What To Expect From Zack Steffen

Boro have completed the overhaul of their goalkeeping department with the signing of Zack Steffen on a season-long loan from Man City.

After letting Joe Lumley, Sol Brynn and Zach Hemming leave the club on loan spells of their own, signing Liam Roberts and replacing Ian Bennett with Alan Fettis as goalkeeper coach, Chris Wilder has now acquired his #1 goalkeeper.

Steffen arrives at Boro in search of regular first team minutes after two seasons backing up one of the world’s best goalkeepers Ederson for the reigning Premier League champions. The 27-year-old made 21 appearances in that time, mostly in cup competitions, including being between the sticks as City beat Spurs 1-0 in the 20/21 League Cup Final.

The American international is likely most familiar to Boro fans, unfortunately, for his mistake in this year’s FA Cup final as he dawdled on the ball which allowed Sadio Mane to slide in and score.

However, Steffen is much more than a singular moment in time and is widely regarded as the most talented goalkeeper to come out of America. Tim Howard called him “a generational talent who in years to come should be, if all things go well, the greatest US goalkeeper there is or was”.

The gaffe against Liverpool aside, Steffen is fantastic with the ball at his feet, able to spray passes both short and long-range in a manner that we’ve not seen from a Boro goalkeeper.

That ability to dink passes left and right into wing-backs Ryan Giles and Isaiah Jones on the move will immediately quicken up Boro’s attacks and make them even more threatening this coming season.

The League Cup winner also fits perfectly into the role that will be demanded of him by Chris Wilder, comfortable and confident when rushing out of goal to sweep up any danger, acting as an auxiliary defender.

Having been City’s back-up goalie has allowed the American to learn from Ederson, Pep Guardiola and the world-class City backroom team and also given Steffen an opportunity to practice looking cool as fuck at trophy celebrations which bodes well for Wilder’s side as they hope to end the season with a trophy celebration of their own.

Capable of making flashy reflex saves, the former Columbus Crew ‘keeper did not arrive at Manchester City after winning a competition. He was the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year in 2018 and was thought of well enough at the Etihad to secure a contract extension on improved terms in November. That is not something that happens by accident.

So why is he leaving City?

In short, the lack of first-team football has started to outweigh the obvious benefits of being at one of the world’s best teams, especially in a World Cup year with new Arsenal goalkeeper Matt Turner beginning to earn a groundswell of support to take over as the US #1 in Qatar. Turner performed admirably as he started 8 of America’s 14 World Cup Qualifiers.

USMNT Head Coach Gregg Berhalter, who coached Steffen at Columbus Crew and helped to hone his brilliant distribution skills, has remained tight-lipped about who he views as his first choice.

The next question, which has a much longer answer, is why have Middlesbrough been able to pick him up instead of a Premier League or “Top 5 league” team if he’s so well thought of? That question also ties into the concerns that some Boro fans have over the move – concerns which aren’t just typical Boro whinging and need to be discussed.

With the previous links this summer to goalkeepers like Karl Darlow, Daniel Iversen and Tom Heaton, for better or worse, Boro fans know what to expect from those goalkeepers.

It’s difficult to establish exactly what to expect from Steffen after such limited playtime over the past couple of seasons and whether some of his shaky performances in recent months are indicative of the goalkeeper he is or if it’s simply a sign of ring rust.

He’s never played more than 20 games in a season outside of the MLS and that has shown at times in his decision making particularly on claiming crosses. There is only so much you can learn in training even at an elite level.

That lack of game time has been in part down to playing at City but he’s also been bit regularly by the injury bug which is a worry in the gruelling helter-skelter world of the Championship.

This past season saw a number of niggling back and shoulder injuries rule him out of matchday squads and much-needed cup appearances while he’s been forced to pull out of several USA squads in the past which is why he only has 29 caps.

When he was able to play in a sustained run of games on loan at Fortuna Dusseldorf, where he played in 18 Bundesliga and DFB Pokal matches, he earned great reviews from pundits for his efforts behind a terrible backline. However, even that was cut short through major knee injuries that saw Steffen miss the entire second half of the season following the winter break.

At Dusseldorf, Steffen had to firefight behind a defence that had more holes than a ballgame pretzel, regularly having to make 7-10 saves per game. By the winter break only Rafal Gikiwicz of Union Berlin had made more saves (69) than Steffen’s 67.

It’s an indicator of how difficult it is to evaluate the goalkeeper position that despite those brilliant reviews of Steffen and the consensus opinion that Fortuna would have avoided relegation if they hadn’t lost their loanee keeper to injury that the Pennsylvania native had the 6th worst save percentage of 63.2% across the Bundesliga.

As noted earlier, Steffen is capable of pulling off flashy reflex saves due to his size and athleticism and that also carries over to his ability in 1-on-1 situations. He LOOKS like a goalkeeper, acts like it and uses every millimetre of his 6ft 3″ frame. His saves against Mexico’s Hirving Lozano for USA would rival the best.

His Fortuna Dusseldorf teammate Kaan Ayhan said “when he comes charging out, with the physique he has, you definitely think twice about whether to go for the ball or get out of the way”.

Steffen was able to show that in two critical situations last season with vital stops against Burnley in the Premier League and Southampton in the FA Cup. Against Burnley, with the score at 1-0, he was able to deny Maxwel Cornet an equaliser by blocking the Ivorian’s shot after a defence splitting pass left him with just the American to beat.

In March, as City were 2-1 up against Southampton in the FA Cup, Steffen had to be equally as prepared to turn away Che Adams’s effort at point blank range to keep Guardiola’s side in the lead.

Both saves drew praise from Guardiola who said of Steffen “in the moments he has to save it, he saves it. I’m very happy and delighted with what he’s done”.

That physique and ability to cover the goal also makes Steffen a formidable opponent for penalty takers. He’s saved 6 of the 17 he’s faced in his career while also saving two each in shootouts against Atlanta and DC United in 2017 and 2018 respectively.

Those highlights, along with his knack for camera-friendly saves, have earned the goalkeeper a reputation for being a “brilliant shot-stopper”. While it’s not inaccurate to say that about the USMNT #1, it’s not totally accurate either.

He has rarely kept out more goals than he’s expected to and he has a habit for pushing shots in front of him rather than away. He’s also regularly conceded “soft” goals.

Some of those can be put down to the fact that Premier League and Champions League players are much better strikers of the ball than what he will face in the Championship and some of those “soft” goals just wouldn’t go in at this level.

A handful came during his spell at Dusseldorf when he was easily beaten by a couple of headers and spilled some long-range efforts. He was also arguably at fault for all 3 of the goals USA conceded in both ties against Costa Rica in World Cup Qualifying.

That’s slightly more concerning for that to be happening despite the level in competition dropping though again, it’s difficult to really know how much of that is because of rustiness as compared to ability.

That rustiness, which is a factor, has led to some indecisiveness as well. There are times, like against Southampton in the FA Cup when he didn’t commit to coming out and was caught in no man’s land, where Steffen has looked terribly low in confidence for City.

That’s also crept into his performances for the national team. What looks like a routine 5-1 win over Panama on paper in March was actually a game littered with errors from the keeper which should’ve resulted in three more goals.

One of those was due to a delayed, stop-start run from Steffen, one was fumbling a cross directly onto a forward’s right foot and the other was a complete misjudgement of a cross that left the goal wide open. Those mental errors will need to be eradicated and they hopefully will be given consistent match practice.

There is a good goalkeeper in there as Tim Howard noted “he has all the tools, he has brilliant goalkeeping ability”. Wilder and his team will be particularly excited to nurture Steffen after helping to develop both Dean Henderson and Aaron Ramsdale in separate loan spells at Sheffield United but the concern over him is warranted.

There’s no guarantee that they can help flick the switch in Steffen’s brain and have him performing to his full potential again.

The Americans use the phrase “boom or bust” when analysing players – meaning a player will either be great or terrible with little in-between – and that is the category Steffen falls into in my opinion.

If he can’t stay fit, if his shaky performances are related to a stagnating ability rather than rustiness and he can’t shake the mental errors then he’s not going to be the answer for Middlesbrough.

If he can fix those problems though, Boro will have just got themselves one of the best goalkeepers in the Championship and that would go some way to exorcising the star-spangled ghost of Brad Guzan. They will certainly have their best goalkeeper since Darren Randolph

Half a gold sticker for the recruitment team on this one. This could well be a fantastic signing but you’ve made me think of Brad Guzan.

Photo Credits: Middlesbrough Football CLub, MCFC, MEN

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