Erik ten Hag’s first season as Manchester United manager already looks set to be a successful one. Having secured silverware in the shape of the League Cup, the Red Devils are well placed for a deep run in the UEFA Europa League, having reached the quarter-final stage, while they currently sit third in the Premier League table.
New faces have helped recapture optimism at Old Trafford, with the likes of Casemiro, Christian Eriksen and Lisandro Martínez slotting into the starting XI, and more to come from Tyrell Malacia and Antony in seasons to follow. One position that wasn’t altered by way of a starter in 2022-23 was at goalkeeper, with David de Gea still entrusted between the sticks, as he has been since 2011-12.
Despite pulling off key saves throughout the campaign and moving up the all-time Premier League clean sheet rankings, the Spaniard’s place in the starting line-up has been called into question on numerous occasions, namely due to his levels of distribution and his ability to sweep behind his backline, while his contract expiring at the end of this season hardly helps matters.
As a result, numerous shot-stoppers have been linked with a move to the red half of Manchester this summer, with the two standout names being FC Porto’s Diogo Costa and Brentford’s David Raya.
The changes that Ten Hag has made at Manchester United during his fledging tenure can already be seen, with only Paris Saint-Germain (nine) registering more goals from fast breaks in Europe’s big five leagues this season, while in the Premier League United rank first for direct attacks (65) and goals from direct attacks (seven).
What is likely to develop over time the longer Ten Hag is at Old Trafford is Man Utd’s positioning on the pitch, specifically how high they are.
At Ajax, Ten Hag’s side would often start their open-play passing sequences higher up the pitch than most sides, both limiting the distance to their opponent’s goal, keeping team-mates closer together, also making it easier to win possession back should they lose it.
On the whole, since Ten Hag’s first full season in charge of Ajax, his side has ranked first for average start distance and high turnovers in every Eredivisie campaign. There’s work still to do for his current project, but those two statistics will more than likely head in the same direction.
Having a ‘keeper of the calibre of Andre Onana – another name linked with a switch, although not quite as fervently – allows sides to play higher up the pitch; an attribute De Gea doesn’t quite possess compared to Costa and Raya.
Since the start of 2021-22, Raya has made 34 keeper sweepings in the Premier League, completing all of them, and bettered by only five other players during that spell. The Spaniard anticipates danger well and comes out with conviction to other cut out passes or put opposing players under pressure, giving the defenders in front the confidence to play further up the pitch.
Compared to the 15 sweepings registered by De Gea over the same timeframe, Brentford’s current number one, who is yet to sign a new deal with the club, excels in this area, ranking sixth among Premier League goalkeepers, compared to his compatriot in joint-18th.
Costa also comes out extremely well when looking at him as a sweeper keeper, matching Raya in league action this season while only five goalkeepers across the top six ranked UEFA leagues have more ‘keeper-sweeper’ actions than him this season. He’s also one of the top goalkeepers in the UEFA Champions League in such actions, making nine since the start of last season (two off the most).
With 18 each in the Premier League and Primeira Liga across 2022-23 respectively, both have been involved in keeper-sweeper actions with their feet more than twice as many times as De Gea.
Staying with the Portuguese number one, the Champions League this season was terrific exposure for Costa with regards to his distribution, which was relied upon heavily during Porto’s time in the competition before they were knocked out by Internazionale in the last 16.
He has made more passes (334), completed more passes (235) and found a team-mate with more long passes (184) than any other goalkeeper in the competition so far in 2022-23, with his ability to pick out team-mates from a variety of ranges extremely useful when wanting to avoid teams pressing, or to start attacks more quickly.
What’s just as impressive is the Portuguese international’s involvement during the game, entrusted to receive possession in open play and utilise it accordingly, as an assist for Galeno’s goal against Bayer Leverkusen in the group stages emphasises.
Of all goalkeepers in the Champions League this season, Costa tops the rankings for the number of unique open play sequences he’s been involved in (280), with former Ten Hag-coached Onana the next highest (238).
Only five goalkeepers across the top six ranked UEFA leagues have been involved in more open-play sequences leading to shots this season than Costa at Porto (35), with United’s two rivals Man City (Ederson: 45) and Liverpool (Alisson: 39) have goalkeepers to make up two of the top three.
De Gea is third in the Premier League goalkeeper ranking with 28, with Raya in joint-eighth across the English top-flight on 21 – to be expected with Brentford’s longer ball philosophy.
It’s worth noting that Man Utd’s possession in the league this season in the sixth highest (52.6%) compared to Brentford’s 43.9% in 15th, which makes the role that Raya performs in west London all the more impressive.
Whether it’s open play or from restarts, Raya is among the league’s best with the ball at his feet – as keen be seen by an example during a 1-1 draw with league leaders Arsenal – and like Costa, becomes an increasingly viable option at Old Trafford as Ten Hag continues to implement his style both next season and beyond.
De Gea has often looked nervy when having to play a higher-risk pass out from his box in open play, so there’s little surprise that his goal kicks in the Premier League this season have been safer options – either very short to a defender inside the box or long to a team-mate in the opposition half (as seen below).
With Costa, however, you have a goalkeeper that is comfortable with his passing – so much so that you’d be able to see mid-range passing from goal kicks and the possibility of feeding full-backs or deeper-lying midfielders directly from these scenarios – something he’s proven across the Portuguese top-flight this season at Porto (shown below).
What shouldn’t be forgotten throughout all this though is their abilities at simply keeping the ball out the net. The role of a goalkeeper has undoubtedly evolved, but the role still needs to be underpinned by their shot-stopping ability.
Comparing the three based on their league form this season, both Raya and Costa come out on top compared to Man Utd’s current number one, and while one isn’t plying their trade in the Premier League, we can directly compare their goals prevented numbers.
Costa’s 5.5 goals prevented based on the quality of shots faced puts him 21st across the 10 best ranked leagues in Europe, while there’s only five ‘keepers in the Premier League in 2022-23 that can better Raya’s 3.3. This comes in a season for Costa that has also seen him save three of his four penalties faced in the UEFA Champions League, if his glowing reputation needed enhancing that bit more.
Both also come out well in goals prevented rate when normalising for the number of shots faced. The higher the rate is above one, the better, as it’s an expectation of what each goalkeeper would concede compared to what they actually did. In Costa’s case, for every goal he’s conceded in the Primeira Liga this season (ex. own goals), our xG model values them at 1.35.
The same can’t be said for De Gea however, with 0.89 his lowest figure of the last three campaigns (-1.9 in 2020-21 and 2.8 in 2021-22), while his -3.7 goals ‘prevented’ in 2022-23 the fifth worst of any goalkeeper in the Premier League with at least 1,000 minutes played. It’s certainly not a death sentence for the Spaniard but does perhaps suggest that he’s not at the peak of his powers as he once was in prior campaigns.
Even compared to the duo in more proactive measurements such as catching and coming for high balls into the box, he lags behind, and while it’s never been one of his greatest strengths, instead relying on reflexes and reactionary saves, it does looks like club and player have potentially reached an impasse.
Raya and Costa certainly aren’t the only two names that have been linked with the position in recent weeks, and indeed the season as a whole.
Inter’s Onana, a familiar face to Ten Hag, has been mentioned, although he only recently joined the Italian side. Feyenoord’s Justin Bijlow is another, although fitness concerns could see them steer clear, while more recently Anderlecht’s Bart Verbruggen has been a name touted, and with 5.9 goals prevented at a rate of 1.54 per goal conceded you can understand why.
Man Utd even have Dean Henderson still on their books, although the Nottingham Forest loanee filling the potential void seems unlikely at this stage.
In truth, both Raya and Costa would be ideal replacements should Man Utd and Ten Hag go down the route of replacing De Gea in the summer, with Brentford’s ‘keeper perhaps deemed as a more cost-effective measure, what with little over a year left on his current contract, while Portugal’s number one, still only 23, would certainly be more expensive, but could be a view to the longer term.
Both were called up to represent their respective nations, Spain and Portugal, during the upcoming international break (Costa later left the Portuguese squad with injury), while De Gea has once again been omitted. There’s every chance the same could happen to the former Spanish number one at Old Trafford in 2023-24.