The first step to solving a problem is recognising that it exists.
It seems hard to believe now, but when Pep Guardiola took over at Manchester City they were coming off a pretty mediocre 2015-16 season, finishing fourth in the league and only confirming Champions League qualification on the last day.
One of Guardiola’s first acts as manager was to sit down with Joe Hart, then entering his ninth year as City’s first-choice goalkeeper, and tell him bluntly that he was not part of his plans.
“It was a two-hour conversation that kind of ended with him saying ‘I can’t see this working,’” Hart said earlier this year.
“I said ‘I don’t agree with you.’ He said. ‘I’ll be the first person to be proved wrong but what I see in you isn’t what I want from my goalkeeper.’”
Replacing the popular Hart was a risk for Guardiola. He had been England’s number one for six years and hardly anybody had been questioning his place in the City team.
People couldn’t understand why the new coach would get rid of someone they were used to thinking of as a top goalkeeper, particularly when the replacement was the erratic Claudio Bravo, who would soon become a figure of fun.
But the way Guardiola saw it, the bigger risk would have been to let Hart stay and hope everything would work out. If you want your team to play out from the back and defend high up the pitch, you need a goalkeeper who is able to play sweeper, and Guardiola didn’t believe Hart could do it. He was not prepared to compromise the whole system to accommodate the shortcomings of one player. So Joe Hart had to go.
Guardiola’s decision demonstrated the clarity and ruthlessness without which he could not have built City’s winning machine. Does Erik ten Hag share these qualities? The next two weeks will tell us a lot.
Manchester United’s 4-0 defeat to Brentford was simultaneously astonishing and yet completely in keeping with United’s form. What was the worst goal to concede, from United’s point of view? Not the fourth, which was a brilliant move by Brentford against a team that had pushed up too high in search of a goal back.
With just four touches, three Brentford players moved the ball 100 metres forward in nine seconds: the counterattack would have outpaced Usain Bolt. Sometimes you have to hold your hands up.
The third was a set-piece and Brentford are good at set pieces: last season only Man City, Liverpool and Arsenal scored more goals from dead balls.
For United, the worst thing about this one was seeing Lisandro Martínez easily beaten to the header by Ben Mee.
Martínez, the sixth-most expensive Premier League signing of the summer, has now been systematically targeted in the air by both Brighton and Brentford; United have spent more than £50 million on a defender who seems only to have introduced a new dimension of weakness.
Of course the first goal was an appalling one to concede, not least because the chance arose through being forced back and hustled into mistakes by Brentford’s press, but Josh Dasilva’s weak shot would not have gone in but for a bizarre mistake by David de Gea. It’s one of those things, every goalkeeper throws one in now and then.
Undoubtedly, the second goal was the most galling. It virtually killed the game as a contest after just 18 minutes, and the disaster was entirely self-inflicted. United had the ball under their control and seconds later it was in their net, as De Gea mindlessly followed his pre-match instructions to play out with short passes, ignoring the warning lights flashing in his face.
Afterwards Ten Hag was asked if De Gea was capable of playing the ball out from the back in the manner demanded by his tactics.
“I’m confident that he can do it,” he replied. “I’ve seen already, I’ve seen in training and the first games that he can do that.”
One hopes for United’s sake that this is just diplomacy. It has been evident for some time that De Gea, while gifted in some respects, lacks the all-round game of today’s best goalkeepers. United could ask him to play out from the back, but that is going to cost them a lot of goals. After Brentford, it’s clear that Ten Hag is going to have to choose between his system and his goalkeeper.
This is not a snap judgment made after one poor performance. The numbers have been clear for a long time. De Gea remains a decent shot-stopper, particularly with his legs, and while his overall save percentage is around the league average over the past two seasons, he has always been capable of occasional inspired performances.
He was named Premier League player of the month as recently as January – largely thanks to a superb game away to Brentford, where he made eight saves in a 3-1 win for United.
But top goalkeepers now are judged by other qualities – their passing, their command of their area, and their ability to control the space behind the defence.
According to Statsbomb data, De Gea attempted fewer passes than any other Premier League goalkeeper last season – suggesting his defenders, knowing his weaknesses, were trying not to make him pass too much.
When he kicked it long he found a team-mate only about a third of the time. Ederson and Alisson, the standard-setters in the division, reach team-mates with more than half of their long passes.
De Gea claimed only one out of every 30 crosses, which was the lowest rate in the division, but it’s outside the box where the differences between him and the leading goalkeepers are most evident.
De Gea is an old-fashioned type of keeper who does not want to leave his penalty area, while the best modern teams want goalkeepers who can sweep behind the defence. De Gea made nine defensive interventions outside his penalty area all season, or about one every four games – the lowest rate of any keeper in the league.
Alisson, by contrast, is involved in seven times as many defensive actions outside his box, and it’s this proactive play that gives Virgil van Dijk and Joel Matip the freedom to push all the way up to the halfway line.
Alisson is not unique in this respect. Nick Pope had similar numbers and looked like he could fit in at a more progressive side than Burnley. Newcastle agreed, and snapped him up in the summer for £10 million, while United’s sub goalkeeper is Tom Heaton, who was benched by Pope at Burnley five years ago.
Just as some still think Cristiano Ronaldo is worth his place because he still scores the occasional goal, there will be those who think De Gea worth picking because he occasionally makes eight saves in one game.
If Ten Hag wants United to be a team like West Ham, who sit back and play on the counterattack, he can probably fit the two of them into the side. If he wants United to be more than that, then it’s time to face up to what has to be done.