Heading into the 2015/16 season, there was not a lot of mystery surrounding the goalkeeping position. Tim Krul was the undoubted number one, Rob Elliot was proving himself as a capable backup – in stark contrast to his early performances which were less than good – and Karl Darlow was meant to be the next man up. Perhaps the only mystery was going to be where highly rated youngster Freddie Woodman would fit into the mix. Based on the amount of evidence available to us at the time, there were some (ok. It was me. I thought this.) who would have been just as happy to have Woodman at third string and let Darlow fall where he may. Little did we know that goalkeeper would be one of the positions most fraught with problem in our most recent last season in the Premier League.
If you look back at the numbers for the few matches that Timmy was able to play this past season, they're not going to look very good. 8 matches, 3 draws, 5 losses. 17 goals against.
Somewhat brutal, really. Here's the thing, though. 6 of those goals came against Manchester City. Newcastle United lost 6-1 on that day when the defense practically tried to force the Golden Boot into Kun Aguero's hands conceding 5 of those goals to the Argentine in a 23-minute time frame. He was dealing with "signing of the summer" Fabricio Coloccini, Chancel Mbemba – who was signed wayyyy too late to hold any hope of forming a cohesive partnership with anyone – and Daryl "I can't handle the Jefferson Montero" Janmaat. Two out of three of those players forgot how to defend at any level at all, let alone at Premier League level.
A freak injury suffered while away on international duty ended Tim's season prematurely.
Tim Krul will always and forever live with the mantle of being the reason that Fraser Forster (starting in goal for England today in a Euro 2016 tune-up) left Newcastle United. The last couple of seasons have seen a gradual decline of his estimation within the Newcastle United fan base to the point that he is viewed as expendable by many. It was pointed out to me, however, that Krul has not had the benefit of playing in front of a demonstrably more solid Rafa defense. This does confuse the future to some degree. Somewhere in Tim is the man who stole those points at White Hart Lane. In this season, however, he probably grades out as the worst of the three 'keepers who had match time this season.
Rob Elliot had a ways to go to earn trust following his early appearances for Newcastle United. He flat-out looked awful in his first several chances. He had made enough progress through the 2014/15 season that it didn't feel awful to have him as the backup to Krul this season. I don't think that there would have been many, however, that would have felt comfortable if they were told before the kickoff of the season that he would end up starting more than half of the matches for Newcastle.
The numbers aren't necessarily great for Rob either. Let's face it, in a relegation season nobody's numbers are going to look good. Honestly, when Tim went down injured, I presumed that we would go down and I presumed that it would be a result of the goalkeeper position. He was in the net for 6 of Newcastle's victories, 11 defeats and four draws and honestly, he wasn't the problem. In his 21 matches between the sticks, the club gave up 3+ goals 7 times. He also recorded 3 or more saves 11 times. The defense in front of him was not great (we'll deal with them later). In 14 of his 21 matches, he faced more than 10 shots. Two of those matches were the first Tottenham victory (7 saves) and the Bournemouth victory – you know, the one upon which Steve McClaren tried to hang his "progress hat" for months) – (6 saves). Those two matches feature prominently at the beginning of this video of his saves (my recommendation is that you watch this video without video, but do as you must.)
It's hard to say that a goalkeeper "did well" during another season in which the club finished (again) with the third-worst defensive record in the league. He did do well and shone at times. Enough that it looked like he was in the discussion to be Ireland's No. 1 for the Euros this summer. It was in making this case that ... well, we had our second goalkeeper go down with a fluke knee in jury while starting for their national team.
Karl Darlow was one I had written off. If he "made it", great... if he flunked out (which seemed likely), great. He didn't inspire a ton of confidence in the preseason US tour but still supposedly was the number two at the start of the season (although when Tim went down, it was Rob Elliot who went in, so). At the very least, it seemed like he wasn't going to feature very much if at all this season. There would have been a fine case to be made to see Freddie Woodman in and around the squad instead. As it was, Woodman was loaned out for a time and Darlow ended up the starter by the end of the season.
If you are good at math, you can tell before I say this that Darlow started the other 9 matches of the season (1 random start against West Brom notwithstanding, they were the last matches of the season). 5 of those matches saw Newcastle concede no more than one goal while the 3 goal mark was touched twice in the first two matches that he started in those final 8. If you're further good with math and history and all that, these also line up with the infancy of the Rafa Benitez Experience. Steven Taylor started both of those matches, and the Southampton match saw the introduction of Jamaal Lascelles at halftime with the club down 2-0. You may remember the comedic defending that saw Saints in the lead...
Regardless, he has the prettiest numbers of the three: 4 wins (3 in the final 8), 2 losses, 3 draws with four shutouts (3 in the final 8). Like Rob Elliot, he far outpaced expectations, but with Darlow there is that small other matter to consider: For most of his time as the starting goalkeeper for the club, he had Jamaal Lascelles in front of him and Rafa's defensive organization taking hold with the club. At the end of the day, it's not for me to say that his performance this season is a false positive, but it seems a safe bet that either of Elliot or Krul would have similarly succeeded in the same circumstances. Long-term, it will be interesting to see how Rafa deals with a position which was not the biggest problem in a defensive nightmare season that saw us down to the Championship.