Aston Villa’s Ørjan Nyland has been on the edge, from minute one. To be a goalkeeper is to place yourself on the brink. Any action a goalkeeper performs can have a massive destabilising effect on every game that the goalkeeper is playing in. A weak kick, a second-guessed rush out, a flap at a corner, a ricocheted punch, a parry to the feet of a goal-hanging poacher. A goalkeeper, in theory, is powerful enough to decide each and every single match by turning around and kicking the ball into their own net. It’s the single most important or powerful position on any pitch, if you think about it.
Nearly every single attribute shared by the greatest goalkeepers in the history of the sport are placed within the mind. Decision-making, confidence, prediction, communication, organisation and reactions. While speed, agility, strength and technique are no doubt appreciated, without a mind a goalkeeper is just another player, one of 11.
The mind however, is a fragile thing. Doubts and worries are cancerous. While a goalkeeper can rely on ageing limbs to perform most actions needed, creeping worries can ruin their performance and lead to disaster. Disaster begets poor form. While it is true that great goalkeepers are borne of poor form and working on errors, it’s just as true that great, or promising, goalkeepers can be ruined by mistakes and calamity. Every error simply becomes a debt that must be paid. Working to pay that debt leads to misplaced confidence and swollen judgement.
Nyland has endured an awful time at Aston Villa in these early stages, and no goalkeeper in their right mind would have swapped places with him. A home debut saw an error in communication and a feeble back-pass sweep into the path of an onrushing attacker. Nyland met it first but the ball could only cannon into his own net, from his own clearance. While his bluses were spared thanks to a late Villa winner, in the very next match Nyland failed to command his box and was caught out against Ipswich. Both errors led to the Norwegian pinning himself on his goal line and pulling Villa’s defence further back. Both errors by all accounts could have killed Nyland’s Villa career off. That’s not hyberbole. One mistake can see a keeper bounce back with gusto, two in succession? That might create a tremendous cavity for the plaque of doubt to take root.
Ørjan’s social media accounts painted something differently. Behind the echoes of common post-match statements like ‘we go again’ lived humble apologies, responsibility, and a zen-like grace. Almost as if he knew what he was doing. He went into his third game at Brentford and was unfortunate to let in two goals, but without him building on his previous performances, it is likely Villa would have collapsed and lost the game.
This is just as true for his last outing, against Reading. Villa, by all accounts, would have lost that match without Nyland. His Banks-esque wonder save late into the game stopped two point-blank efforts from going in, and while it pumped up Reading’s xG scored like a cured, water-fed meat, it stopped Villa conceding a real in-play goal until a late penalty was given.
There is absolutely no doubt that Nyland has things to work on. His command of the penalty area is shy and he won’t commit to rushing out to claim the ball. These are not negatives, though. In a certain way of thinking, there is no way that Nyland is done with improving - and in a true worst-case-scenario (facing two point blank shots without any hope of a defender stepping in) he was in a meditative and reflexive state - it was him and the ball and nothing else. When it was time for him to step up. He stepped up. He’s not done yet.