<
>

Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson usurps De Gea as Premier League's No. 1

play
Can Manchester United end Liverpool's unbeaten run? (1:41)

Stewart Robson previews Manchester United's trip to Anfield where they look to end league leaders Liverpool's unbeaten run and gain ground back on the top four. (1:41)

There has never been a Premier League goalkeeper as dominant as Manchester United's David De Gea.

Yes, there have been more successful goalkeepers: De Gea, who was named the world's best keeper in the ESPN FC 100, has won just one Premier League title. He also has only one "Golden Glove" award for the highest number of clean sheets in a season -- last season, incidentally -- and over a dozen goalkeepers have kept more clean sheets.

But these figures are largely dependent upon the quality of De Gea's teammates. Assess another factor, the number of times he's been voted into the PFA Team of the Year, and De Gea is in a world of his own. Five times he's been named the league's best by his peers, including each of the past four campaigns. No other goalkeeper in Premier League history has earned that honour on more than three occasions.

De Gea's reign, though, is seemingly over. We're less than halfway through the campaign, but it's impossible to make a case for De Gea after his alarming dip in form since last season. In 2017-18, De Gea not only kept the highest number of clean sheets in the division, he also performed best statistically. Opta's data suggests he conceded 14 fewer goals than you'd expect based upon the shots he faced, by far the most impressive record in the top flight.

Something, however, has changed. De Gea endured a disappointing World Cup campaign, notably letting a Cristiano Ronaldo shot squirm beneath him in Spain's thrilling 3-3 draw with Portugal. That prompted closer inspection of his international form, which simply didn't compare with his Manchester United displays.

Now, they're roughly equal. Rather than De Gea's performances for the national team improving, his Manchester United displays have dipped. The statistics this season make for grim reading, and the headline figure is just two clean sheets in 16 matches.

More alarmingly, De Gea simply isn't saving enough shots. A 67 percent save rate puts him in the bottom half of goalkeepers, while Opta's statistics now suggest that his performances have prevented only 0.76 worth of goals this season. His mistake last week against Arsenal, where he practically pushed Shkodran Mustafi's weak header into the air and over the goal line behind him, has prompted extra scrutiny of his performances. De Gea may well return to form, and it would be unreasonable to write him off on the basis of a six-month dip in form after half a decade of brilliance. In 2018-19, though, De Gea is not the Premier League's top keeper.

This weekend, he faces the man who probably is. On Tuesday night, Alisson, the No. 4 keeper in the world in the ESPN FC 100, produced his most memorable moment in a Liverpool shirt, a point-blank save from Napoli's Arkadiusz Milik that effectively earned his team qualification to the Champions League knockout stage. Was it a great save, or did Milik hit the ball straight at him? Probably somewhere in between: The finish wasn't particularly impressive, but Alisson had advanced a couple of yards to close down the angle and, perhaps, force Milik to rush.

Either way, the mere fact the save was automatically hailed as brilliant spoke volumes about Alisson's reputation: He's already considered the Premier League's best. It's difficult to recall another Premier League side ever upgrading so significantly between the posts. Simon Mignolet never looked anything more than a mid-table goalkeeper, and Loris Karius simply transmitted an air of uncertainty and nervousness that eventually culminated in his infamous error in the 2018 Champions League final. On one hand, that was a freak accident, a mistake the German won't repeat for the rest of his career. On the other, it wasn't unsurprising.

Alisson didn't come cheap -- £67 million was a world record for a goalkeeper, although that record was broken by Chelsea's purchase of Kepa Arrizabalaga a couple of weeks later. But it was an investment Liverpool needed to make. Virgil van Dijk had completed their defence, and Liverpool desperately needed a top-class goalkeeper to cement their status as title contenders.

Initially, Alisson impressed with his distribution. After a quiet home debut against West Ham, his first Premier League away trip, to Selhurst Park, saw him knocking lovely passes out to the flanks in a 2-0 win, switching play in a manner Liverpool fans haven't witnessed since Xabi Alonso's departure nine years ago. His quick distribution resulted in a break for a Mohamed Salah one-on-one, which the Egyptian couldn't quite take advantage of, but it set the tone for subsequent counter-attacking goals: Salah's breakaway opener at home to Fulham, and Xherdan Shaqiri's strike last week at Burnley.

The Brazilian also recovered from a major blunder, when his attempted turn against Leicester saw him dispossessed by Kelechi Iheanacho, with Rachid Ghezzal sticking the ball home. It would be inaccurate to suggest Alisson ploughed on with his favoured strategy regardless. The next weekend, when faced with a similar situation away at Spurs, he thumped the ball into the stands to sarcastic cheers from opposition fans. Alisson, like his compatriot Ederson at Manchester City, was already renowned for taking risks, traditionally frowned upon in English football.

Even those who favour a safety-first approach, though, can't argue with Alisson's shot-stopping. Aside from the Napoli save, there was a crucial stop two minutes from the end of a nervy 1-0 home win over Brighton in August that directly won two points, and a one-on-one save from Eden Hazard away at Stamford Bridge that kept Liverpool in the game, allowing them to launch a comeback and take a draw. That three-point swing could prove extremely important come the end of the campaign.

In all, Alisson has 10 clean sheets from 16 Premier League appearances. His save rate of 86 percent is the best in the Premier League by a huge margin, and he's conceded 6.9 goals fewer than you would expect based upon the shot locations. The value of having a goalkeeper comfortable in possession is often considered a trade-off with a lack of traditional shot-stopping ability -- that was clearly a problem for Manchester City when Claudio Bravo was their No. 1 and barely saving anything -- but Alisson is a goalkeeping all-rounder. His distribution is no longer the focus of his game, as was the case after the Leicester blunder, but a bonus.

Perhaps the one area where there's room for improvement is Alisson's approach to crosses. He's been consistently keen to punch the ball away, sometimes unconvincingly back into the danger zone, and one attempted punch against Arsenal resulted in him missing the ball, landing his fist on Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and the ball dropping just wide of the far post. He'll also be disappointed with his concession at Burnley, where Jack Cork prodded in after Alisson spilled James Tarkowski's tame header, but these are minor quibbles.

Ederson might prove capable of challenging Alisson for the status as this season's star goalkeeper, but a couple of needless penalty concessions have harmed his reputation. Besides, the fact Alisson is Brazil's No. 1 speaks volumes about that particular battle.

Alisson's clash against De Gea at Anfield on Sunday is intriguing. The Spaniard has regularly proved the difference in this fixture, rescuing United's defence while his teammates have benefited from goalkeeping errors at the other end. For now, though, it is Alisson who is the more reliable goalkeeper, and based purely upon the current standings, is on his way to equaling De Gea's record of one Golden Glove award and one Premier League title.