There is an argument to be had that by getting rid of Samuel Eto’o and Zlatan Ibrahimovic at Barcelona, Pep Guardiola was ushering in an era where the best teams would no longer rely on 'specialist' forwards.
Out and out strikers would be cast out to be replaced by players characterised as “midfielders” in the No.9 position – like Cesc Fabregas or, more commonly for Barca, a player uncategorizable like Lionel Messi. Whatever his skills and whatever his numbers, it would be insulting to refer to Messi as a mere striker.
Through his treatment of Sergio Aguero – who has been in and out of the team at Manchester City under Guardiola despite his status as an all-time great – the manager has demonstrated that no one will be spared from the revolution.
Where once it was assumed that each and every one of Pep’s outfield players would be expected to contribute on the ball and in positional play, now we are seeing the role of the goalkeeper in his team expand too.
“Pep’s brought in his style of play. We know what it is, he wants his goalkeepers to play out from the back which has proven a little bit difficult for some of them,” former City goalkeeper David Seaman told Goal .
“In Ederson they’ve got a guy who’s doing it really well. It’s his first season in the Premier League and for me his confidence levels are really good. It does help when you’ve got a team like that in front of you.”
Ederson is at least as involved in City’s build-up play as any of their outfield players. To watch him up close is to see just another City outfield player but in a green shirt and a pair of gloves. After doing away with the striker, Pep might yet claim the life of the specialist goalkeeper too.
“The modern-day game has demanded that the goalkeeper be more of a footballer first than a goalkeeper,” says Phil Wheddon, a double Olympic champion goalkeeping coach with the United States Women’s National Team who also worked with the Men’s side. “You’re touching the ball approximately seven more times with the feet than with the hands.
“It’s no longer just a shot-stopper. It’s no longer someone who just comes to claim the balls. It’s what you do when you have it that becomes so critical.”
Pep’s demands on his goalkeepers align perfectly with Ederson’s background as a South American who converted to the position from outfield in his youth.
Throughout football history there have been notable Latin American examples of goalkeepers who not only reinterpreted but revolutionised the position.
Rene Higuita was mocked as a clown during World Cup 1990 when Roger Milla pinched the ball from him dribbling up-field and eliminated Colombia, but with the passing of the years Higuita looks decades ahead of his time.
He drew influence from Alberto Vivalda – his mentor as a youth player with Millonarios – and Vivalda in turn bore similarity in style to Hugo Gatti, the eccentric Argentina and Boca Juniors legend who came before him.
Since the days of Amadeo Carrizo in the 1940s Latin American goalkeepers have been at the vanguard when it comes to integrating with outfield play.
Jose Luis Chilavert and Rogerio Ceni racked up almost 200 set-piece goals between them while Mexico legend Jorge Campos played a full season up front for Pumas at the start of his career.
“Apart from his terrible kit he actually went on as a sub, went in as [an outfield] player and someone else went in the goal,” says Wheddon.
Starting late in goal – as Higuita and Ederson have done – means having an added sense of what it takes to retain possession as an outfield player.
Higuita’s dribbles were a flashy but fundamental tactic in Colombia and Atletico Nacional’s systems. By beating the first defender in a dribble, 'el Loco' would tip the numbers game in his team’s favour.
Ederson is now doing similar for City with his passes and it is giving them a crucial edge on any opponent they come across. Someone is going to have to man-mark the goalkeeper to stop them.
Guardiola’s teams are keeping the ball for anything up to 70 per cent of the time in their Premier League matches. Through 11 games they have scarcely been on the back foot let alone been asked to defend for prolonged spells.
That's the way Guardiola likes it. His defenders are criticised for their vulnerability in 'defending' but that is to fundamentally misconstrue what he is attempting to do. There are no true defenders, no true midfielders, no true strikers in his systems. And soon, perhaps, there will be no goalkeepers either.
Consider the difference between Ederson’s out-and-out 'goalkeeping' statistics this season and what are traditional 'outfield' skills.
Simply put, Ederson with Pep’s guidance is obliterating the distinction between goalkeeper and outfield player. You get the impression that even if City were playing an actual outfielder in goal then there wouldn’t be much difference in their success.
He’s only made 15 saves – the lowest number of any goalkeeper in the league - and his save percentage is just 68 per cent. That ranks somewhere in the middle of the league’s shot stoppers and proves he’s not in the team to keep the opposition out.
“The standard of player he has in front of him dictates that he is not seeing the volume of shots that perhaps a Ben Foster or someone like that is,” says Wheddon. “The style of play is a massive part of it.”
And yet he’s third in clean sheets with five behind Nick Pope of Burnley, who has played three matches fewer, and David de Gea for Manchester United.
He has faced just 22 shots on target in total – the lowest in the division – and conceded just seven times. City have constructed a system whereby their goalkeeper is not having to be a goalkeeper and in turn he is rewarding his team-mates for that with the passes that are getting them going.
“We’re not just talking about playing a 15-20 yard pass to an outside back or something like that,” says Wheddon.
“Now we’re talking about slipping balls into a midfielder, we’re talking about bypassing the first wave of attack and putting it into a forward’s feet. Now the range of passing and the accuracy of passing is critical."
Among all players with more than 100 successful passes this season – including outfield players – Ederson has a better pass percentage (84.11) than players like Cesc Fabregas, Gini Wijnaldum, Christian Eriksen and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. No surprise that he tops the goalkeeper’s list in this category.
He is third among goalkeepers in the number of successful passes – only behind Hugo Lloris of Tottenham and Huddersfield’s Jonas Lossl – but his 217 passes are more than the totals of team-mates Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling as well Alexis Sanchez, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain Chamberlain, Vicente Iborra and Willian.
He has taken 355 touches of the ball which is one more than Harry Kane and just one fewer than Juan Mata. He has lost possession just 44 times – again the lowest for a goalkeeper – and in second place on this list is Simon Mignolet at 81.
“Nowadays with the style of play, the speed of play and the demands of the position, the goalkeeper - it’s essential that he’s great with both feet,” says Wheddon.
“If you look in the Premier League and the top leagues around the world, if you mis-hit the ball and give up possession, the calibre of player these days is so high that if there’s a turnover in your own defensive third, often it’s resulting in a shot on goal. Then you’re dealing with something else.”
Guardiola has always demanded a goalkeeper who could use his feet in the tradition of Dutch total football. It is not a new idea. Rinus Michels took his cue to use Jan Jongbloed at the 1974 World Cup from Hungary’s use of Gyula Grosics in the 1950s.
“As a coach you have to incorporate your goalkeeper into the team play,” says Wheddon. “You’re coming back to the total football philosophy of the Dutch. Frans Hoek, the Dutch national goalkeeping coach, has for many years has been saying that the goalkeeper has to be the 11th field player.”
Stanley Menzo continued the tradition at Ajax under Johan Cruyff, who imported it to Barcelona. Since then the goalkeeper has become the lifeblood of both Barca and now Guardiola’s teams.
Victor Valdes was his chief exponent at Camp Nou while Manuel Neuer advanced the role with Pep at Bayern Munich. We all know what became of Joe Hart – and Claudio Bravo for that matter – but now Pep seems to have in Ederson the goalkeeper equipped to finally shatter the separation between goalkeepers and outfield players.
“The positional demands have meant that all players have had to evolve,” says Wheddon. “I’ve even seen coaches take a goalkeeper out of the goal and put a field player in there and play as an extra sweeper with gloves on. There will be more evolution as the game moves forward.”
In the Brazilian, Guardiola has that “sweeper in gloves” and that might well herald the dying out of the goalkeeper as we know it.