Ball-playing keepers and hybrid defender-midfielders the latest trends in the Premier League

Goalkeepers are getting so good with the ball at their feet that they could almost be outfield players.

Take Ederson Moraes at Manchester City, for example: He can ping a pass 60 meters right onto the head of Erling Haaland or into the stride of Jack Grealish. Pep Guardiola has even said Ederson is the best penalty-taker at City.

The Premier League will be full of ball-playing goalkeepers this season, with the arrival of Andre Onana at Manchester United and Guglielmo Vicario at Tottenham adding to the list of keepers who are now expected to be the starter of attacks as much as the last line of defense.

Expect more length-of-the-field team goals but maybe more defensive mistakes, too, with the majority of teams likely to be playing the ball out from the back in an effort to keep possession, beat the press and make full use of the pitch to attack in space.

Onana has emerged as a master of that — and it’s why United has spent 51 million euros ($57 million) on a keeper who could be a transformational signing, an emblem of the Erik ten Hag era if the club can return to its former glories.

“With him, something will change in our game,” Ten Hag said of Onana, who showed in last season’s Champions League — when playing for Inter Milan — his ability to pierce a press with his precise balls into midfield or up front.

Gone are the days when a goalkeeper’s sole duty was to keep the ball out of the net. Now they need to be as good with their feet as their hands, essentially giving teams an 11th player in their build-up and allowing defenders to push further upfield.

According to Sky Sports, goalkeepers’ possession retention averaged around 43% between 2003-10. Last season, that figure had risen to 67% — the highest ratio on record.

Aside from Onana and Vicario, Mark Flekken and Bart Verbruggen — two Dutch ball-playing goalies — have moved to the Premier League this offseason with Brentford and Brighton, respectively.

They’ll join Ederson, Kepa Arrizabalaga at Chelsea, Allison Becker at Liverpool, Aaron Ramsdale at Arsenal who, along with the likes of Jason Steele (Brighton) and David Raya (Brentford), are all exceptional with their feet.

Raya, for example, had a 42.1% accuracy with his long passes last season. He is reportedly close to a move to Arsenal, which would give coach Mikel Arteta two ball-playing keepers — like Guardiola has at City with Ederson and Stefan Ortega.

Again, Guardiola can be regarded as a trendsetter in this department, at least in English soccer. In his first season at City in 2016, one of his first big decisions was to sell Joe Hart — a key member of the City team’s spine — and bring in Claudio Bravo, a goalkeeper whose one-on-one shot-stopping was suspect but whose passing from the back was peerless. Ederson was then signed in 2017 and has proven to be great in both respects.

Many coaches, as is often the case, have copied Guardiola.

Not everyone, though.

Of the top teams, Newcastle still has a goalkeeper in Nick Pope who looks uncomfortable with the ball at his feet but makes up for it with his shot-stopping ability.

They are few and far between these days.

The price tags of the Premier League’s top goalkeepers highlight their growing importance.

Allison cost Liverpool 73 million euros (then $85 million) in July 2018, at the time a world-record fee for a goalkeeper. Chelsea paid even more — 80 million euros (then $92.6 million) — for Kepa a month later.

Now Onana comes in at No. 3 in the list of the most expensive goalkeepers ever.

Here are a couple of other tactical developments to watch out for:


There’s another innovation by Guardiola that’s moving the needle in the Premier League.

Like he did in Germany with Phillip Lahm, Guardiola has adapted his formation — chiefly to accommodate the arrival of striker Erling Haaland — to include a defender who plays as a midfielder when the team is in possession. It’s termed a “hybrid” role.

Last season, City initially pushed a full back, Joao Cancelo or Rico Lewis, into central midfield alongside Rodri to allow both the team’s attacking central midfielders to get closer to Haaland and so that City had two deeper-lying midfield anchormen in place in case of a turnover of possession. That hybrid player eventually became John Stones, who mostly pushed forward from center back to join Rodri.

Stones was a revelation. Get this: He completed more dribbles than any player in a Champions League final since Lionel Messi in 2015.

Others are now using the tactic. At Arsenal, Oleksandr Zinchenko did it last season and summer signing Jurrien Timber might do the same this season. At Liverpool, Trent Alexander-Arnold became a hybrid defender-midfielder late in the season and had seven assists across April and May, a big reason for the team’s strong league finish.

Expect only top clubs to use the hybrid tactic, however, because it’s best suited for teams who dominate possession and can afford to only have three at the back for parts of games.


Brighton has been an entrancing watch since the arrival of Roberto De Zerbi in September, mainly because of the risks his team take at the back.

The center backs hold onto the ball in a bid to draw opposition players toward them. When they do, they quickly pass forward into the spaces left behind and the full backs are encouraged to support the forwards to create overlaps. Central midfielders also receive the ball under pressure at times and aim to make a one-touch lay-off to create space.

It can go wrong and leave the defense open — Brighton lost 5-1 at home to Everton on May 8, remember — but it’s a thing of beauty when it comes off. See the 3-0 win at Arsenal just six days later.


Steve Douglas is at


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