Bart Verbruggen, youngest goalkeeper at Euro 2024: A perfect mix of modern and old-school skills

The youngest goalkeeper to play at the European Championships for 60 years has justified the faith of Netherlands manager Ronald Koeman.

Brighton & Hove Albion’s Bart Verbruggen has been a leading figure with his hands and his feet in the progress of Koeman’s side to the quarter-finals of Euro 2024, where they face Turkey in Berlin on Saturday evening.

Verbruggen has kept two clean sheets in four games (no goalkeeper in the competition has kept more) and using the ‘goals prevented’ metric, which uses the quality of shots faced by a goalkeeper to measure their performance, we can see his shot-stopping has played a big part. He has a goals-prevented figure of 1.64, suggesting he has saved between one and two goals more than the average goalkeeper.

In the first of those clean sheets, the 0-0 draw against France in the group stage, Verbruggen also showcased his competence in possession. He completed 97.5 per cent of his passes (39 out of 40), the highest accuracy for any goalkeeper with at least 40 passes on record in a match at the European Championship since the statistic was first measured in 1980.

None of this is a surprise to Jack Stern, Brighton’s goalkeeping coach. He has been working with Verbruggen since the 21-year-old made a £16.3million ($20.8m) move from Anderlecht in Belgium last summer.

Stern was in Munich on Tuesday night to see Verbruggen complete his second shut-out of the tournament in the 3-0 win against Romania in the last 16. Stern says: “He’s incredibly good with his feet and has the ability to execute passes that only the top goalkeepers can and also the vision to see those passes.

“But he’s also got all the attributes of an old-fashioned goalkeeper: stopping the ball, making saves. He’s good coming for crosses and defending his box.

“He’s dominant and good at defending the space outside his box. He doesn’t really have a key area of weakness. He’s got lots of things that he needs to keep working on, but there’s no area of his game that’s really lacking.”

Verbruggen became the third-youngest goalkeeper in European Championship history when he played in the Netherlands’ opening 2-1 win against Poland. Only Iribar (Spain) and Viliam Schrojf (Czechoslovakia) were younger when they featured in the first two tournaments in 1964 and 1960 respectively.

Koeman named Verbruggen as his first choice over Brentford’s Mark Flekken in the build-up to the tournament. It has not been a straight-line rise to becoming his nation’s No 1 — Verbruggen had to share the goalkeeping duties at club level with 32-year-old Jason Steele under Brighton’s former head coach Roberto De Zerbi for most of last season.

Even though he was accustomed to using his feet playing for Anderlecht under Bayern Munich’s new head coach Vincent Kompany, it took time for Verbruggen to adapt to the forensic demands of De Zerbi in the way the Italian built from the back, using the goalkeeper as an extra outfielder.

Verbruggen played in 10 of De Zerbi’s last 12 games in charge after coping maturely with spells as a substitute. “You always have to go into a match the same way,” he says.

“Even when you’re sitting on the bench, the feeling is a bit different, but you have to recharge for when you get there. The situation has also taught me to just remain stoic and seize the opportunity when it comes. If that opportunity doesn’t come, you have to get over it and keep working hard.

“I look further than just the current trainer. A trainer can be temporary. In general, Brighton has managed well that when a trainer leaves, the replacement fits in the same vein. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to go there. Now that De Zerbi is gone, I am confident things will also work out well with the new trainer.”

Although Fabian Hurzeler, De Zerbi’s 31-year-old successor from St Pauli, has not divulged whether Verbruggen will become his regular No 1 next season, the German says: “I’ve had some talks with him. He made an impressive development last year.”

It has not been a totally smooth ride either for Verbruggen with the Netherlands at Euro 2024. He came under scrutiny for Marcel Sabitzer’s 80th-minute winner from a narrow angle (see below) in the 3-2 defeat to group winners Austria.

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(Ronny Hartmann/AFP via Getty Images)

“It was not unstoppable,” Verbruggen admits. “You always have a certain confidence in yourself and that confidence sometimes makes you feel unbeatable. I have that feeling now. After a goal like that, I think, ‘I should have had this one’, but I think that after every goal.”

Verbruggen has psychological support to help him cope with the ups and downs of life as a goalkeeper. Stern says: “He goes into his own world and you see that when he plays, his concentration is really good. He has his own psychologist who he speaks to once every month to just go through any issues that he might have.

“I’ve worked with other goalkeepers who are a lot more animated on the day of the game or need lots of motivation and lots of talking to. He’s not one of them. The other thing that surprised me about him was how little he needs praise. After a few sessions, he said to me that I kept telling him well done for simple things. He just wants the truth and he wants someone to make him get better all the time.”

Verbruggen is on that progressive path with his club and his country. Stern is in no doubt about the future direction of travel. “When we signed him we were sure we were getting a really good person as well as a really good goalkeeper,” Stern says. “He’s a world-class professional and he’s going to be one of the best goalkeepers in the world eventually.”

(Top photo: Clive Mason/Getty Images)

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