Fans, so the cliché goes, can be fickle. Indeed, supporters’ frustration, together with social media’s immediacy, has created the impression that Manchester United fans swing from one instant reaction to the next. One mistake, a poor game, let alone defeat, results in a tsunami of opinion, often debased to mindless vitriolic abuse.
The rush to judgement frustrates at times; a point articulated in January’s United We Stand by editor Andy Mitten. Yet, few supporters’ opinions are formed with the agenda that often dominates the mainstream media. Cruel as supporters are at times, the opinions proffered on Twitter, blogs, Facebook and other communities rarely come with a sense of premeditation. It is both a strength and weakness of the medium.
This dichotomy may not be one United goalkeeper David de Gea is considering today, barely 48 hours after both media, and some supporters, criticised the 20-year-old Spaniard for his part in United’s defeat to Liverpool at the weekend. Indeed, while de Gea has a reasonably active Twitter account it is almost exclusively used in the Spanish language. Given the views expressed by some on Saturday, this is surely for the best.
Yet, a handful of albeit noisy Twitteratti holds no candle to the mainstream media when it comes to damning judgement. This includes broadcaster ITV whose commentary team of Clive Tyldsley and Jim Beglin were so quick to lambast the former Atlético de Madrid stopper. Blamed instantaneously for both goals by co-commentator Beglin, de Gea was quickly fingered as United’s key weak link.
So too has the print media, with stories of de Gea’s quality – or lack thereof – following the youngster since debut in pre-season. This was a story simply too good to miss.
That said, at times de Gea looked concurrently nervous, furlorn and robbed of all confidence at Anfield. Routine crosses were dropped, while the Spaniard’s normally outstanding distribution suffered too. It has been a testing campaign for the youngster, as it was always going to be.
Still, two days later and the rush to judge seems as erroneous now as it did then. Objective review of Liverpool’s two goals at Anfield places the blame at the doorstep of others, with de Gea suffering for the mistakes of his back-four. Indeed, Liverpool’s first, nodded home by defender Daniel Agger, was largely thanks to an unchallenged header. The host’s second came when Patrice Evra wondered out of position and allowed Dirk Kuyt a free shot inside the area.
It is a point hammered home by perennially injured striker Michael Owen, who took to Twitter to defend his younger colleague.
“One comment on yesterdays game. Don’t agree with all this negativity towards De Gea,” Owen Tweeted on Sunday.
“Admittedly he has made a couple of mistakes this season but listening to some people you would think he had a nightmare yesterday. I’m not having either goal was his fault. The problem is, once you get labelled, mud sticks and now any tiny mistake is magnified. Other keepers make similar mistakes and nothing gets said.
“The lad will be a top keeper, he is only young. Harsh to blame him for everything. The fans know he needs their support, his confidence needs boosting. I’m sure he will repay that support for years to come.”
Indeed, even the very best have suffered in the harsh spotlight of the United net. Even the greatest, Peter Schmeichel, suffered a testing first campaign at Old Trafford. Meanwhile, Edwin van der Sar made several glaring errors in a otherwise outstanding six seasons with the club. The opening goal of the 2009 Champions League final, for example, saw van der Sar beaten at the near post – a goal scored with barely a murmur from supporters.
Anders Lindegaard, the Spaniard’s immediate competition for a spot in Sir Alex Ferguson’s side, has made errors too, although of the less obvious variety. Recall the Dane’s weak hand as Robin van Persie shot across, but very close to, Lindegaard at the Emirates.
de Gea’s real mistake, it seems, is to have built a reputation far too early in his United career. Earlier this season, thanks to Edin Džeko’s long-range strike at Wembley in August, de Gea’s goal was peppered from outside the area. Now, the opposition simply plans to beat up on the slightly built youngster. Liverpool repeatedly launched long balls into the United area.
Reputations in this sport are far harder to dispel than create – a truism that Tyldsley, and especially Beglin, have bought into.
Yet, those who have watched de Gea blossom from Atléti B teamer, to the teenager who was such an important part of the club’s 2010 Europa League win, will remain confident. Ferguson and his coaching staff, who spent months tracking the Spanish under-21 international, will surely remain stoic in the face of media onslaught.
Surely de Gea’s troubles have everything to do with confidence and a lengthy period of adjustment, rather than shortage of talent. Thrust into the spotlight, under pressure to succeed one of the very greatest, and miles from home, there can be no surprise that de Gea has not yet fulfilled his potential.
The question, of course, is how quickly the ‘keeper will find his feet, given the right environment and support. The player is certainly not helped by an ever-changing back four, goalkeeping rotation or, indeed, Ferguson’s rather odd decision to recall the ‘keeper amid the intense heat of an Anfield cup tie.
Yet, others are unsure about de Gea’s make up, including former Red Paul Parker.
“It was not really the Spaniard’s errors that were the problem for me; I thought his mistakes for both goals were relatively minor and he was undone by some poor defending,” adds Yahoo! pundit, Parker.
“What really bothered me was his apparently complete lack of confidence. It makes me wonder if he will be able to handle the scrutiny he is under at the moment. When most goalkeepers make mistakes they get angry – nearly all offer some sort of reaction. De Gea doesn’t do anything at all. He is expressionless, and looks lost.
“Peter Schmeichel made the odd howler, which usually stemmed from making a rash decision – but at least he did something. De Gea’s mistakes come from not doing anything. He freezes, and appears indecisive.”
It is an astute observation by Parker, but one that does not chime with de Gea’s performances in Madrid, where the player’s confidence and maturity so often came to the fore.
It is a cliché, but at just 21 time is certainly on de Gea’s side. For Ferguson and United the equation is different. Taking de Gea out of the firing line now necessitates an extended spell for Lindegaard, a solid if unspectacular ‘keeper whom few will bracket among the very best of his profession.
The delicate balancing act of weighing de Gea’s development against United’s immediate priorities will continue. Good job, then, that in Ferguson the ‘keeper has a manager who is unlikely to bow to media pressure, whether from the mainstream or grassroots.