Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola’s decision to ship Joe Hart out on loan last season and replace the England No.1 with Claudio Bravo has drew widespread criticism in England.
The Chilean goalkeeper, signed from Barcelona for £17million, looked wholly uncomfortable between the sticks at the Etihad and was eventually benched in favour of Willy Caballero.
Things could have been very different for the Citizens, however, had the Catalan tactician managed to sign his first-choice goalkeeping target last summer: Marc-André ter Stegen.
Guardiola, having worked with Manuel Neuer at Bayern Munich in the previous four seasons, wanted a custodian who could sweep up behind a high defensive line and make himself open to receiving the ball to feet at all times. The Germany No.1’s international understudy was the perfect option.
But Barcelona were unwilling to consider parting ways with ter Stegen, who, after two years as back-up to Bravo, was earmarked to usurp the former Real Sociedad man last term. Guardiola had to settle for second-best.
City’s loss has absolutely been Barcelona‘s gain. Not only does ter Stegen possess outstanding reflexes and sound handling — his 12 saves at the Santiago Bernabéu helped Barça secure a 3-2 win over Real Madrid in April — his passing over all ranges, off either foot, and, most importantly, his comfort in possession, have been major assets for the Blaugrana.
For as long as memory serves, part of Barcelona’s on-field identity has been to play out from the back, building offensive manoeuvres though rapid circulation of the ball — possession is king inside the Camp Nou.
Under Luis Enrique last season, Barça’s reliance of their defenders to play their way out of pressure has, at times, got them in trouble. But the theory runs that for every goal that is conceded by losing the ball in dangerous territory, several are gained by virtue of retaining possession in favour of hoofing the ball into touch.
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The fact that, in ter Stegen, they have a goalkeeper so willing to offer himself up as a passing option, someone so comfortable with the ball at his feet, makes this whole plan work.
Indeed, the 25-year-old former Borussia Mönchengladbach star completes more passes per 90 minutes than Neuer — 20.4 short passes and 6.3 long balls to the Bayern man’s 16.4 and five.
In the above image, taken from Barcelona’s 3-2 win over Real Sociedad at the Camp Nou in April, we see how ter Stegen always makes himself available as a passing option for the defenders in front of him.
Here, Samuel Umtiti‘s progress down the left is halted by La Real‘s press. The French centre-back turns back toward his own goal and sees that ter Stegen stationed on the edge of his penalty area.
With the Basque side well positioned to close off Barça’s passing lanes down the left, the home team’s objective is to switch play to the opposite flank. A direct ball from Umtiti to Gerard Piqué would have been the quickest option but it represents a risk as the Spanish defender is being monitored by an opposition attacker.
Instead, by being open to receive the ball and subsequently laying a simple pass off to Piqué, ter Stegen has helped Barcelona safely achieve their objective of switching play.
In this image, taken from the same game, we see how ter Stegen’s calmness under pressure is vital to Barcelona’s desire to play out from the back.
Again receiving a pass from Umtiti, the German goalkeeper is immediately closed down by Xabi Prieto, while Sociedad’s co-ordinated press has cut off his most obvious passing options.
In a similar situation, most goalkeepers would elect to clear the ball upfield. This may seem like the safest option, but for a Barcelona side that is comparatively lacking in height, the clearance would result in an aerial duel which would be lost more often than not.
Instead, ter Stegen spots Umtiti’s move to the left and calmly rolls the ball into space for the former Lyon defender. Barcelona subsequently build an attacking move down the left-hand side.
Ter Stegen vs The Press
Pressing has become a major facet of the modern game in recent years, with many coaches, such as Jürgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola and Thomas Tuchel, instructing their players to systematically harry the opposition high up the pitch.
There are two main ways of limiting the effectiveness of such tactics: play long, high balls up to the attackers, thus bypassing the opposition’s press; or play through the pressure with rapid and accurate vertical passes, breaking the lines of the pressure and creating openings in behind the opponent.
The latter is a far more difficult method to master, but it is also much more rewarding for the way it can nullify the opposition’s tactic and exploit the space they vacate.
That has always been the way Barcelona have looked to tackle a high press. In Guardiola‘s time in charge at the Camp Nou, the intricate passing triangles that the likes of Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Piqué would weave were ideal for playing out of trouble.
The current Barça team, when pressed, rely heavily on their goalkeeper’s remarkable ability to ping crisp, accurate forward passes over all ranges.
Here we see ter Stegen receive the ball on the edge of his six-yard box, under intense pressure and with all his short passing lanes completely cut off.
Once again, where most goalkeepers would elect to either hoof the ball up field or out of play, ter Stegen keeps his cool and spots Ivan Rakitić in a pocket of space 40 yards from goal.
The German keeper shifts the ball onto his left foot and picks out his Croatian team-mate with a lofted pass, maintaining possession and taking four Sociedad players out of the game.
At 25, ter Stegen is still very young for a top-level goalkeeper, and his peak may still be some years away. But his style and skillset are a perfect match for this Barcelona team and the way they play.
There may be a handful of better goalkeepers in the world than ter Stegen, but there are none better suited to Barcelona.