“I wanted to keep playing and keep the possession,” said Alisson after committing what he called a stupid mistake. Up 2-0 against Leicester City in a match in September, the Liverpool goalie was caught in possession inside his own box, leading directly to an opposition goal. Far from being upset, Jurgen Klopp said that the blunder was inevitable due to the importance of Alisson’s ball-playing ability within his side and instead praised his keeper for staying calm in possession the rest of the match. Besides, Alisson did warn us about his risky style, saying that fans with heart problems have to be careful when watching him play before adding that his style is to achieve a purpose of shaping matches. And how could Klopp complain? Liverpool have given up just eight goals in 20 matches on the season, the fewest in the Premier League.
Pep Guardiola had a similar, nonchalant reaction to Ederson’s aggressive nature. After the Manchester City goalie gave up two penalties in consecutive matches, Guardiola chose to emphasize the bigger picture, saying “I’m more concerned about other issues than these kinds of actions.” For Klopp and Guardiola, that risk-taking personality from their keepers is a feature, not a bug, in the bigger picture of dominating position and possession in a match. Guardiola enthused how Ederson’s accurate long-range passing opens up space for his midfield to maneuver. And we have highlight reels of Ederson’s accuracy off goal kicks leading directly to chances for Sergio Aguero. If deep lying playmakers then center backs were vaunted for their ability to invite pressure and make defenders vacate their positional space to be later exploited, then that role falling upon a keeper is a logical progression as opponents press even higher and leave more space behind.
There is the hammer of a long-range pass, but Ederson and Alisson are also each responsible for the screwdriver of unlocking an opposition press with subtler passes. In this recent example against Southampton’s high press, a simple pass from Ederson takes out three players, setting up Fernandinho’s wide ball that took out five more. With two passes, City had bypassed 8 defenders before Riyad Mahrez touched the ball in his own half, turning what could have been a panicked clearance and a 50-50 challenge into a 4 v. 2 counter attack. As Guardiola said, the point of passing is not to move the ball, but to move defenders and create space as each innovation and iteration in the modern game comes down to an equation of opening up or closing down space and raising or alleviating pressure. With keepers increasingly called upon to play through the first line of defensive pressure, 2018 was defined by ball-playing goalies.
Arriving to that conclusion wasn’t a matter of nuance. After all, we just have to trace the money and see where clubs are investing. 2017 was the year fullbacks rose to prominence, with Kyle Walker becoming simultaneously the most expensive defender and most expensive English player ever with his $60 million transfer fee to Manchester City. With back-to-back record transfer fees for Alisson and Kepa at Chelsea totaling over $161 million (Ederon cost just under $44 million a season earlier), the goalkeeper was on obvious choice. And that Kepa, known for his passing ability and skill in possession, was swapped for Thibaut Courtois, one of the best shot stoppers in the world, displayed the symbolic shift. Much like Guardiola discussing Ederson’s passing, Kepa was described as a keeper who could “jump the first line of an opposition team’s forwards and send the ball to the wing-backs or Jorginho.”
The importance of having a mobile goalkeeper makes tactical sense as defensive lines press higher, but even the “sweeper-keeper” tag placed on Manuel Neuer is outdated as keepers need to do more than clean up in transition. If one of the tenants of positional play is splitting center backs wide with the defensive midfielder coming deep to form a three player backline, opponents adjusted their press to shut off passing angles. With a ball-playing goalie, a team adds another passing angle in possession, shifting defenses, opening up space for a pass up the middle or a long ball wide to gain momentum. It’s not just about short passes or long-balls - keepers must have as much variety in their passing as a center midfielder. Ederson’s 85.3% passing accuracy last season was higher than Kevin de Bruyne.
As we see the transition taking place before us, with goalies taking touches and playing out of spaces inside their own penalty area we’re not yet accustomed to, it is interesting to see how it influences our perception of traditional goalkeeping talents who just save shots. According to the most forward thinking managers, the future of shot-stopping may lie in not letting opposition get near their goal with the ball in the first place through maintaining possession and high pressure. It is telling that Liverpool, City, and Chelsea have given up the least amount of goals in the league this season. We could move past simple characteristics of a defensive side or an attacking side, and instead discuss styles in terms of where on the field a team applies pressure without the ball, and where on a field a side starts their possession.
Thiago Motta raises Klopp, Guardiola, and Maurizio Sarri one further in explaining what he thinks is the future of soccer: a 2-7-2 formation with the goalie not as a player with a midfielder’s skill set, but literally as one of the seven midfielders. He calls the lineup the “future formation of football.”
And far from just an idea, Motta is currently working to implement his ideas with PSG’s U-19 side. Of his seven midfield formation, Motta says he includes the goalkeeper as the seventh midfielder because he “is the first attacker. The game starts from the goalkeeper, with his feet”. If Alisson, Kepa and Ederson are used to control matches with possession, Motta’s use of a goalkeeper as midfielder lies in shortening the field with pressure. His overall goal is to have a “short team” that can control matches with high pressure and movement with and without the ball. That vision of playing with short defenders recalls Chile’s style under Jorge Sampaoli in playing the 5’7” Gary Medel as a center back. The mobile keeper for that side was Claudio Bravo, who eventually revolted against Guardiola’s domineering personality at City. Marcelo Bielsa originally brought the high press that Sampaoli perfected to Chile, and Bielsa also called up Kepa to the Athletic first-team in 2012. All roads of the modern game inevitably lead to one or two minds.
Johan Cruyff insisted that it didn’t matter if a goalie got chipped every now and then as long as the team was imparting its style throughout a match and a season. What is risk in soccer in 2018, anyway? As Klopp and Alisson implied, it is riskier to not play a dominant style over 38 league matches - to go all-in on a philosophy - at the expense of individual mistakes in moments. And if Motta does pull off his vision, the goalkeeping position will open even more endless possibilities of how far space, pressure, and the sport itself can be pulled apart and put back together in new ways. As for Ederson, through all his highlight reel passes and calmness, he only has one simple aim for this season: to score a goal in a match.