What does it take to be a modern goalkeeper?
David De Gea’s omission from the latest Spain squad has raised eyebrows across the footballing world: what does it say about the modern expectations for the role?
By Daniel Petersen
Credit: Roland Osbeck
It’s taken as an article of faith that the modern goalkeeper has to be more than a shot-stopper, but this principle has been taken to a new extreme by Luis Enrique and his coaching team. In place of De Gea, the former Barcelona coach has called up Athletic Bilbao’s Unai Simon, Brighton’s Robert Sanchez, and Brentford’s David Raya.
De Gea, having reclaimed his spot as Manchester United’s only shining light, has reason to feel hard-done-by. His Post-Shot Expected Goals (PSxG) of +10.6 (at a rate of 0.36 per 90 minutes), is the best of any keeper in Europe’s top 5 leagues, meaning that he has prevented 10 goals against for Manchester United so far this season. Even more impressively, he is outperforming his previous best of 0.23 PSxG per 90 from the 2017-18 season, when he occasionally seemed to make physics itself bend while dragging United (literally) single-handedly to second place in the league.
These numbers compare very favourably with his three usurpers. Simon, who appears to be the new No.1, is actually running perfectly as expected, preventing basically nothing but also not giving much away. The same is true of Raya and Sanchez. Ultimately, none of the three are bad shot-stoppers, but nor are they are exceptional the way De Gea is.
So why has he been dropped? The answer, as we know, is that shot-stopping isn’t everything these days, and there are other things the modern goalkeeper must do.
Comanding the area, for example. This is where things look less good for De Gea: he ranks 109th out of 113 goalkeepers across Europe’s top 5 for percentage of crosses stopped, with a whimpering 3%. Sanchez, by contrast, comes 7th (12.3%) Raya 41st (8%) and Simon 66th (6.6%, pleasingly).
All in all, this Spain contingent is a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to commanding the box, but De Gea is comfortably the worst. This is especially important because stopping crosses ultimately stops a shot being taken in the first place: if you prevent a shot from even being taken, you eradicate the risk that it flies in the top corner, or squirms in via the post, or deflects off a beach ball.
Credit: Getty Images/Mike Hewitt
The key word here is proactiveness. This is the defining characteristic of the modern goalkeeper and is a big reason why sweeping has become an important part of the game. So let’s have a look at that. Raya is particularly aggressive among his compatriots, ranking 6th in Europe for defensive actions (i.e. tackles, interceptions etc.) outside the penalty area per 90, with Sanchez not too far behind in 21st, and Simon at 52nd. De Gea? 107th.
In terms of the distance up the pitch that these actions take place, the three musketeers are by no means the most adventurous: Simon ranks 30th, Raya 37th, and Sanchez 45th, but in reality, they are all within a yard of each other. De Gea is some way behind in 84th place, a full yard and a half further back. Stylistically, United’s No.1 is much more reminiscent of old-fashioned ‘on the line’ goalkeepers. This has caused problems when United try to press high, problems that Enrique has no doubt taken note of.
Passing-wise, it’s a similar story. De Gea attempts the fewest passes in open play of the four, having attempted about 15 per 90, with Raya and Sanchez both far more involved in their teams’ build-up play (both around 36, Simon attempts 20). This, however, is as much a function of a team’s system as it is of their keeper’s ability to distribute, though it is notable that Brentford and Brighton are two of the smartest clubs around and both have recruited well for their desired styles. Bilbao are limited by their unique transfer policy of only signing players from the Basque region, while United are still trying to work out how to run properly. Sometimes the best sign that a player is good is that a smart team has signed them.
The reverse is often true as well. It’s noticeable how little speculation there has been about De Gea’s future recently. This is partly because there are very few, if any, top teams in Europe that need a new No.1, and partly because United gave De Gea a stupidly big contract, but also because he simply is not in step with the requirements of a modern goalkeeper. This is pretty obvious from the eye test, granted, but sometimes it’s helpful to see exactly where and how a player falls short in their position, and De Gea’s numbers show that he simply isn’t proactive enough.
Would it have been worth having him in the squad? Perhaps, but why stop shots when you can prevent them?
Stats courtesy of rbref.com