“If they’re good enough, they’re old enough.”
Sir Matt Busby’s words are etched into football history. If a youngster performs well in a club’s academy, fans and pundits quote the former Manchester United manager to help their argument that the wonderkid should be in the first-team.
More often than not, attackers are given opportunities at a younger age. Teenage midfielders get the nod occasionally.
You rarely see a 16-year-old centre-back playing at the top level but it does happen. However, goalkeepers aren’t afforded such chances. It’s the one position that weaknesses can’t be masked and the one area teams can’t use as a finishing school.
Those keepers who do get the nod as teenagers, and carve out a home in the first-team, often go on to become the very best in the world.
Bartłomiej Drągowski made his debut for Jagiellonia Białystok as a 16-year-old in an eight-goal thriller. It was his sole appearance of the 2013/14 season but the following year he appeared 30 times in all competitions and followed that up with 38 starts during the 2015/16 campaign.
Drągowski was backing up his burgeoning reputation with top-level performances between the sticks. Europe’s elite were circling and the question was when he’d move and not if. However, to the surprise of everyone, it was Fiorentina who snapped up the talented teen for a reported £2.25million.
He was viewed as one for the future but did make his debut for La Viola during the 2016/17 campaign. His time in Florence, so far at least, hasn’t been the best. He made just eight more starts in the following two seasons and the arrival of Alban Lafont further pushed him down the pecking order.
But the loan move to Empoli in January 2019 was the moment for the Poland Under-21 international. Regular first-team minutes was what he needed to take that step up everyone had been waiting for.
— OptaPaolo (@OptaPaolo) April 15, 2019
He was a star performer for Gli Azzurri in the second half of the 2018/19 campaign and put in an astonishing man-of-the-match performance against Atalanta.
The game finished 0-0, a key point in Empoli’s fight to stay in the Serie A topflight, and Drągowski made 17 saves. He single-handedly repelled a dominant Atalanta side who had an expected goals total of 5.06 for the game. To say a performance of this level is rare would be an understatement.
Empoli eventually suffered relegation after a final day loss to Inter Milan. However, the team’s improvement coincides with Drągowski’s arrival. Prior to the 21-year-old moving to the Stadio Carlo Castellani, Empoli had underperformed their expected goals against total by over eight. In the time the Fiorentina man was with the club, they outperformed the same metric by 2.21.
Their improvement isn’t as black and white as Drągowski’s form, yet that is a remarkable ten-goal swing.
Had they had the former Jagiellonia Białystok stopper for the entirety of the campaign it’s safe to assume they would’ve avoided relegation and finished comfortably in mid-table.
This summer Fiorentina have loaned Lafont to Nantes, it has paved the way for Drągowski to claim a starting spot in Vincenzo Montella’s starting XI next season.
However, recent reports suggest Southampton and Bournemouth are interested in signing the 6ft 3ins goalkeeper with the recruitment team in Florence believed to be looking to add Mattia Perin to their ranks.
It would be a strange decision on the Serie A club’s part. If Drągowski develops as expected he could one day be sold for a world-record fee for a goalkeeper. He has all the tools necessary to not just play for a top side but to dominate between the sticks and be that game-changer.
And unlike others with his potential, he’s being exposed to first-team football at this young age. It’s this which ultimately separates the brilliant from the good. The spectacular from the reliable.
Drągowski is far from the finished product but he has countless years to improve. For example, his distribution at times can be erratic. His accuracy is occasionally off the mark and his short-game is sloppy.
With practice, this improves. He’s already comfortable with the ball at his feet which is a good platform to build from.
The next area Drągowski needs to hone is his parrying. He’s a brilliant reflex shot-stopper but he often pushes the ball back into dangerous areas. Again, it’s something he can work on. For now, however, it’s definitely something which would be classed as a weakness.
But 21-year-old Buffon wasn’t perfect. Manuel Neuer was making mistakes at that age, De Gea was being labelled a flop at Manchester United and Casillas was inconsistent.
They all went on to be considered the best in the world at different points in their respective careers, the same could well happen to Drągowski.