'Everything I do has become normal' – Courtois feels underappreciated for his performances at Real Madrid

By Sports Desk March 06, 2021

Thibaut Courtois does not believe he is given enough recognition for his performances at Real Madrid in comparison to his time at Atletico Madrid.

After a difficult start to his Madrid career upon joining from Chelsea in 2018, Courtois has been one of Los Blancos' most consistent performers over the past two seasons.

He has kept 11 clean sheets in LaLiga this term – only Atletico's Jan Oblak has more with 12 – while no keeper has more shutouts (29) in the competition since the start of 2019-20, level with Oblak.

Courtois has been regularly praised by boss Zinedine Zidane for his game-saving heroics, but the 28-year-old does not believe his achievements are fully appreciated by everyone, particularly in his homeland.

The Belgium international, who spent three seasons with Atletico before joining Chelsea and then Madrid, told HLN: "I had three fantastic years at Atletico. I received praise from all over Belgium. I became Sportsman of the Year and I thought it was good.

"Today I have the feeling that everything I do has become normal. My performance in that game against Real Valladolid, I think, seemed like it didn't exist.

"It seems that continuing to play at a high level at the biggest club in the world is no longer worth the effort."

Courtois initially struggled to hold down a place in Madrid's starting line-up amid repeated criticism in his debut campaign at the Santiago Bernabeu.

But he helped Los Blancos to the LaLiga title last season and produced a number of fine saves in his side's penalty shoot-out win against Atletico in the Supercopa de Espana final.

However, Courtois was pipped to HNL's prestigious 'Best Belgian Player Abroad' award in 2019-20 by Inter striker Romelu Lukaku – a decision he admits was difficult to accept.

"When you see where I've come from at Real Madrid... I survived a tsunami there," said Courtois, who is expected to start for Madrid against former side Atleti on Sunday.

"In 2020 I won the Supercopa with a decisive save in the shoot-out. And then I read from analysts: 'Courtois deserves the Belgian of the Year trophy less than Lukaku, because he was always with the national team while Courtois withdrew a few times'.

"I can understand that Lukaku was given the award for Best Belgian Abroad, but I also deserved it. I was also not nominated for Athlete of the Year. 

"It's ridiculous. In fact, I feel more appreciation in Spain, and also outside of Spain, than in Belgium."

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    The snowfall that hit Madrid in February 2018 initially appeared worse than it was, with the seas of white that engulfed fields, pitches and gardens in Spain's capital clearing quicker than one might have expected.

    It was enough to cause Real Madrid to cancel their training for the day on February 5, allowing Cristiano Ronaldo an unexpected day off on his birthday – though certain sections of the media were particularly critical of the club for essentially shutting down with a crucial Champions League tie against Paris Saint-Germain little more than a week away.

    As it happened, Madrid went on to claim a third successive European crown, so the issue of a day off almost certainly won't have been raised again. However, it was this snowfall that proved a major disruption to the trial of a kid from the Canary Islands who was "about to sign", according to his father.

    Pedri, 15 at the time, did not join Real Madrid. While he may have been shown the cold shoulder amid the snowfall, the midfielder subsequently signed with local side Las Palmas. And then Barcelona came calling.

    Almost a year on from initially agreeing a deal with the Blaugrana, Pedri's presentation at Barca in August 2020 came at a particularly difficult time for the club, but those in the know were well aware that the teenager's arrival was a real coup.

    Made for Barca

    A diminutive, but effortlessly silky midfielder, it's little wonder Pedri linked up with Barca. "I have that Barca DNA," he said to EFE in his first major interview after his move was confirmed in 2019. "My desire is to resemble [Andres] Iniesta. I have always said he is my idol and he'll remain that until I die."

    Pedri's rise was impressive. In a little over a year, he progressed through the Juvenil A, B and Division de Honor teams in Las Palmas' academy before being introduced into the first-team picture in 2019 for pre-season.

    He quickly became an undisputed starter – he initially didn't expect to even reach the Division de Honor team in 2019-20.

    Las Palmas had been cautious about showing him off too early, aware that such a talent would immediately attract offers. Instead, they reportedly waited until they had him secured to a professional contract with a €30million release clause and then promised they'd sell him to an interested party straight away.

    Barca made their move in September 2019. An initial €6m could become €25m should Pedri meet certain criteria at Camp Nou – and at this point, few would bet against him.

    Once again Real Madrid were left frustrated, with a second attempt to sign Pedri coming too late – not that they would have necessarily been successful otherwise, as the teenager's father is the president of a local Barcelona supporters' club, which his grandfather founded.

    "Barca DNA" indeed.

    "One in a million"

    Pepe Mel was the coach who put his faith in Pedri back in 2019, the experienced tactician clearly stunned by the youngster's abilities.

    "Look at this boy, because he's one in a million and he doesn't know it," Mel said at the time. "He will define a new era in Spanish football."

    A bold prediction of one so young, but Pedri took to first-team football with immense comfort, his performances in the Segunda in 2019-20 suggesting he was ready for LaLiga straight away and that Mel's foretelling was on the money.

    While he displayed the skillset to play virtually anywhere across the midfield for Las Palmas, by his own admission Pedri felt most effective in the centre where he can take the game to the opposition, exploit gaps in defences and dazzle with his close dribbling.

    Despite his age, Pedri was a key player for Las Palmas last season, scoring four goals and setting up another six. Six of those goal involvements came in the first 10 matches of the campaign, highlighting there was a bit of a dip in terms of overall productivity – though he was still effective.

    Despite missing a chunk of the 2019-20 campaign to take part in the Under-17 World Cup in October and November, Pedri played more league matches (36) than anyone else for Las Palmas and his 60 chances created was unmatched among team-mates. Only nine players in the entire league produced more key passes.

    Nineteen Segunda players attempted more dribbles than Pedri's 108, but only three of those could better his 62 per cent completion rate.

    And of 1,284 attempted passes, 80 per cent found a team-mate. While by no means a startling statistic on its own, context is key – many of those with better records on the face of it were central defenders or players operating in less-congested areas of the pitch than Pedri.

    One thing was abundantly clear: Pedri was already operating at a high level for a 17-year-old, and with something of a new era sweeping over Camp Nou when he arrived in August, it perhaps wasn't a surprise to see him settle quickly.

    It had initially been expected that Pedri would spend another season on loan in the second tier with Las Palmas, or move to Barca's B team had they been promoted to the Segunda.

    Then he began attracting loan interest from LaLiga clubs, but in Ronald Koeman he found a coach ready to give him the opportunity.

    He's certainly taken it.

    Fitting the mould

    While there was never any doubt about Pedri's technical abilities, adapting his game to fit in at a club with a style of play as iconic and ingrained as Barca's was likely – in theory – to take time. Regardless of how things work at Las Palmas, Barcelona are simply a different beast in every way, shape or form.

    Yet, arguably the most impressive element of Pedri's breakout season is how quickly he's managed to immerse himself intrinsically in Barca's philosophy, so much so that talk of being "Iniesta's heir" doesn't sound quite so reactionary anymore, which in itself shows his progress.

    The best way to showcase how he's adapted to life at Barca is by looking at sequence involvement data, which outlines how integral to a team's build-up play a certain player is.

    The only midfielders involved in more passing sequences ending in a shot than Pedri (136) have been Nabil Fekir of Real Betis (143) and Barcelona's own Frenkie de Jong (152), both of whom have played considerably more minutes in LaLiga.

    Pedri also ranks similarly high in terms of secondary chance creation – so, the pass to the player who sets up the subsequent shot – with Messi (64), Dani Parejo (37) and Fekir (36) the only individuals beating his 31.

    When you also factor in that Pedri's 37 chances created this term puts him behind only Messi (65) and Jordi Alba (42) in the Barca team, this all highlights just how much influence the now 18-year-old already has on their general play.

    Not only is he frequently teeing up shots himself, but he's one of Barca's most-involved players when it comes to retaining possession as they probe packed defences. And it's not as if Pedri is constantly offloading the ball once he has possession either - he has created eight chances following a carry (defined as a movement of at least five metres with the ball), the third most among central midfielders in LaLiga this term, evidence his ability on the ball also helps drive Barca forward and spark opportunities.

    It's precisely these factors that make comparisons with Iniesta seem more sensible, particularly since Koeman recognised he'd be at his most effective in the middle.

    But Pedri, who earned his first senior Spain caps last month, appears to have the quality to carve out his own lasting legacy at Camp Nou. A first experience of winning silverware in Saturday's Copa del Rey final will surely just be the start if Barca see off Athletic Bilbao.

    Snow may have prevented a move to Madrid three years ago, but Pedri's outlook at Barcelona is gloriously bright.

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