" … Staying up with Sunderland and being first-choice goalkeeper here would be another big achievement ... coming here was the best option for me …"
If there really is a good reason to come to Wearside then Costel Fane Pantilimon has found it. This season, the Romanian has upheld the high standard of Sunderland’s recent goalkeepers and, in doing so, has subtly become one of the best stoppers in the Premier League.
It’s unsurprising. Subtlety has been the way of Pantilimon’s career as far back as 2006, when the teenage Romanian was one of the most promising ‘off radar’ keepers in Europe at the now-diluted FC Politehnica Timișoara; in Romania’s Liga I. The Banat Boys’ number one came to national attention between the 08/09 and 09/10 seasons; after keeping 25 clean sheets in 66 matches, and becoming a Romanian national team mainstay in November 2008.
As Liga I is a lower-ranked competition in Europe, Pantilimon was a rare sight on the international club scene. He did appear in the Violets’ brief stints in the 09/10 UEFA Champions League Qualifying Rounds and Europa League Group Stage; and competed against Manchester City in the 10/11 Europa League Qualifiers; but Timișoara were strictly also-rans throughout.
Despite finishing 2nd in the 10/11 Liga I season – and earning 8 clean sheets in 28 matches – Pantilimon was part of Timișoara’s mass, league license-revoking player exodus in August 2011. His tenure at the Stadionul Dan Păltinișanu ended on 114 matches: conceding 116 goals with 45 clean sheets. Now heavily scouted, the Romanian was taken on loan by Manchester City for the 11/12 Premier League season, and later purchased outright for £2.90m in January 2012.
Pantilimon’s career stalled into regression with the Citizens. Predominantly a cup tourney keeper; he contributed strongly in all League Cup and FA Cup campaigns from August 2011 to May 2014. He was infamously dropped by Roberto Mancini for the 12/13 FA Cup Final, after conceding only one goal in the five previous rounds. City would lose that final to Wigan Athletic in May 2013, however Pantilimon did participate in the 13/14 Capital One Cup Final win in March 2014. Against Sunderland, of course.
Despite playing in the 2012 FA Community Shield win over Chelsea, Pantilimon wasn’t offered a Premier League start until November 2013. A seven-match league run resulted in only one loss. To Sunderland, of course. He was also provided a start in the 13/14 Champions League; in the 5:2 group stage home win over CSKA Moscow.
So when Sunderland procured the Romanian on a free transfer in July 2014, Pantilimon had only played 29 matches for City; conceded 27 goals, with 15 clean sheets. His 51% shut-out rate was good but potentially deceiving. City didn’t exactly get peppered with shots in 2013.
After 2nd and 3rd Round Capital One Cup ties, and a clean sheet against Leicester City in the U21 Premier League; Pantilimon was called in to replace Vito Mannone in November 2014. Excluding FA Cup fixtures against Fulham and Bradford City, he hasn’t been shifted since.
So far, Pantilimon is on 26 matches, 10 clean sheets and 33 goals conceded; an acceptable return regardless for a free transfer. However, based on data from 3 November 2014 to now, Sunderland’s stopper statistically holds up exceptionally well against the Premier League’s goalkeeping poster boys; and suggests that he really is as good as most supporters believe.
Take the most obvious: Pantilimon has the joint 2nd most clean sheets in the Premier League since his debut. Only Simon Mignolet has more. He’s also made the 2nd most high-ball claims (90) with a 99% success rate; has made the 2nd most diving saves (50); the 3rd most regular saves (30); and, crucially, is joint top for most total saves alongside Łukasz Fabiański (80).
Considering how often Sunderland allow the opposition to shoot compared to higher-positioned teams, and Pantilimon’s success in front of goal is enforced even more. The Romanian’s 33 conceded goals may be the 3rd most since 3 November 2014, but isn’t that damning when many other keepers in the league have conceded 30+ goals within this time.
Pantilimon ranks 9th for goal kick success rate in reaching team mates, with 53%. It’s not great, but it’s the only notable positive stat where he doesn’t rank in the top 3. His reflexes against short-range strikes are also questionable but, given his height, that is to be expected.
These stats, combined with his current form of conceding 1.3 goals per game and 33% clean sheet ratio, strongly support how good Costel Pantilimon has been for Sunderland this season. Add in that he is saving an average 3.8 shots per game this season, and Sunderland could now potentially be in a worse situation without him. That Sunderland is currently in the relegation zone further exemplifies how vital the Romanian’s stat-topping save quantity has been. They’re good figures for him personally, but ominous for Sunderland’s defensive setup.
And that, unfortunately, is the great consequence of Pantilimon’s success at Sunderland. Like Simon Mignolet before him, the Romanian has the track record to warrant a place in an upper-mid table club. There’d surely be a promoted side from the Championship in the market for a proven Premier League goalkeeper. Not to mention those growing ACF Fiorentina rumours.
However, if Sunderland choose (or have no choice but) to sell the man from Bacău, the club should at least make a decent profit. The Romanian has another three years on his contract and, at 28, likely has another half decade in his prime. Promoting him wouldn’t be difficult.
That said; there’s a chance that Pantilimon might stay with the Black Cats regardless of this season’s outcome. Battling for Championship promotion would be a unique challenge for a Premier League-winning keeper in need of proving he was worth that winners’ medal in 2012.
Once again, it may all come down to the subtlety of Pantilimon’s success. If the Romanian is as recognised for his contribution as Mignolet was in the 12/13 season, then Sunderland face losing a third successive "quality" goalkeeper in three years. Hopefully, in a time when youth is brought to the forefront of many clubs’ transfer priorities, Pantilimon will be overlooked.
As supporters have realised since his debut, Costel Pantilimon has been one of the few positives to take from Sunderland’s dull performances this season. Relegation has inspired extraordinary form from an already competent stopper. Pantilimon, in his words, made the best option coming to Sunderland, and Sunderland made the best option bringing the goalkeeper in.
Hopefully they won’t go selling this one too . . .