Erik ten Hag’s first season as Manchester United manager has generally been a success. Having secured silverware in the shape of the League Cup and guided the Red Devils to a third-place finish in the Premier League, few fans would have expected much better. And they could yet add the FA Cup.
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 there’s 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 as he won the Premier League Golden Glove, the Spaniard’s place in the starting line-up has been called into question on numerous occasions, namely due to his distribution and unwillingness to sweep behind his backline.
Roy Keane has been a frequent critic and, despite seeing De Gea handed his Golden Glove trophy on Sunday, was typically blunt in his role as a Sky Sports pundit, saying: “I’d move him on quickly, De Gea. He wouldn’t be for me. He’s not going to get Man United back winning trophies, absolutely not. This idea of everyone patting him on the head is just ridiculous.”
Additionally, De Gea’s contract expires at the end of this season, which hardly strengthens his case. As a result, several goalkeepers 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 Ten Hag has made at Manchester United during his fledging tenure can already be seen, with only Paris Saint-Germain (10) registering more goals from fast breaks in Europe’s big five leagues this season (nine for United), while in the Premier League they rank first for direct attacks (102) and goals from such situations (nine).
What’s likely to develop the longer Ten Hag remains 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 teammates 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 goalkeeper 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 38 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 either cut out passes or put opposing players under pressure, giving the defenders in front the confidence to play further up the pitch.
Keeper Sweepings: anytime a goalkeeper anticipates danger and rushes off their line to try to either cut out an attacking pass (in a race with the opposition player) or to close-down an opposition player.
Compared to the 19 sweepings tallied by De Gea over the same timeframe, Brentford’s current number one – who Bees boss Thomas Frank confirmed is available for £40million – excels in this area, ranking sixth among Premier League goalkeepers, compared to his compatriot in 16th.
Costa also comes out well when looking at him as a sweeper keeper, registering slightly fewer sweepings compared to Raya (22 and 20) in league action 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 – that’s only four fewer than Manchester City’s Ederson, who has played seven more matches in the competition.
Staying with the Portugal 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.
Even ahead of the final, Costa ranks in the top three for passes attempted (334), completed passes (235) and successful long passes (86) for goalkeepers in the competition despite not playing in it since mid-March. His ability to pick out teammates from a variety of ranges can be extremely useful when wanting to avoid teams pressing, or to start attacks quicker.
What’s just as impressive is the Portugal 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 ranks third for the number of unique open-play sequences he’s been involved in (281), with former Ten Hag-coached Onana leading the way (351).
Only eight 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 (43), with United’s two rivals Man City (Ederson: 54) and Liverpool (Alisson: 54) having goalkeepers in the top three.
De Gea is third in the Premier League goalkeeper rankings on 41, with Raya in joint-ninth across the English top flight on 27 – to some extent this is to be expected, given Brentford utilise more of a long-ball philosophy.
It’s also worth noting that Man Utd’s possession in the league this season was the sixth highest (53.7%) compared to Brentford’s 43.3% in 16th. This makes De Gea’s output less surprising and further highlights how impressive Raya’s performance is in this regard.
Whether it’s open play or from restarts, Raya is among the league’s best with the ball at his feet – as could be seen during the 1-1 draw with league leaders Arsenal, for example – 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 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 teammate in the opposition’s half (as seen below).
With Costa, however, you have a goalkeeper who 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 (shown below).
But what shouldn’t be forgotten throughout all this is their abilities at simply keeping the ball out of the net. The role of a goalkeeper has undoubtedly evolved, but it 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 6.5 goals prevented based on the quality of shots faced puts him 24th across the 10 best ranked leagues in Europe, while there were only three goalkeepers in the Premier League who could beat Raya’s 5.8 goals prevented in 2022-23. This comes in a season that also saw Costa save three of his four penalties faced in the UEFA Champions League, if his glowing reputation needed enhancing that bit more.
The fact De Gea has conceded marginally more (-0.5 goals prevented) than the average goalkeeper would be expected to considering the quality of shots faced certainly isn’t a death sentence for the Spaniard, but it does perhaps suggest he’s not at the peak of his shot-stopping powers, and for some that’s his only redeeming quality.
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 this has never been one of his greatest strengths, instead relying on reflexes and reactionary saves, it does look 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 months. Inter’s Onana, a familiar face to Ten Hag, has been mentioned, although he only joined the Italian side last year. 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.
Man Utd even have Dean Henderson still on their books, but the Nottingham Forest loanee filling the potential void seems unlikely at this stage.
In truth, Raya or Costa would be ideal replacements should Man Utd and Ten Hag go down the route of replacing De Gea in the summer. The Red Devils might even feel they can negotiate the £40m asking price with Brentford, given Raya only has just over a year left on his contract. Costa – Portugal’s number one and four years younger than the Spaniard at 23 – may be considered the better long-term option, though there’s an expectation he’d cost considerably more.
De Gea could yet have a heroic impact in Saturday’s FA Cup final, and who knows, maybe that’d be enough to secure a breakthrough in negotiations for a new contract. But the overarching narrative of Ten Hag’s tenure so far has been progress, both in terms of team identity and seasonal objectives. If United are to truly embrace this new era, then replacing their goalkeeper would be one of the most obvious decisions they can make.