Gloves are off: Donnarumma and Onana among the top keepers facing heavy criticism

As the season approaches the halfway point, several of Europe's leading clubs have problems in the goalkeeping department

Paris Saint-Germain's Gianluigi Donnarumma reacts after being sent off. Reuters
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On Saturday, the footballer named man of the tournament at the last European Championship learned his and Italy’s defence of their Euros title would be almost as tough as conceivable. On Sunday, his own reputation then took a further tumble. Once again, Gianluigi Donnarumma, the giant goalkeeper whose reach made him a penalty-stopping hero for his county two years ago, has been let down by his feet.

Donnarumma was sent off for Paris Saint-Germain, 10 minutes into their Ligue 1 trip to Le Havre. A high right boot, swung into action to try and clear a bouncing ball outside his penalty area, was deemed dangerous. The referee got it right. Le Havre’s Josue Casimir took the blow to the side of his head as he chased a gap in PSG’s back four.

The reduced visitors still went on to win 2-0, increasing their lead at the top of the French table and hailing the resolute performance of Arnau Tenas, who came on in goal for his debut in senior football.

Tenas is Spanish, 22 years old and brought up through the Barcelona academy, where goalkeepers are drilled to feel comfortable in the parts of the pitch where use of the hands is outlawed. “He’s perfectly suited to a team who want to bring the ball out of defence, clearly a top professional,” said PSG head coach Luis Enrique after Tenas’ seven saves in the minutes he was on the pitch.

If Donnarumma heard those words with a wince, he would be forgiven. He has been criticised heavily for several recent errors, and is forever being scrutinised for his uncertainty when he has the ball at his feet.

And he knows Spanish goalkeepers are fashionable partly because so many are judged to be experts at accurate distribution, daring at pushing up out of the box. Donnarumma’s Italy will be up against one of them at next summer’s European Championship in what is very clearly the toughest group. Spain are its top seeds, Italy, the holders, are fourth seeds with Croatia and Albania jostling in between.

Tenas, an under-21 international, may one day come into contention for senior caps with Spain. He may be only a reserve at PSG, but he knows a goalkeeper’s fortunes can rise fast. His compatriot Robert Sanchez was called up to Spain’s squad for the last European Championship less than a year after spending a season on loan at Rochdale from Brighton and Hove Albion. Sanchez is now number one choice at Chelsea.

Or there’s David Raya, newly capped by Spain, once a loanee at Southport of English football’s fifth tier, and, on Tuesday, hoping to extend Arsenal’s lead at the top of the Premier League when they visit Luton Town.

But for each of these sudden risers, there are sharp fallers, and to look across the elite clubs of Europe is to see few positions more precarious than goalkeeper. Real Madrid sit top of La Liga thanks to successive clean sheets from Andriy Lunin, who strictly speaking ranks as third in their goalkeeping hierarchy. Thibaut Courtois is recuperating from long-term injury, and when Courtois ruptured a ligament in August, Madrid sent for a Spaniard, Kepa Arrizabalaga, on loan from Chelsea.

Kepa, now injured, short-term, at Madrid, crammed a lifetime’s worth of highs and lows into a tumultuous five years in London. He remains the costliest goalkeeper ever transferred, at the €80 million Chelsea paid Athletic Bilbao for him in 2018. Within two years, he had been relegated to back-up for Edu Mendy. Mendy has moved on, too, to Al Ahli in Jeddah, making space for Sanchez at Stamford Bridge, where managers change frequently and new ones often arrive with their own dogmatic ideas of what makes an ideal modern goalkeeper.

The criteria for that are many and varied. Raya came into Arsenal, from Brentford, at head coach Mikel Arteta’s request, his passing with his feet apparently deemed better than that of Aaron Ramsdale, a bold keeper who had a huge impact on Arsenal’s progress last season.

At Chelsea, Mauricio Pochettino has supported Sanchez in the face of criticism. At Manchester United, where Andre Onana was signed from Internazionale in the summer to join a manager, Erik ten Hag, who had worked with Onana at Ajax, the position is subject of relentless scrutiny. Onana, superb in helping Inter to last season’s Champions League final, has made conspicuous errors, especially in the high-scoreline setbacks United have suffered in Europe: 3-2 losers to Galatasaray, defeated 4-3 by Bayern Munich, and letting a two goal lead turn into a 3-3 draw in Istanbul last week.

“He knows he’s made some mistakes,” admitted Ten Hag of Onana as United prepare for Wednesday’s hosting of Chelsea. It’s a fixture where neither keeper can be described as fully settled.

Updated: December 05, 2023, 6:32 AM