Goalkeeping experiencing a generational shift as roles continue to evolve

Goalkeepers are being judged as much for their ability with their feet as with their hands

David de Gea left Manchester United following the expiration of his contract in June 2023. EPA
Powered by automated translation

Gigi Buffon is taking a few days extra holiday, reported to be seriously contemplating whether the age of 45-and-a-half is, finally, the age to hang up his gloves.

The evergreen Italian goalkeeper has options, including another year on his contract with Parma, where he started his monumental career in the mid-1990s and who last month narrowly missed out on promotion to Serie A. There is interest from the Saudi Pro League, too.

Or there is retirement.

Buffon, a World Cup winner with Italy and 11 times a league champion with Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain, is entitled to his extended vacation and, as he surveys the specialism he has mastered for so long, to wonder if his farewell to playing might coincide with a frontier moment in the history of goalkeeping.

This is a threshold summer for some of the greats Buffon has shared pitches with. Manchester United have waved goodbye to David de Gea after 12 years at Old Trafford. Hugo Lloris, France’s most capped footballer, counts down what remains of his time at Tottenham Hotspur.

Manuel Neuer finds himself under unusual scrutiny at Bayern Munich, where he missed the second half of last season with injury, his place taken by a de luxe emergency signing, Yann Sommer. This coming season there will be sceptical lenses trained on Neuer, all assessing whether, at 37, he remains agile and sharp enough to still cover the wide territory of the pitch he has always claimed through a career spent defining the role of modern ‘sweeper-keeper’.

As for the ‘New Buffon’, as Gigio Donnarumma - Italy’s first-choice gloveman since Buffon stepped back from international duty - has been dubbed since he was in his mid-teens, these are nervous weeks.

A new head coach, Luis Enrique, has come to Donnarumma’s club Paris Saint-Germain and the Spaniard wants to ensure that whoever is his first-choice goalkeeper responds proactively to a gameplan where the ball is played out from the back with confidence and assured footwork. Donnarumma, 24, has a mixed record in that aspect, as anybody who watched him being hustled off the ball by Karim Benzema during Real Madrid’s dramatic comeback against PSG in a 2021/22 Champions League last-16 tie could not help but notice.

Precise distribution, a capacity to pick a pass, long and short, and to deftly side-step an outfield opponent, using only the feet, has never seemed at such a premium in an elite goalkeeper. De Gea’s perceived shortcomings in that part of his otherwise fine skillset keep counting against him.

De Gea lost his number one position in the Spanish national team when Luis Enrique, as Spain head coach, dropped him in favour of the younger, far less experienced Unai Simon, explaining that: “My goalkeeper must be the first player who gives us numerical superiority while in possession. He must come forward with the ball, and take decisions. I know no other way and I don’t want to know any other way.”

Erik ten Hag, United’s manager, is of the same school, a coach who prizes possession and regards his goalkeeper as just as vital in the use of it as any outfielder. His preferred choice to replace De Gea is Inter Milan's Andre Onana, with whom Ten Hag worked at Ajax. The Cameroonian excels, with both right and left foot, at launching attacks, and trusts himself, ball at feet, in duels against any pressing opponent.

After promoting Onana above the long-serving, veteran Inter keeper Samir Handanovic last season, Inter felt the benefits. They altered tactically, their wing-backs made more effective by Onana’s precise diagonal passes, their three central defenders reinforced by a bold, roaming keeper who was key to steering Inter all the way to the European Champions League final.

United are ready to offer up to €60 million for Onana, and if they lure him to the Premier League, the top echelon of English football will gain a mobile, aggressive, dribbling gloveman closer to the style of Ederson, of Guardiola’s Manchester City, and Alisson of Liverpool.

Tottenham’s signing of Guglielmo Vicario, from Empoli, hints at a similar emphasis. The 26-year-old, recently elevated to deputise for Donnarumma in the Italy national squad, is dexterous with his feet.

As for the greatest modern Italian keeper, Buffon, he is old enough to remember the moment that feet became almost as important as hands in his job. Buffon was already rising up the junior ranks at Parma when, 31 summers ago, football’s lawmakers outlawed goalkeepers from picking up a pass played to them from the foot of a team-mate.

The rule change was designed to speed up the sport. It transformed the role of the goalkeeper. A generation on, they are all being asked to be even more perfect as all-rounders.

Updated: July 14, 2023, 4:33 AM