You’d be forgiven for considering shot-stopping and saving to be the priority of a goalkeeper. However, is it the only vital skill for keeping in the modern game?
The Athletic’s Matt Pyzdrowski shed light on an exciting and highly valid notion. He suggests that stopping the ball going in between the sticks might not be the be-all and end-all of today’s goalkeeping (via The Athletic).
Similar to any other player on the pitch, the strengths and skills of a goalkeeper have to make sense in the context of a team’s style of play and the manager’s footballing philosophy.
Football for the modern game
We’ve seen how Manchester United Football Club lost its identity following the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013. Under new boss Erik ten Hag, evidence suggests that the United of old is returning. This supports the importance of a team identity. As alluded to by Pyzdrowski, a clear team identity guides recruitment, shapes the attitude and formulates a system of play that churns out desirable results.
Goalkeepers play an important role on both ends of the modern game. They deny opposing strikers the joy of finding the back of the net and often can be the starting point of build-up play. A goalie’s ability to carry out his duties effectively can instil confidence or leave a team unsure.
‘Nice to have,’ or Absolutely essntial?
Only some people view distribution and build-up play as the holy grail. Many treat it as a ‘nice to have’ skillset rather than a necessity.
Rightly pointed out by journalist Pyzdrowski, this school of thought labels distribution play from keepers an unnecessary risk. The task of preventing goals is the only role required of a keeper under this philosophy.
However, while effective keeper distribution can be seen as an offensive quality, it is also a defensive facet. This is because effective build-up play ensures that a team retains possession and prevents any goal threat from originating.
Playing cat and mouse in possession as the mouse is a tiring state of affairs for even the fittest of teams. Staying in control and dictating the pace and flow of a game is almost always going to be the more attractive position to occupy. After all, it can be challenging to turn defence and rare possession into attacking opportunities.
De Gea and The Red Devils
When Ten Hag arrived at Old Trafford, he made known his intentions to develop a progressive style of play. His first competitive outing as manager could not have gone any worse with a disastrous defeat to Brentford.
Nevertheless, the manager stood by his keeper David de Gea claiming he had faith that his goalie could champion the bold style of football he wished to create. Despite this show of confidence, Ten Hag made changes for the Red Devils clash with Liverpool.
Before the game against Liverpool, De Gea played most balls over short distances (19 of his 26 passes were played short in the 2-1 defeat against Brighton; versus Brentford, seven of 14). Against Liverpool, Ten Hag wanted De Gea to lean on his strengths and play the ball long.
The approach minimised United’s concerns about turning over the ball in their defensive third. De Gea had a great game making five saves and helping United secure a 2-1 win over their northern rivals. According to The Athletic, De Gea attempted 31 passes, of which 30 were played long into Liverpool’s half.
It has not been all smooth sailing for United at the back since their triumph over Liverpool. The defending and De Gea have been shaky at times.
To his credit, De Gea is a gifted shot-stopper with lightning-quick reflexes. A testament to his shot-stopping ability is his entry into the United history books as the holder of the club’s most clean sheets ever (181). The Spaniard had to surpass club legend Peter Schmeichel to earn the title.
What lies on the horizon
De Gea could sign a new deal with United. However, a new contract would hamper Ten Hag’s long-term ambition to play more progressive football at the club. De Gea’s elite shot-stopping ability could cement the Red Devils’ resurgence, but it could also spell its end.
To echo Matt Pyzdrowski’s sentiments, if United wishes to elevate the club’s football level, new goalkeeping personnel will be a priority.