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Manchester City vs. Inter: How goalkeepers Ederson and Andre Onana could define the Champions League final

Sep 17, 2023

If you want to understand how Manchester City or Inter have gotten within 90 minutes of winning the Champions League (make sure not to miss the final Saturday on CBS and Paramount+), you could do a lot worse than starting between their goalposts. It may well be that come the early hours of Sunday morning in Istanbul it is Erling Haaland, Kevin De Bruyne or Romelu Lukaku who is leading the match reports, but it was not an attacker that won the final for Real Madrid last season. Instead, it was Thibaut Courtois, spurred by a righteous sense of indignation against the English press, who crushed Liverpool's dreams of winning a third cup competition of the year. Ederson and Andre Onana are both capable of doing the same to their opponents this time out.

Though, in the case of Ederson in particular, it might not be that he breaks Inter hearts with his shot-stopping per se. Indeed, if he does the job to the best of his abilities, he might not even have a save to make. The Brazilian is very good, perhaps better than he gets credit for, at keeping the ball out of his net, but he would probably agree that his greatest quality is ensuring that a situation never arises where he has to engage in any heroics. In that regard, he is rather like the man he is chasing, the only other goalkeeper to win the Treble with an English club, CBS Sports analyst and Manchester United icon Peter Schmeichel.

"I never saw making saves as my biggest job," says the man who won the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League with Manchester United in 1999. "That was to prevent any chances from happening.

"First of all, push the team as far as you can away from the goal. The further away the opposition are, the harder it is to make a chance. Then you talk to your defenders, make sure every little gap is closed down or if someone makes a run be aware of it.

"That was my job. We played very high. I cleaned up behind, I came for crosses. Those were the more important things for me in my game, not so much the saves. The saves happen if they happen. Once you start to concede saves, that's where the problems are."

In the two decades since Schmeichel retired, the goalkeeper position has been revolutionised, or, perhaps more accurately, it has been made to adapt to the changes around it. Ederson often appears to be the end point that football has been converging towards (though doubtless in another 20 years he will merely seem a way point). Pep Guardiola's methods of keeping a clean sheet is not based on his goalkeeper making half a dozen saves. The best way to keep the ball out of your goal is to possess it and, Schmeichel notes, "The easiest way to keep the ball is to have 11 players.

"You will always play against 10, if you're playing against 11 the goal is empty. Ederson is excellent for playing that way. He's very calm on the ball, his selection of passes and the choices he is making are exceptional and brave, but only because of the trust there is between him and his players. They know that he can play."

Then there is what he can do with the ball at his feet. Mikel Arteta offered as good an insight as any when asked about the threat posed by Erling Haaland ahead of Arsenal's top of the Premier League table clash against Manchester City in April. Instead, he chose to focus on the danger posed by the man at the other end of the pitch. "The issue with a team like City is that it starts with the goalkeeper," said the Gunners boss. "He is a threat when the ball is with him."

There are only a handful of goalkeepers who can turn situations like this, where Ederson has the ball in his own penalty area with plenty of space and options...

... into this.

He hasn't hoofed the ball in the vague direction of Haaland but delivered a perfectly measured pass into the Norwegian, right in the spot that draws Robert Sanchez out of the Brighton goal, but not swiftly enough to stop the striker from pushing the ball past it and scoring. Ederson creates a host of chances and openings over the course of the season and they very rarely come from clearances. Indeed over the last four seasons the 29-year-old has attempted the fewest launches (a long ball played into an area of the pitch rather than towards a specific teammate). He is the only player to average fewer than two launches per 90, even Chelsea's Kepa Arrizabalaga, signed for the quality of his footwork, averages 3.4.

As CBS Sports analyst Rob Green notes, passes like the one above might only turn into a goal once a season but they serve to expand the defensive dimensions of the pitch for the opposition. "You've got so much more to defend," he says. "It's not like they exploit Ederson all the time, but the threat is there."

He is, Green notes, something of a reset point for City. If a move requires restructuring, give the ball to Ederson and he can get his teammates synchronized again. "He's almost like a deep-lying midfielder, you see Toni Kroos dropping into the backline and see Madrid trying to get control.

"There's never a moment to rest when he's in possession.: Green adds, "City are going to camp in your half with the ball. Ederson is almost like a lure to lull you, to pull you out of shape again because they're not quite ready. Relax at your peril."

There is not even a release valve from that pressure. If City are camped in the opposition's half then one would expect there to be vulnerabilities to be exploited on the counter attack. Ederson's proactivity nullifies that. He might not average as many sweeper keeper actions as counterparts at Newcastle or Aston Villa but when you have as much of the ball as Guardiola's side, there are only so many times the other team can get the ball back and hit you on the break.

For Schmeichel, City's game does not work without a goalkeeper of Ederson's quality. "The percentage of possession doesn't necessarily tell you who the best team is, who will be winning, it's not necessarily a value in itself but it's a way that Pep wants to play. Keeping the ball stops the other team from scoring. In order to do what they do, they have to commit a lot of people forward. When you look at Manchester City, it's not a high line they have, there is no line. They're all in the other half. If they lose the ball it's then his responsibility to clean up anything that goes long.

"Ederson has an incredibly important role. People will talk about what they can do when they have the ball but it only works because they have a goalkeeper like that. If he were rooted in the box, no matter where the play is, then it's easy for the opposition when they get the ball. People are still at the place where they judge a goalkeeper by the number of saves they have? It's not about that. It's not."

That may well be the case, but it is also true that making an awful lot of saves can do a world of good for your team. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that Inter simply would not be in the Champions League final were it not for the exploits of Onana. No one in the competition has kept more clean sheets or made more saves, and while both of those statistics might simply reflect the fact that the Cameroonian and his teammates have hung around on the European stage longer than anyone else, it is worth remembering that Inter began their Champions League campaign in a group with Bayern Munich and Barcelona. If anyone might be forgiven for having a slightly iffy statistical profile it would be the man who has been drawn against the likes of Robert Lewandowski, Thomas Muller and Rafael Leao.

If anything, it has been the opposite. According to, Onana has faced shots worth a combined post shot expected goals value of 16.5. He has conceded nine goals (as well as one own goal, which is not included in calculations). The 7.5 goals prevented mark by the 27-year-old this season is by far the best mark in the Champions League this season. It would also comfortably be the most goals prevented by any goalkeeper in the previous six tournaments for which data is publicly available. By this advanced metric, Onana is having an all-time great European run.

Anyone who saw him single-handedly repel Porto in the round of 16 would concur. "Go through the games, they shouldn't be qualifying," says Green. "They've had a lucky draw and the Porto game, they should have conceded 15 in injury time. It was pinball." Both of CBS' goalkeeping experts offer a glowing assessment of Onana's technical qualities. "What I really like about Onana is his movements in the goal, they're really small," says Green. "He's always ready to make a save. That lends itself to how they play, the ball will get shifted along, or in and around the penalty area, and he'll always be set, ready to make saves."

Schmeichel adds: "He makes a lot of saves, he looks very agile, very quick, very everything." Undoubtedly Onana has proven himself to be the perfect goalkeeper to get Inter where they are. But both Green and Schmeichel would contend that the excellence of each player is situational. In Serie A, the Nerazzurri are used to asserting their will on games, averaging 55 percent possession and outshooting their opponents by a ratio of 1.48 to 1. In the Champions League they've averaged 46 percent possession and been outshot by a margin of 1.07 to 1. They have needed a shot-stopper, not a tempo setter. It is a role that Onana, whose ball-playing skills shouldn't be underrated, has relished and one that he has consistently proven to be suited to, first with Ajax and now in Milan.

"Inter go into most games knowing that they're not going to have the majority of possession in the Champions League, they play three center halves and they're not a thrill a minute, are they?" Green jokes. "That lends itself to players being in a congested penalty area, maybe conceding a lot of space outside and relying on the goalkeeper saying 'we need you here.' But there will be pressure on the ball. So you look at City and can completely contrast it. When they concede they are exposed, the defense in split, the center halves you could drive a bus through them. The shots coming in are one-touch finishes from 12 yards, it's a one-shot finish where no one is pressing down.

"Onana knows danger is coming, it's wave after wave of attack, they've got their defense set, they've got pressure on the ball. He's making fantastic saves but a majority of those, I think, will be in a congested penalty area." Green, who has played in teams battling against relegation from the Premier League and in sides like the England national team where goalkeepers can be interested bystanders, says there's a "happy medium" to be found between the all out bombardment faced by Onana and the glorious inactivity of Ederson. Schmeichel might not concur. "I hated it when we didn't have the ball and were under pressure." The Brazilian, he thinks, would probably be the same, a player far less suited for the task that Inter will have then that facing City.

Ultimately having the right tools for the job might be what has got City and Inter as far as they have. It could be the difference in Istanbul too. If the Guardiola stranglehold begins from Ederson and moves all the way up the pitch then there may be no resisting. More heroics from Onana and there is a chance for Inter to steal the day. They may not be the biggest names taking to the field in the Ataturk Olympic Stadium on Saturday but these two could have as decisive an impact as anyone on club football's biggest match.