Goalkeeper errors in the first Champions League gameweek of the season mask team fault lines…
‘This is the life of a goalkeeper,’ a crestfallen Andre Onana told TNT Sports after he fronted up to the TV cameras following Manchester United’s 4-3 defeat against Bayern Munich. It’s the stock phrase of the custodian. They all know that these moments will come. It’s how they handle them that separates the strong from the strained.
Onana did his best to own the situation: 'It's difficult. We started very good. After my mistake, we lost control of the game. It's a difficult situation for us, for me especially because I'm the one who let the team down.'
The Cameroonian had already done something that disarmed the keyboard warriors and the knee-jerk critics. He had fessed up. Straight away. There was no hiding place after failing to stop Leroy Sane’s shot from squirming under his arms. It was a mistake that completely changed the course of a half which United had been controlling quite well.
The 27-year-old was visibly distraught, lying prone on the ground for several seconds before his teammates hauled him up.
That moment where the earth must surely swallow the goalkeeper whole but chooses not to is the worst part. Terra firma gives way to man overboard for the next minute as thoughts are scrambled.. The camera pans in on every unfavourable angle and facial expression. It will be replayed forever. The real damage limitation is to stop replaying it mentally.
The other 20 players simply don’t carry that responsibility. Yet, they do.
Erik ten Hag said something searing in the press conference in defence of his charge. “Let’s not make it bigger than it is,” the United manager stressed. The Dutchman then pointed to the other areas that would have prevented the finale from ever taking place.
The passes that were swapped between Harry Kane and Sane had to be stopped at source. United were constantly being played through, which is why Onana was called on numerous times in the second half to beat away shots in between the crazy “you score, they score” moments. In his best, broken Steve McClaren-style accent, Ten Hag blasted: “How easy players come through our box and to finish, it can't be.”
This is the point. The endgame is all that our eyeballs see in real-time. Goalkeepers are the fall guys of a sequence of connected events that could have been broken with quicker, more robust processes ahead of them. When the number one is exposed, all the focus is on his merits. Or weaknesses.
Look at Joe Hart against Feyenoord. He holds his hands up. The decision to put Kyogo Furuhashi at the end of the wall backfires as the striker turns away rather than face the artillery. Hart is responsible for the 'in-game' change as Brendan Rodgers puts it, and he should still save the situation.
Reading between the lines of his mea culpa, it was clear that the former goalkeeper was looking for mitigating factors: ‘There were a few factors at the free-kick, but I’ll look at my position. As the keeper, I want to be saving those. The ball skipped up, it was curling away. A guy ran across Kyogo in the wall and it affected him. It was a perfect storm for them and it went in.’
The technical factors, the small moments between the lines, on set-pieces, shapeshift everything that happens at the point of impact for the goalkeeper.
There is always traffic to contend with, as poor Omri Glazer knows after letting through Julian Alvarez’s free-kick, but when one team has so much possession and 37 shots, then the mental strain of constant focus can ask too much of one man. If Red Star had 'something to hold on to' then the narrative was rather skewed.
Manchester City should have been out of sight before half-time if it hadn’t been for Glazer’s overtime heroics. Goalkeepers don’t get subbed generally (Mikel Arteta might debate that), but clearly, he wasn’t the same player in the second half. There was no breathing space. His team could not get a foothold that would provide the Israeli with some succour.
Similarly, if not quite under as much under pressure as Glazer, Eindhoven’s Walter Benitez was questioned for Arsenal’s opening goal. PSV had started brightly but the BBC and other outlets said “Benitez could only push Martin Odegaard's into the England winger's (Saka) path.” Indeed. That is factually correct. The punchline is guiding the reader to a perceived ‘mistake’, though it can't really be called that. “Could” have done better is the takeaway.
However, PSV’s other ten players either had not been watching the Premier League or were simply not quick enough or adept enough at closing off the supply to the Norwegian’s lethal foot. From that point on, it was all Arsenal. Benitez pulled off a couple of excellent saves to keep the score down. Later, Odegaard would have all the time in the world to take aim and score the fourth
Without pressure on the ball, goalkeepers are there to be shot at. It didn’t end well for some of them this week. That’s a goalkeeper’s life. No wonder Ivan Provedel didn’t know what to do when he saved Lazio at the other end. 'Later, I will realise I scored in the Champions League.'
Truly, he has to frame it because the difficult moments hit much harder when the rest of the team isn’t tight enough.