The knives are being sharpened for Manchester United goalkeeper David de Gea.
The 22-year-old Spaniard has had a mixed 18 months so far at the club, with his recent last-minute attempted clearance against Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday bringing to head the debate over whether he has enough quality to keep hold of the No. 1 shirt. Reports this week suggest that United are looking elsewhere to keep goal and numerous ex-players and pundits are lining up to criticise the young goalkeeper.
Sir Alex Ferguson has certainly ridden the waves with his goalkeepers. At times, the storm clouds have gathered and the waters have become too choppy. However, these short, sharp bursts of goalkeeping uncertainty are usually followed by long periods of calm.
Witness Jim Leighton in 1990.
Sir Alex deemed his FA Cup final performance so poor, he was dropped for the replay and never recovered. Les Sealey donned the shirt and was a popular, if unspectacular, stopgap until the sourcing of club legend Peter Schmeichel.
Finding a replacement for Schmeichel at the end of the 90s proved to be one of the most difficult tasks of Sir Alex’s long reign at Manchester United. The lineup of comparative failures includes Fabien Barthez, Mark Bosnich, Massimo Taibi and Roy Carroll. The waters once again easing with the capture of Edwin van der Sar from Fulham, who proved a steadying influence on his defence.
Knowing that van der Sar was nearing the end of his career, United began the search for a replacement early. It was thought that his understudy, Ben Foster, was the ideal candidate. Similar to David de Gea, he is a consistently good reflex “shot-stopper,” but he seemed to lack
concentration when it came to dealing with crosses, backpasses and his distribution.
Perhaps a telling aside regarding Ben Foster, though, was his admission in the Guardian that he is not that interested in football outside his playing time. Perhaps question marks existed about his ambition or his ability to cope with the spotlight at a club such as United?
So rapid was de Gea’s rise to the first team at Atletico Madrid, top European clubs were circling, until he was snapped up by United for a fee of around £17 million in 2011. In the 18 months since, he has almost played the same number of games already for United that he had for Atletico. But the doubters have never been far from his side in the EPL, from the first matchup until the most recent.
On Sunday against Tottenham Hotspur, United could quite easily have conceded three or more goals. That they didn’t was due to a fine defensive display by the players and two or three excellent stops by David de Gea.
In the 92nd minute, though, he rose behind Nemanja Vidic, Steven Caulker and Patrice Evra to punch the ball away. The punch landed away from goal, but unfortunately into the path of Aaron Lennon, who had the presence of mind to get the ball down and cross toward Clint Dempsey for the Tottenham equaliser.
Never mind that his earlier saves kept United in the game. This action has been cast in many quarters as a major goalkeeping error, and de Gea is becoming the fall guy. In the UK, ex-United player-turned-pundit Gary Neville was quick to blame him on television.
On Monday in the Telegraph, Alan Hansen advised that Sir Alex needed to take urgent action, the player surely on his “last chance.” By Tuesday, Iker Casillas and Victor Valdes were being linked to the club.
Another ex-United player, Paul Parker, also cast de Gea as the weakest link in his column for Eurosport.
But was it all his doing? Looking at the move that led to the goal, Rafael da Silva and Antonio Valencia had a terrible mix-up over who was clearing the ball that led to the original cross. Nemanja Vidic could also have been more commanding, and just who was keeping tabs on Dempsey? All these moments combined to produce the goal—not just a goalkeeping error.
United’s goalkeeping coach, Eric Steele, is very protective of the player, and Sir Alex trusts Steele’s judgment. He will know precisely what kind of prospect he has on his hands with de Gea. An excellent quick-reflex shot-stopper, he can change direction slightly mid-dive or stretch a leg out just enough to parry the ball—as with Gareth Bale’s deflected shot in the second half.
That is instinctive and cannot be taught.
He is also comfortable with the ball at his feet and an opponent advancing.
The obvious aspect of his game that needs improvement is with the high cross into the penalty area. Knowing which crosses to go for, which to punch, which to hold. This is decision-making and can be taught, in conjunction with some bulking up—necessary in the EPL due to the more physical nature of the game.
It will not be lost on the coaching staff that he has rarely had a settled defensive lineup in front of him as well.
Sir Alex gives players time if he can see the potential—look at the example of Cristiano Ronaldo. An outfield player, yes, but one who was labelled a “one-trick pony” in his first couple of stepover-filled seasons. How did that one turn out again?
The backing of the fans, particularly the vocal away support, is also with de Gea—his name regularly being chanted in recognition of what the player actually does bring to the table and also the signs that one of their own is being rounded upon.
Twenty-two years of age is very young to be entrusted as the stopper for one of the world’s biggest football clubs. With Iker Casillas, Real Madrid created the blueprint that I believe Sir Alex was aiming to emulate.
Like Casillas—with a little work, David de Gea will have all the attributes to become one of the world’s greatest goalkeepers. If this current storm can be navigated and survived, I would expect him to come out the other side with a firmer hand on the tiller.