a bruising start to his career at Santiago Bernabeu but is showing the kind of form which makes him among the world’s greatest.
Thibaut Courtois fought desperately in Real Madrid, falling far from his very best level, but this year the Belgian goalkeeper has clambered back to the match summit.
He’s the boulder from the goalmouth behind Madrid’s defensive barricade, which has conceded fewer league goals than any other hand in Europe’s top five branches – 14 in 23 matches.
With 11 clean sheets and 11 goals conceded in 20 games, he’s on course to win the Zamora trophy for the best goalkeeper.
It’s been a long road back to this stage for Courtois. Signed from Chelsea as Madrid’s key summer recruit in August 2018, he had been expected to immediately succeed Navas. He’d only impressed at the World Cup at Russia, helping Belgium complete third, maintaining three clean sheets.
Real tried to substitute Navas with Manchester United’s David de Gea three years running, finally conceding defeat and contracting another former Atletico Madrid man. However, Julen Lopetegui originally plotted between Courtois and Navas, together with the newest signing building a mistake against Alaves which drew criticism, as Madrid won two of Courtois’s first eight games.
Santiago Solari had more faith in Courtois but nevertheless flittered. The Belgian let in three at Eibar and CSKA Moscow, two against Villarreal, Real Sociedad, Girona and Espanyol, while Ajax conquered Courtois on four occasions, humiliatingly dumping Real Madrid from the Champions League in the last 16. He had sent 10 goals in six matches.
Zinedine Zidane came into replace Solari and drew a line in the sand at the end of the season, saying he knew who his No.1 was for the subsequent campaign. It was Courtois, and Navas eventually found a new home in Paris-Saint Germain, with Alphonse Areola moving the other way as a backup.
Courtois let in nine goals in his first five games since Madrid wavered at the beginning of the year, suffering a 3-0 thrashing by PSG in Paris – with a clean sheet for Navas. All of the trouble Courtois had at the beginning of this year was exacerbated by the spectre of the Costa Rican.
Zidane then toyed with the concept of playing with Areola, benching Courtois for a 2-0 win over Osasuna. Back then dropping Courtois was a sensible choice; today it seems laughable.
Courtois was rested against Real Sociedad at the Copa del Rey last week and Madrid were penalized, Areola conceding four at a 4-3 defeat, making a glaring mistake that allowed Martin Odegaard to score. Even though it took some time, Zidane’s assurance in Courtois is now paying dividends.
His journey back to the top took root in the Wanda Metropolitano on September 28. Courtois was grilled by Atletico fans, angry at him linking Real, who pulled toy rats and defiled his plaque away from the stadium, but he held firm and kept a clean sheet in a 0-0 draw. Following the clubs 1-0 defeat at Mallorca in mid-October, something shifted. The defence tightened up and that gave Courtois additional security. His confidence started to return.
Another crucial point in his increase was Mestalla, when Real Madrid snatched a late 1-1 draw against Valencia on December 15. It helped to keep Madrid unbeaten in the league because of the Mallorca debacle.
“Goalkeepers, we’ve got an excellent timing in regards to studying the plays, I almost scored and in the long run, it was Benzema. It was a boost for the entire team.” Jeered throughout by Valencia fans behind his goal, Courtois turned to them and blew a taunting kiss when he made it back to his box. It reveals his renewed confidence – and why many consider him an abrasive personality.
Courtois is shut with Eden Hazard, helping the winger settle in, and if his former Chelsea team-mate is fit, the Belgian duo could prove decisive at both ends of the pitch. “I have developed a lot as a person,” Courtois explained. “Last year wasn’t simple and in case you can not deal with this pressure, this season you can not be at this level. I have been strong mentally and kept growing as an individual. The key isn’t to get rid of confidence in yourself. If you can not be confident in yourself, forget about it. You must be confident.”
Clean sheets from Barcelona, Athletic Bilbao and Getafe followed, ensuring Madrid moved through a demanding gauntlet of fittings undefeated before the Spanish Super Cup, finishing out Atletico at the closing and rescue from Thomas Partey from the penalty shoot-out. It’s only the second piece of silverware he’s lifted with Real Madrid, after the Club World Cup, but if he can continue his fantastic form, the team has a fantastic chance at winning more, larger, titles.