Gavin Bazunu interview: Southampton’s risk-taking goalkeeper who creates as well as saves

Gavin Bazunu interview: Southampton's risk-taking goalkeeper who creates as well as saves
Gavin Bazunu has been a key part of Southampton's push for promotion - Steve Reigate for The Telegraph

There were shades of Harry Redknapp’s famously impassioned defence of Frank Lampard at West Ham United when Russell Martin met Southampton fans early this season.

The new manager was asked for reassurances that he would address the spine of the team, including the goalkeeper position, after Gavin Bazunu had conceded four goals the previous Saturday against Norwich City.

Martin was not impressed. “We don’t have a problem with the goalkeeper,” he shot back. “We have a full international – he’s 20 years old. He will take unbelievable lessons from last year playing in a team that finished bottom of the Premier League. That’s definitely not easy for a young goalkeeper. I’ve been made aware of this narrative around Gav.

“He will be one of the best goalkeepers in the division. For how we want to play, if I was going to look at a goalkeeper, I would want to go and sign Gavin Bazunu. On Saturday, he couldn’t do anything. Not his problem. At all. It’s the guys in front of him. Gavin is going to be a huge asset to this club.”

Southampton goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu saves at the feet of Manchester City's Erling Haaland during the Premier League match at Etihad Stadium, Manchester
Bazunu endured a tough season between the sticks in 2022-23 as Southampton were relegated - PA Wire/Martin Rickett

Six months and 35 games later – which included a 25-match unbeaten streak – Bazunu arrives at Anfield with Southampton in the FA Cup fifth round having justified Martin’s faith. Blending the influence of the Manchester City academy with first-team experience as a teenager at Shamrock Rovers, Rochdale and Portsmouth, Bazunu is among an emerging group of goalkeepers whose impact can be tangibly measured at both ends of the pitch.

And so alongside his 10 Championship clean sheets are some rather more eye-catching statistics. Like how he has been directly involved this season in eight league goals and 55 passing moves that have ended with an attacking shot. Both are the highest for any Championship goalkeeper and you do not need long at Southampton’s training ground to appreciate that this is no quirk of fate.

“I have always been good with the ball at my feet,” explains Bazunu. “The manager has given me the opportunity to be even more influential. He just tells me to stay brave. I love to be brave. I love to take risks in the right way. Risks are always going to be part of the game, especially as a goalkeeper.

“Every day we are training to do the same thing in tighter spaces. Every day we are doing something to do with our feet. And, in training, it’s harder than when we are playing. At times we are stepping out there and it feels easy compared to what we are used to. We know we have the backing and the trust of the people on the sidelines.

“The most important thing is [still] to be a good shot stopper … to keep the ball out of the net and then that distribution and calmness comes as an extra. You have to perfect that side of the game as well.”

Gavin Bazunu interview: Southampton's risk-taking goalkeeper who creates as well as saves
Bazunu has 10 Championship clean sheets - Steve Reigate for The Telegraph

This all means that a typical day involves not just a traditional goalkeeping session being peppered with shots and crosses but taking part in the sort of ‘rondo’ quick passing drills which Pep Guardiola made famous. Post-match analysis also extends far beyond Bazunu’s defensive contribution to his positioning, availability, distribution and even creative vision. This may mean consciously drawing an oncoming player towards his goal before waiting for the optimal moment of release. It is high stakes but the rewards can be vast.

It has also challenged traditional perceptions of risk and the players now believe there is actually more overall danger if they retreat into a more conventional ‘clear the lines’ outlook. There will be little chance, then, of Southampton compromising on their playing style even against an opponent in Liverpool with perhaps the most formidable attacking press in Europe.

“There are risks happening all over the pitch – it’s just when you are in your own third, people can get a lot more nervous,” says Bazunu. “But, as you have seen so many times this season, it really hurts teams. Over a long period of time, you see the influence.

“The biggest thing is the movement and the timing for each of us. We try to keep in close distances to always help our team-mate. It’s taking up the responsibility of breaking a press or allowing teams to press so you can hurt them in different areas. [It’s] waiting on the ball as long as possible at times to attract the press…so we have an overload in a different part of the pitch.

“It takes a massive amount of bravery and patience. The defenders and the number six, whoever is playing, are the players who take the most risks so we can put the attacking players into positions where they can score.

“When we are most brave, willing to take the most risk, play with intensity, are the moments where we usually score goals or keep teams pinned in [and] don’t concede chances. The moments when we stepped off the pedal and chose the safe option rather than the right option … are usually the positions that put us in trouble. Staying brave is a massive part of our game.”

Also vital is how Martin has communicated his philosophy to the fans. It means there is now a much greater understanding if a player does make a costly mistake in a scenario when ‘Row Z’ might once have been the crowd’s preference. Bazunu thinks the supporters now enjoy the style of football as much as the players – “when we do it right, it looks beautiful” – but he also stresses the need for balance in assessing a team’s highs just as much as their lows.

A prolific reader who engages only very selectively with social media, Bazunu works extensively on his mindset and believes that psychological foundation was crucial in processing relegation. Having become the youngest regular goalkeeper in Premier League history, Bazunu would have four different managers in his first 13 months at Southampton. “I have a tight group of people around me I really trust,” he says. “When you are having the pressure and that criticism, just to have two or three voices of people you really trust – whose opinion you value – is a massive thing.

“It was a perfect decision to come here. If I hadn’t had those trying and testing times, I wouldn’t be in the position I am now. At the time it hurt – it wasn’t what I wanted – but it has put the club in a position where we are rebuilding so much stronger. It feels like a completely different place.”

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