Peter Gulacsi never made a first-team appearance for Liverpool, but four years after leaving Merseyside he has become one of the Bundesliga’s most reliable goalkeepers.
If you were looking for Gulacsi seven years ago this week, you would have found him around four miles south of Liverpool at Tranmere Rovers’ Prenton Park. He was on loan from the Premier League side, sliding deeper into a League One relegation dogfight as Tranmere lost 3-0 to Brentford in front of just under 5,000 fans.
At Borussia Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park on Saturday, Gulacsi stood between the posts for RB Leipzig in front of 75,000.
The 27-year-old made a string of crucial, if not spectacular saves, as Dortmund’s run of 41 Bundesliga home games unbeaten came to an end in a 3-2 defeat – bringing Leipzig to within three points of the league leaders.
Gulacsi’s performances this season have seen him ranked by kicker magazine as the best Bundesliga goalkeeper at present. But not everyone would agree with that assessment in his native Hungary. When Gulacsi was reminded of what he did the previous Saturday, he shut his eyes and started nodding while offering something between a smile and grimace.
Gulacsi made two big errors in Hungary’s 5-2 defeat to Switzerland in Basel. The first saw him lose his balance and fall over after receiving a back pass, leaving Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka to tap into an empty net from a couple of yards out. And if that wasn’t bad enough, he then attempted to tip a shot over the bar at the start of the second half but instead dropped the ball into his own net.
“I apologized to the dressing room to my teammates, and I’m sorry to the fans as well,” Gulacsi said after the Dortmund game.
One week on, the former Liverpool youngster made the difference in an altogether more positive way for RB Leipzig.
“I had [made] two important saves already in the first half and then one in the second half, so of course it’s good for my soul,” Gulacsi told The Set Pieces. “It was a hard couple of days after the [Hungary] game but you know we are professionals, so this could happen once in a while. Hopefully it will never happen again but the best thing is to get out on the pitch and play well.”
He certainly did that on Saturday, particularly when he had to face Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in a one-on-one situation on four different occasions.
A horrific back pass from Stefan Ilsanker allowed Aubameyang to race through and beat Gulacsi in their first encounter, before the keeper denied the division’s top scorer the next time he bore down on goal.
Rounds three and four followed in the second half as Aubameyang converted past Gulacsi from the penalty spot to make it 3-2. It was a scoreline the Hungarian then preserved in the 92nd minute as Aubameyang, with 67 goals in his last 71 Bundesliga games, raced through on goal but found Gulacsi standing firm.
“Pete has shown not just this season but last season, and the year before last, that he’s a great goalkeeper,” team-mate Yussuf Poulsen told The Set Pieces. “He has saved us many times, especially today, he’s so fast off his line.”
Indeed there would have been a fifth one-on-one between Gulacsi and Aubameyang just before half-time had the goalkeeper not positioned himself high up the pitch, where he cleared a through ball that Aubameyang had already begun to hare after.
This mixture of pace, awareness and his ability to make the ‘stay or go’ decision, as sporting director Ralf Rangnick has described it, is what makes him particularly valuable to Leipzig, given the frequency with which they press their opponents and leave gaps behind – a high risk tactic, made riskier if you don’t have the right tools to do it.
“Pete is an underrated goalkeeper,” says Poulsen, the scorer of Leipzig’s second goal in an impressive victory. “A good goalkeeper takes the things he has to take and a great goalkeeper also takes the things he doesn’t have to. Pete has shown today that he made a save which not every goalkeeper would make.”
Poulsen has a point. When you hear people talking about the Bundesliga’s best goalkeepers, Gulacsi rarely features in the conversation. Scan down the names of last season’s best shot-stoppers from kicker magazine and you won’t find him in the top 10. That seems peculiar when he only made one big mistake last season, giving away a penalty away to Bayern Munich with Leipzig already 2-0 down at that stage.
Rather than handing out player ratings on a scale of one to 10, in Germany you now get marks (known as ‘noten’) ranging from one to six. Get a one, or a ‘Note Eins’, and it means you’ve aced it. Score a six and you probably should have stayed at home. For example, Gulacsi received a ‘5’ from kicker after his error against Bayern.
If, come the end of the season, you’re averaging under a ‘Note 3’, then you’ve had a good campaign. Gulacsi (2,89 – note the comma as opposed to a bullet point because, well, Germany) was one of four RB Leipzig players to do so last season alongside Emil Forsberg (2,70), Timo Werner (2,77) and Naby Keita (2,78).
That trio are very much the usual suspects when it comes to discussing who the team’s star performers have been over the past year or so. It is a show of Leipzig’s strength that they won in Dortmund with Forsberg and Werner on the bench for the entirety, while Keita was substituted at half-time.
Instead, it was the likes of Marcel Sabitzer, Jean-Kevin Augustin and winger Bruma who shone for Leipzig as they put in a performance of title contenders at the Signal Iduna Park.
Worthy of a mention too was the 18-year-old centre-back playing just in front of Gulacsi, Dayot Upamecano. He gave away a penalty in the second half after clipping the heel of Aubameyang but, as Ralf Rangnick told The Set Pieces, it’s difficult to remember another occasion when he put a foot wrong.
“Apart from the penalty, he made an almost perfect match today,” said Rangnick. “I think he didn’t lose a single one-on-one situation. Of course the penalty was a little bit unlucky because he crossed the path of Aubameyang in that situation but, apart from that, bearing in mind he’s only 18, he’s an outstanding player.”
Upamecano was left out of the France Under-21 squad over the international break, something that still seemingly perplexes Rangnick.
“At his age, he’s one of the best central defenders in Europe but, obviously, people in France don’t see it that way because he has not even been part of the Under-21 squad. So maybe I have a different opinion than other people.”
Rangnick was almost incredulous when he was asked why he rates Upamecano so highly.
“Because his mentality is good, his physical condition is extraordinary. He’s extremely fast, as fast as Aubameyang and, on the ball, he also improves day-by-day. I think the best and the most important asset is his mentality.”
Rangnick doesn’t want him leaving any time soon. “Independent from possible clauses and amounts, I am confident that he will stay here for as long as it makes sense for his career development,” he said in an interview last week.
His view that Upamecano will one day be able to play for any team in the world is echoed by Poulsen: “He’s going to be maybe one of the top five central defenders in the world. He’s so fast, so strong, so clever.”
Gulacsi talked about Upamecano’s “great maturity” – a fair statement given that he is already a regular in a Champions League team as a teenager.
Gulacsi on the other hand has come a long way since his formative years. At 18, he was on loan at the likes of Tranmere Rovers and Hereford United. Now he is starring at the top of the Bundesliga.
Liverpool-bound Naby Keita returned to the Leipzig lineup against Dortmund having served a three-match suspension. The international break saw the midfielder sent off again, this time for Guinea in a 4-1 defeat to Tunisia in which he also opened the scoring.
“He has learnt his lesson,” said Ralph Hasenhüttl in the build up to Leipzig’s game at Dortmund. But come half-time, Hasenhüttl was quick to make a change.
Keita had been his usual energetic self, making his mark on the game as fans became accustomed to in Germany last season. He tracked back, won the ball and initiated Leipzig’s attacking moves.
However, a quarter of an hour into the match he was a fraction too late in a tackle on Nuri Sahin. Catching the Dortmund midfielder on the shin, Keita earned a yellow card – and 20 minutes later it looked for a moment like he was about to walk again after a foul on Andriy Yarmolenko.
Referee Deniz Aytekin decided against awarding a second yellow card and, soon after, Hasenhüttl decided against a second half for Keita, who was replaced by Diego Demme.
He remains remarkably talented but Keita perhaps needs to curb his enthusiasm as he continues to develop his game before joining Liverpool next summer.