De Gea's Man United exit paves the way for Ten Hag's tactical transformation
MANCHESTER, England (AP) — Replacing David de Gea won't be easy.
No Premier League goalkeeper kept more clean sheets last season than De Gea, who announced his departure on Saturday, and in 12 years at Manchester United he was named the club's player of the year on four occasions.
He leaves United as a legend, having been part of its last league title-winning team and lifting four major trophies with the club. But his exit also paves the way for a transition that many fans feel is long overdue.
At his best, De Gea was a match-winning shot-stopper with the agility and speed of reaction to pull off astounding saves.
In recent years, however, he has looked like a player out of his time as soccer has demanded more from keepers, with Manchester City and Liverpool two standout examples of how the position has been transformed.
England's two most dominant teams of the past five years have exploited the ball-playing qualities of their keepers.
Ederson, at City, and Alisson, at Liverpool, look as comfortable with the ball at their feet as they do with their hands. Their composure in possession and the precision of their passing adds another dimension to their teams.
They are effectively an 11th outfield player at times and it can feel like their teams have an extra man in defense with their ability to step out of goal and double up as a sweeper when required.
Their long-range passing can be a valuable weapon in attack, but it is more their prowess in building out from the back that is fundamental to the style of soccer played by City's Pep Guardiola and Liverpool's Jurgen Klopp.
United has not had that option with De Gea in goal and increasingly there has been a sense that it has held the team back in attempts to modernize its play.
Can it be a coincidence that the two best teams in English soccer have built their success on ball-playing keepers?
Of course it is not the only way to achieve success. But it helps.
Guardiola shocked City fans when displacing the club's two-time league title-winning keeper and then-England No.1, Joe Hart, almost as soon as he took over at Etihad Stadium.
Hart was an icon. But Guardiola had different ideas of what he wanted from a keeper and the ball-playing Claudio Bravo was signed from Barcelona before Ederson was eventually brought in from Benfica.
It was seen as controversial at the time and Guardiola was even derided when Bravo made some high-profile blunders in his first season. But to a coach who has repeatedly looked to innovate soccer, getting the right keeper was pivotal to his plans at City.
Likewise Klopp at Liverpool. He made Alisson the most expensive keeper in the world when signing him from Roma for $84.5 million in 2018.
He has gone on to win the Premier League, Champions League, Club World Cup, FA Cup and League Cup as Liverpool has gone head-to-head with City.
While United has had its success with De Gea, its style of soccer has not come close to reaching the heights of City or Liverpool.
Under former managers Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer the demands on De Gea's footwork were not so intense. But Erik ten Hag has made it clear that he wants his keeper to be involved in the play and United's evolution under the Dutch manager has felt stifled as a result of De Gea's limitations.
The 4-0 rout by Brentford in only Ten Hag's second game in charge showcased the problems he would encounter by trying to impose his brand of soccer on players unused to his methods.
De Gea's distribution put his teammates under pressure, with even the usually composed Christian Eriksen guilty of losing his head as United was overrun.
While a compromise was found and De Gea played his part in a largely encouraging campaign that saw United qualify for the Champions League and win the League Cup, his departure gives Ten Hag the chance to bring in a keeper that could prove transformational to his team.
Inter Milan's Andre Onana is the favorite to come in.
Ten Hag knows him well, having coached Onana when in charge of Ajax.
Notably, Onana's footwork was repeatedly cited by Guardiola as one of Inter's key strengths ahead of the Champions League final, which City won 1-0.
The 27-year-old Onana's distribution and ability to step out his area to receive the ball were on show in that final as he justified Guardiola’s praise.
They are qualities Ten Hag knows well and may soon get to benefit from again.
United went into this off-season with a top class striker as its priority in the transfer market. But just like City and Liverpool found in the recent past, a goalkeeper could be every bit as important.
James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson
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