Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool are the Premier League’s top three teams on 20 points, with Arsenal and Tottenham two further back on 18. But the leading trio also come out on top in a number of other statistics.
City have played the most passes in total (5,728) in their eight games so far. Chelsea are next (5,639) and Liverpool third (4,772). Being in command of the ball is fundamental requirement for coaches Pep Guardiola, Maurizio Sarri and Jurgen Klopp.
For those managers at those clubs, things work better when total control is exerted in possession. As little as possible is left to chance. That means the presence of a goalkeeper who can play the part of an outfield player is non-negotiable.
Some £120 million ($160m) was lavished by Liverpool on Alisson and Chelsea on Kepa Arrizabalaga over the summer as Klopp and Sarri sought to impose their style of play on their squad from the goalkeeper upwards. For City, the signing of Ederson ushered in a new, title-winning era last term.
It’s no coincidence that those three lead the way both in terms of the number of accurate passes among all Premier League goalkeepers this season – Kepa (193), Alisson (171) then Ederson (154).
There is also an emphasis on passing out from the goalkeeper at Arsenal under Unai Emery, which is why Petr Cech is on 153, despite picking up an injury in Arsenal’s second-to-last league game.
Ederson (85 per cent) is the most accurate passing goalkeeper in the league ahead of Kepa (81%) and Alisson (80%). This season, there is a direct relationship between a goalkeeper’s passing accuracy and regularity with the team’s position in the table.
That brings us to Jose Mourinho, Manchester United and David de Gea. De Gea’s passing numbers are shockingly low for a goalkeeper of his quality. It might not be simply the case that De Gea is somehow inferior with his feet. It’s just that under Mourinho the Spaniard’s kicking game has suffered.
Given that the very best goalkeepers in the world are expected to be rounded players, in the sense that they are as good with their feet as with their hands, it means that De Gea has slipped behind the top standard.
During Louis van Gaal’s first season in charge, 2014-15, De Gea was the Premier League’s top passing goalkeeper overall with 664 passes. But his ranking has crept downwards since then.
Working under Mourinho has held De Gea back on that front as he loses step with his goalkeeping rivals in the pecking order for the national team, in the Premier League and indeed all across Europe.
Look around and you’ll see everywhere a connection between a goalkeeper’s accuracy, the frequency of passes and a team’s standing in the competition.
In Spain, the most accurate passing goalkeepers are Keylor Navas on 87.6% and Marc-Andre Ter Stegen of Barcelona on 85.2%. Thibaut Courtois is up there in third place as he adapts to life at Real Madrid and his figures of 84.7% are impressive.
Anyone wondering why Real Betis’s Pau Lopez is in the Spain squad alongside De Gea and Kepa would do well to consider the fact that no goalkeeper in La Liga has made more accurate passes this season than his 172.
That kind of passing form translates perfectly into the style of play first promoted by Julen Lopetegui in the national team and now under Luis Enrique.
In a sense, De Gea has to re-learn every time he goes on international duty and it cannot be easy to switch between the two styles.
His accuracy numbers are way down on the other top keepers, with only 55% of his passes hitting their mark. He is way back also on the number of passes he has completed, on 109 – nearly half of Kepa’s total to this point.
A full 27 of his passes have ended in United’s final third meaning he is going long far more often than those keepers at the other top clubs. That figure is 18 for Ederson, 15 for Alisson and only two for Kepa.
United have played 514 long balls in total in the league this season, the eighth-most in total, and far clear of City’s 352.
Mourinho’s side have lost possession because of De Gea a full 92 times this season, which is far inferior to Kepa (46), Alisson (45) and Ederson (28).
Maybe De Gea is under strict orders to get rid but that can sometimes lead to United losing duels in the midfield and the ball coming back towards their defence twice as quick.
Mourinho, however, has changed tack in recent matches, with Scott McTominay playing centre-back against both West Ham and Newcastle United, and Mourinho said afterwards that the presence of Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic in the second half of that Newcastle game was to promote more quality on the ball in the defensive sector.
“We need some technical quality to bring the ball from the back and the way to have some technical quality to bring the ball from the back was to play Pogba and Matic there,” he said.
Having failed to land his summer reinforcements, Mourinho is now attempting to play out from the back using the players already on the books.
While there is still a doubt over whether or not the likes of Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof can play that kind of football, if the shift in emphasis is to be maintained then that could give De Gea a boost in his ground game.
He was almost the finished article when Mourinho arrived, as Manuel Neuer was when Guardiola pitched up to Bayern. Neuer had little improvement to make in the nuts and bolts of his goalkeeping so Guardiola set about training him to become the most complete No.1 in history.
De Gea is just as good a shot-stopper as Neuer was but over the past three or so seasons has missed the opportunity to become an all-round great with kicking prowess to match his hand skill.