What a difference a week can make.
Last Sunday Ederson put thousands of hearts in mouths as he nonchalantly allowed the ball to roll towards the Manchester City goal. Just as the ball grazed the goalline and Liverpool’s Diogo Jota lunged in, he calmly stroked the ball away as if to say: ‘guys, relax, everything is under control.’
Fast-forward six days to an FA Cup semi-final at Wembley against the same opponent, and Ederson’s understudy Zack Steffen was faced with a similar scenario. Only this time it ended in disaster, rather than relieved laughter; Steffen killed the ball with his first touch, got it stuck under his feet and could only watch as Sadio Mane dived in to deflect the ball into the goal.
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It was a freak accident from the American goalkeeper, the kind of thing he has not done before even if he isn’t as accomplished as Ederson with the ball at his feet. But it was a costly error all the same, one that put City in a desperate situation in a high profile fixture.
In the post-mortem of City’s 3-2 defeat, supporters and pundits alike questioned Pep Guardiola’s decision to start Steffen over Ederson. Designating a ‘cup keeper’ is nothing new for Guardiola, but when he backfires in spectacular fashion against a team that doesn’t need any extra help to score goals, then criticism is valid. However, there are of course two sides.
Affording your reserve goalkeeper opportunities to play is advisable, both to keep them sharp but also for squad morale and man management purposes. That’s all well and good in the early rounds of cup competitions against lesser opponents, but against a side as good as Liverpool, you can argue that Guardiola has to pick his strongest starting XI.
After all, when Steffen signed for City in 2019 – and indeed when he returned from a loan spell at Fortuna Dusseldorf in 2020 – he knew he would not be Guardiola’s first-choice goalkeeper.
Then there is Liverpool’s style to consider. Everybody knows – not least Guardiola – that Jurgen Klopp’s side are the best in the world when it comes to pressing and stiffing teams’ build-up play. That was evident on Saturday, as City struggled to string together more than a few passes at a time in the face of relentless pressure and blocking off passing lanes.
That, coupled with the fact that City’s whole game is built upon playing out from defence, means that when facing Liverpool it helps an awful lot to have a goalkeeper who can find players with passes in the split second that they have space to receive them.
Ederson is really good at that, Steffen less so. Mane’s goal is the obvious example, but throughout the game, Steffen never really looked comfortable trying to clip passes out to City’s full-backs or attempting difficult balls in order to bypass the press. The American is Guardiola’s undisputed cup keeper, but this match-up was just all wrong.
However, there is an undeniable need to give every player a chance to play in order to maintain squad morale – that’s why Scott Carson came off the bench in the goalless draw with Sporting Lisbon last month.
When fighting on four fronts as City often do, it’s incredibly important to keep all squad members of the squad relatively happy. Of course, the likes of Nathan Ake and Oleksandr Zinchenko would be happier if they were playing week-in week-out, but over the past two seasons, both have come into the team and performed well when needed, precisely because Guardiola has kept their competitive edge sharp and their morale high.
We cannot be sure if Guardiola has made concrete guarantees to his reserve keeper that he will play in all FA Cup and League Cup games no matter what, but if he has then the manager must stick to his word.
On balance, the need to play Steffen slightly outweighed the risk of a potential mishap. If Guardiola wants to have a good quality goalkeeper on his bench – which Steffen undoubtedly is – then he has to keep him happy and give him a reason to stick around.
Meanwhile, on a personal level, Guardiola values respect and trust immensely. If he had promised Steffen cup games then there is no way he could go back on his word from him.
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