Gigi Buffon has always had a way with words. During a Q&A session on Twitter last October, one supporter asked him what it felt like to let in a goal. "It’s like having your modesty violated," came the Juventus keeper’s reply.
Happily, it does not happen all that often. Buffon’s 13 clean sheets in Serie A this season are the most of any player in the division. Only Manuel Neuer and Claudio Bravo have more across Europe’s top five domestic leagues. On average, Buffon has conceded just a single goal for every 172.5 minutes that he spends on the pitch.
Juventus are anxious for him to go another 90 without one this evening. Manager Massimiliano Allegri has declared it “fundamental” that the Bianconeri maintain a clean sheet in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 clash with Borussia Dortmund. Far better to keep things tight in Turin and plan for a more open game at the Signal Iduna Park, where away goals will work to Juve’s advantage, in three weeks’ time.
Achieving that end will be a team effort but against opponents boasting the likes of Marco Reus and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang up front, it is also inevitable that Buffon will have a role to play. To put it another way: Juventus will once again be putting their trust in a 37-year-old whose ability to endure at the top level was first called into question half a decade ago.
It is easy to forget now, but more than one commentator argued that it was time for the Bianconeri to move on from Buffon as he struggled to overcome a persistent back injury in 2010. Marco Storari had thrived in his absence, and even the club’s then manager, Gigi Delneri, suggested at one point that he would find it “very difficult” to drop the latter player.
Good sense eventually prevailed, Buffon reclaiming his spot upon his return from injury and retaining it to this day. Far from fading away, he has reasserted himself as one of the best keepers on the planet. He was one of five shortlisted for 2014’s Fifpro World XI, although it was Neuer who eventually claimed the No. 1 spot.
Despite his advancing years, Buffon retains the athleticism to make eye-catching saves – as he has demonstrated in recent months when thwarting the likes of Manolo Gabbiadini and Gonzalo Higuaín. But the goalkeeper himself would argue that these are not the moments on which we should judge him.
Buffon describes himself as a “non-conformist”, his desire to stand out from the crowd reflected in the decision he took early in his career to wear short sleeves, at a time when all other keepers wore theirs long. His first great goalkeeping idol was Cameroon’s Thomas N’Kono, a player who won international fame with his highly eccentric – if also effective – interpretation of the role at the 1990 World Cup.
And yet, when it comes down to it, Buffon judges his own performance not by those brilliant moments which make their way into TV highlights packages, but instead by the countless mundane ones that don’t.
“That is the difference,” he told me during an interview for The Green Soccer Journal a few years ago. “A great goalkeeper, a true champion, can only make three or four mistakes in a year. If you are making 10, then you could make 1,000 saves too but if you’re making that many mistakes then for me you’re not a great goalkeeper.”
In that context, we can note that Buffon’s 2.83 saves-to-goals ratio is the second-highest among starting keepers in Serie A, behind only Morgan De Sanctis (2.93). The Juventus player is far ahead of his Dortmund counterpart, Roman Weidenfeller, who gives up a goal for every 1.65 saves that he makes in the Bundesliga. (The corresponding numbers for Champions League games come down even more heavily in Buffon’s favour.)
It is rarely wise to judge any player by stats alone, and especially a goalkeeper – whose role is so much more complex than stopping shots, and whose role is so fundamentally dictated by the performances of the team-mates in front of them. But in this case the numbers serve as a tidy validation of what our eyes were already telling us.
Namely: that Buffon remains integral to Juventus’ prospects of success both domestically and in Europe. Because he is better than most goalkeepers at making sure that his pants don’t get pulled down in public.