JOhan Cruyff believed that football was too obsessed with obvious mistakes and seemingly embarrassing things. What does it matter, he asked, if his goalkeeper gets out of position a few times a season if the risk of playing far from the goal contributes to a better structure overall? It was a line he used repeatedly to defend Stanley Menzo, his goalkeeper, when he was Ajax coach in the late 1980s, at a time when sweeper keepers were still rare.
The change to the backpass law in 1992 meant that goalkeepers had to improve with the ball at their feet, and as more and more teams began to use a high press, it became almost essential for top goalkeepers to be comfortable outside their penalty area, in order not to not only to protect the space behind a high line, but also to be able to initiate attacks. That is the orthodoxy, and no one would doubt that goalkeepers like Ederson (Manchester City), Alisson (Liverpool), Manuel Neuer (Bayern Munich) and Marc-André ter Stegen (Barcelona) have been crucial to the success of their clubs in recent years were.
No one really criticizes goalkeepers for mistakes when playing the ball out from behind anymore; This is seen as an inevitable consequence of the standard playstyle. The 2-2 draw between Brighton and Liverpool in the last round of Premier League games was exciting, a game of obviously high quality. The constant activity in the technical areas suggested that something very special was going on with the pressing patterns, although frankly it was difficult to spot them in the stadium. However, the reaction of both managers showed how much they enjoyed the challenge.
And yet one goal each was due to goalkeeper errors. Alisson was out of position when Simon Adingra, after intercepting Virgil van Dijk’s pass to Alexis Mac Allister, rolled the ball past him and Bart Verbruggen’s pass to Pascal Groß as the midfielder was under pressure resulted in a penalty . A coach 15 years ago would have looked at the regularity with which defenders played balls across the penalty area or into the middle of midfield – something both Rafael Benítez and José Mourinho had banned – and would have been puzzled.
Then there is André Onana, the goalkeeper who has become the epitome of this debate. He has had a miserable start to life at Manchester United since being signed from Internazionale in the summer, as the ball-playing goalkeeper who allowed Erik ten Hag to unleash his pure, unadulterated brand of football. His passing continually went astray – perhaps most damagingly against Galatasaray – while he continually looked oddly uncertain in one-on-one situations, flailing haplessly near the ball.
Against both Brentford and Bayern, Onana allowed a shot to slip under his body, leading to questions about his technique. At Ajax, the coaches noticed that his base was wider than usual, but Onana protested when they tried to change this, and in tests they concluded that he was right: for him, this wider stance allowed him to be faster to come down. The problem is that when he gets out of position, as he did against Brentford and Bayern, his unorthodoxy means that something in his movement seems off to fans and journalists, potentially leading to increased criticism. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t get off to a terrible start; He has, and he has always been a goalkeeper prone to fluctuations in form and confidence.
But the idea that United were turning away from David de Gea was wrong is misguided – and not just because the Spaniard had a questionable season last year after years of exceptional performances. De Gea is not good with his feet, which is why Spain let him go after the 2018 World Cup and Ten Hag was forced to change his style after defeats to Brighton and Brentford at the start of last season.
Retaining De Gea would keep Ten Hag at bay and if anything close to the Ajax style was to be achieved, replacing him was essential. Replacing him with the goalkeeper Ten Hag had had at Ajax made even more sense; It’s just that Onana’s confidence appears to be drained, perhaps in part because his defensive evasion has been hampered by a lack of movement in the creaking defense in front of him.
And if a goalie has a hard time, that doesn’t mean a policy is invalidated. Onana’s difficulties are linked to the wider debate highlighted at the Amex and the danger that comes with the modern love of playing from behind. As Jorge Valdano noted in El País: “With everyone knowing about xG models and the types of shots that rarely pose a threat, it sometimes feels like players these days are more willing to take risks in their own penalty area than their opponents.”
Even in Arsenal’s far more cautious clash with Manchester City at the Emirates, David Raya’s hesitation almost gave Julian Álvarez a goal. These incidents are becoming increasingly common and it appears that the parameters of acceptable risk are currently being renegotiated.
This is an excerpt from Soccer with Jonathan Wilson, a weekly look from the Guardian US at football in Europe and beyond. Subscribe here for free. Do you have a question for Jonathan? Email [email protected] and he will provide the best answer in a future edition