As Manchester City fans fretted over the timing of Kalvin Phillips’ medical, everyone missed a deal that was done in secret.
Stefan Ortega flew to Manchester from Dusseldorf on Sunday, checked into a city center hotel, visited the training ground and completed his medical tests on Monday, then flew out again, the biggest movement of his career in the bag.
City took a private jet for the trip, not wanting him to take a commercial flight, but it wouldn’t be too harsh to suggest that only a true European football fan would have recognized Ortega at first sight.
The 29-year-old goalkeeper, not particularly imposing at 6ft tall, has spent much of his career at German club Arminia Bielefeld, with just two Bundesliga seasons under his belt after years in the third and second divisions.
Compared to global superstar Erling Haaland and England international Phillips, it’s fair to say that Ortega is the least well-known of City’s summer signings.
It’s not like there’s been much of a build-up either: it wasn’t until last Thursday that rumors emerged in England that he was on City’s radar. In truth, the deal had been in place for a few weeks, a free transfer after his contract expired.
Zack Steffen, revealed by Athleticism Pol Ballus this week, is available on loan this summer. The American suffered a high-profile error in City’s FA Cup semi-final loss to Liverpool, allowing Sadio Mane to tackle him and score, but his future at the Etihad Stadium isn’t necessarily over.
He is expected to join Championship side Middlesbrough as City believe he needs more playing time to continue his development and a new challenge could help him, particularly after his Wembley loss.
Steffen will be back next summer but Ortega’s arrival certainly complicates his future. Having missed just one game in three and a half years – due to COVID-19 – the new boy is not someone who is used to sitting and watching.
Spoofing the Brazilian isn’t going to be easy, and there might be another camera or two focused on Haaland once the season begins, but Ortega is an exciting arrival in his own way.
Anyone who’s seen Twitter videos of his lengthy passing will surely be thinking, “Ah yes, I see why City want him.” Just like Ederson, and of course Claudio Bravo before him, Ortega has one assist to his name, having set up Arminia Bielefeld’s winner against Cologne in October.
— English Bundesliga (@Bundesliga_EN) October 1, 2020
He can play short and long, much like Ederson, and in fact played more passes than any goalkeeper in Europe’s top five leagues last season.
But his reputation in Germany is that of a goalkeeper capable of making remarkable, and sometimes unorthodox, reaction saves. Whether he reacts to close-range shots or spreads – Peter Schmeichel-style – to thwart one-on-one attackers, he has a distinctive style that has really stood out over the two recent seasons.
— English Bundesliga (@Bundesliga_EN) February 13, 2021
Ortega made more saves than any other goalkeeper in the Bundesliga, which can be expected given Bielefeld’s relegation, but he ranked second in the league in save percentage (saving 73% shots faced) and second in goals prevented according to xG (5.61) . On top of that, only two teams in the last 10 have conceded fewer goals than Bielefeld.
An INCREDIBLE backup 🤯
Stefan Ortega showed some quick reactions to deny Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski yesterday! 🧤pic.twitter.com/QQfhgOUoVq
— Sky Sports (@SkySports) April 18, 2022
He cried on the pitch when their relegation was confirmed in May, having joined the club 15 years ago. He moved from Hessen Kassel, the small town team where he was born to a Spanish father and an Italian mother.
For this reason, he has a good command of Spanish and Italian, and his English is impressive, including football vocabulary, as it is one of the commonly spoken languages around Bielefeld – although l Manchester accent could pose an early challenge.
Nicknamed ‘Tego’, as it contains elements of ‘Stefan Ortega Moreno’, he joined 1860 Munich on a free transfer in 2014, but after three years left on another free transfer after being relegated to the second division via the league but then the fourth division due to financial difficulties.
After a fine debut season in the Bundesliga in 2020-21, he was named Germany’s substitute goalkeeper for Euro 2020, meaning he was on standby should one of their three keepers get injured. That’s as close as he’s come to an international call-up, however, and since Hansi Flick took over after the Euros he hasn’t been in the picture since.
That could change after he moves to City on another free transfer. There were other offers, including Schalke, and some offering higher wages than the Premier League champions – rumored in Germany around £55,000 a week – but the option to move to a new league and a new culture, not to mention working with Pep Guardiola, was enough to influence him.
And the chance to work with Xabi Mancisidor too. The City goalkeeping coach has had several phone calls with Ortega in recent weeks and was the first to pick up the phone after signing his contract on Monday. The new boy has been challenged to improve his game at City and shown some specific areas where he can do so. It is believed that he is excited by the challenge.
Ortega also took advice from Ilkay Gundogan on life at City and Manchester, including advice on where to live. Gundogan, like several other first-team players, lives in the city center, next door to Guardiola, in fact, but Ortega could consider moving to the suburbs. Like Gundogan, he got married very recently and has a young daughter.
It’s a signing that highlights the scale of City’s scouting operation and their opportunism, particularly when it comes to goalkeepers. They planned to sign veteran Spain Asier Riesgo as their third choice in 2019 before turning to Scott Carson when their foreign player quota remained full.
Steffen was signed from Columbus Crew that summer, and now Ortega, with just two top seasons under his belt, will move to City after his contract at Arminia Bielefeld expires.
Haaland – who has never scored against Ortega in four games – is certainly excited about his move to City, one of his boyhood clubs, but has been remarkably relaxed when shown at City’s facilities, barely showing any emotion.
The new keeper, meanwhile, has been described as ‘like a kid at Christmas’, marveling at the facilities and what is, by far, the biggest opportunity of his career.
He may not be the biggest name arriving at City this summer, nor is he expected to have the biggest impact, but this unlikely signing certainly makes sense.