David de Gea’s difficult start in English football is, of course, a lesson in predictability. Errors against both Manchester City in the Community Shield and West Bromwich Albion on Sunday in the Premier League have brought concerned looks from teammates and critical reviews from the nation’s media.
Neither comes as a surprise, with the former Atlético de Madrid goalkeeper barely out of his teens, ensconced in a Manchester hotel and struggling with the language. Focus for even the most experienced player moving team and country is hard to achieve; in a difficult position and in the media’s full glare de Gea’s early-season errors are certainly forgivable.
That the 20-year-old Spaniard is the subject of sarcastic headlines, knee-jerk reaction and character assassination is little more than par-for-the-course from a British media obsessed with negativity.
Indeed, on the season’s eve Sir Alex Ferguson warned that de Gea will require patience, a statement incorrectly interpreted as a lack of faith in the 20-year-old in some quarters. Nothing could be further from the truth with Manchester United having followed the Spanish Under-21 international for months before choosing de Gea ahead of more experienced rivals. In doing so Ferguson bought raw talent that will take time to adjust to a new country, style of football and the pressure inherent at Old Trafford.
Little surprise then that the 69-year-old Scot should back de Gea now, after the Spaniard failed to deal with Eden Džeko’s long-range effort at Wembley, while allowing Shane Long’s tame shot under his body on Sunday.
“He is young. He will learn. He will come through,” said the United boss, who is unlikely to drop de Gea in favour of Anders Lindegaard for Tottenham Hotspur’s visit in a weeks time.
“David’s concentration cost him the goal. It was a slack goal to lose but it is an experience for the lad. I couldn’t believe he never got a free-kick in the second-half. The aerial assault on him was ridiculous. It was the same when Peter Schmeichel came. They punished him in his first few games against Leeds and Wimbledon. They have him a real torrid time.
“In the second-half today David he was targeted a bit. Not necessarily physically but there were a lot of challenges that should have been free-kicks but the referee decided to play on. He took a battering in the second half, when he should have been protected more by the referee but he wasn’t. Welcome to English football!”
There is little chance that Ferguson will drop de Gea for Spurs’ visit given the damaging effect to the player’s confidence that omission would surely bring. But the United coach is faced with deploying a hugely inexperienced back-four against the Londoners with injuries beginning to bite. Rio Ferdinand’s hamstring strain will keep the 32-year-old on the sidelines for at least six weeks, while captain Nemanja Vidić is out for a fortnight with a trapped nerve. With Patrice Evra also on the sidelines United completed Sunday’s match fielding a defence aged just 20.6 on average.
That inexperience – both in age and games played for the club – will face sterner tests than that of West Brom, a good side though Roy Hodgson has produced over the past six months. Following Spurs’ visit next Monday, United face trips to Bolton Wanderers and Stoke City, with home matches against Arsenal and Chelsea to come before Ferdinand returns. Life is unlikely to become any easier for United’s callow new goalkeeper.
Yet in analysing de Gea’s competitive performances to date it is also easy to overstate the player’s errors and ignore his many qualities. True, two goals have been scored which most ‘keepers at the highest level would expect to stop. The Madrid-born stopper also made two excellent saves at Wembley in the second period and a similar number at the Hawthornes. Add smart distribution to the list and de Gea’s raw talent is not in doubt.
Physically Ferguson team will work with the player, much as Javier Hernández endured a specialised weight training course for six months last season. However, those denizens of the long-ball at the Britannia Stadium will note West Brom’s attempts to rough-up de Gea on Sunday. Referee Stuart Jones studiously ignored three clear fouls on United’s number one in the Midlands; Ferguson will hope de Gea is offered better support in the weeks and months to come.
Questions of physique aside it the mental side of the Spaniard’s game that is of greatest concern to Ferguson now. The unflappable personality so highly praise by the Scot when de Gea officially signed in July will be tested severely in the coming weeks.
It is cliché but also a truism that at Old Trafford talent only goes so far. Behind the scenes Ferguson and goalkeeping coach Eric Steele will be working to rid the player of fear – another great requirement for any United player.