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Ton-up De Gea will gain strength from early-season woes

October 1, 2014 Tags: Opinion 16 comments
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This isn’t the David de Gea of old – the tentative, error-prone waif that struggled to come to terms with the Premier League after a £17 million transfer from Atlético Madrid. But there is something amis with Manchester United’s goalkeeper this season. Confidence, form, a change of manager, coach and regime? All of the above, perhaps. Whatever the answer it is the most testing period for the young Spaniard in almost two seasons – a step backward that few predicted.

Yet, De Gea also celebrated a significant milestone last weekend in completing his 100th Premier League appearance during the Reds’ hard-earned victory over West Ham United. In total De Gea has now amassed 139 games for the club – the same number as Fabien Barthez – placing the Spaniard 11th on United’s all-time goalkeeping appearance list. More too than the 23-year-old made for Atléti’s B and first teams combined; he will surely make hundreds more for United.

No longer the nervous, home-sick, kid who joined United under Sir Alex Ferguson, De Gea has grown into one of Europe’s finest over the past two years. It is, after all, just 15 months since Premier League peers voted the Madridista the best in England – an honour many felt should have been retained even after a difficult season under David Moyes. De Gea alone emerged from the campaign reputation generously enhanced.

Yet, the final seven of those 139 appearances have not always been happy – 13 goals conceded, just two clean sheets and three defeats in all competitions. Amid the flurry of goals against, it is surely concerning that Dea Gea’s old indecision has seemingly returned; a nervousness not present in the ‘keeper last year as he earned a place in Spain’s World Cup squad.

It was a momentous summer. De Gea made his first senior international appearance against El Salvador in a 2–0 friendly victory in June and was awarded a full Spanish début against France in August after an unhappy Spanish side was dumped out in the World Cup first round. Poor club form, however, is unlikely finally persuade Vicente del Bosque to drop Ilker Casillas –  a goalkeeper benched by both José Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti at club level in recent seasons.

The crass mistakes of old may not have returned to De Gea’s game, but confidence was conspicuously absent as West Ham launched more than 30 long passes at United’s fragile back four on Saturday. Worse, perhaps, is a returning passivity that had been eliminated from the young ‘keeper’s game. Positioning is now uncertain, communication somehow muted.

And De Gea’s form is concerning because it has seemingly come from left-field. While many of his team-mates regressed under Moyes, De Gea’s skillset was much augmented, seemingly the fruit of a fine relationship with Chris Woods. Turmoil reigned elsewhere, not in camp De Gea. Indeed, while Woods drew scrutiny for replacing Eric Steele at Old Trafford, the former England international was the only member of Moyes’ coaching staff to emerge with credit. It is not insignificant that Woods has also been working with USA stopper Tim Howard, a player enjoying a fine Indian summer to a superb career.

Woods was replaced by Frans Hoek in June, a coach of world repute who has worked alongside Louis van Gaal for more than 20 years at Ajax, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and the Dutch national team. It was van Gaal who enjoyed the credit for substituting Jasper Cillessen in the 119th minute of a World Cup quarter-final against Costa Rica as ‘keeper Tim Krul saved two penalties to win Netherlands’ a place in the last four. It was, however, Hoek that devised the strategy.

“Hoek groomed me and helped me learn all the things I needed to know to be a successful footballer over a lot of years,” said former United player Edwin van der Sar this summer. “He should be a great help for David. I think they’ll be a good combination.”

Hoek has already instigated a new regime at Carrington, focusing on the fundamentals of De Gea’s game in addition to the big picture. The Spaniard, it seems, is being taught to be a team player not just a brilliant individual. Indeed, in the possession-based system that Van Gaal will eventually instigate at United, it is the Spaniard who will be United’s first point of attack.

“It’s been a new way of training but Frans knows everything about the goalkeeping role,” said De Gea in an interview with MUTV this week.

“He wants to work on different positions – for crosses, for shots, and to play with my feet. We train a lot on this kind of thing and train looking ahead to the game. Position is really important for goalkeepers you have to be ready for anything. To be a goalkeeper of Manchester United you have to be focused all the time.”

Yet, on Saturday, it was De Gea’s lack of focus that led to Diafra Sakho’s West Ham goal – a poor attempt at collecting a corner, which allowed the Senegalese striker to score.

In this the United stopper is aided little by a back-four – three or five, depending on the match and observer’s viewpoint – that has repeatedly changed this season. On Saturday teenager Patrick McNair partnered new acquisition Marcos Rojo in the centre of defence. At times Phil Jones, Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling have also appeared in the centre, while five different players have been used at full or wing-back this season. It is a pattern that is unlikely to change, with Jones, Evans and Smalling perennially on the treatment table.

De Gea may yet have to become less passive; a journey that could hold long-term benefits for an introvert by nature. It is, after all, the 23-year-old that has become one of United’s most senior defensive players in the wake of Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidić leaving Old Trafford in the summer. Having reached 100 Premier League appearances, De Gea is now judged without the caveat of youth.

Few doubt that the Spaniard will come good once again. The roots of poor form are seemingly buried in change – both in the backroom and on the pitch. De Gea is, wrote Juan Mata this week, “one of the most skilled goalkeepers I’ve ever seen. ”

Just one that could do with more than a lucky break in the coming weeks.

16 comments

thatjamesboy - October 1, 2014 Reply

great analysis again Ed.

mancmanme - October 10, 2014 Reply

Hey Ed, Could you write an article on why Van Persie is off the boil, that should get him back amongst the goals.

subterranean steve - October 2, 2014 Reply

United is in the middle of the biggest upheaval in twenty five years. Whether a player is a newbie or a product of the Ferguson years this change is being felt by all.

With the back line being such a work in progress, it is really important that the keeper helps to bring stability, reliability and confidence to United’s defence. De Gea needs to lift his game and I expect that he will.

stewart - October 2, 2014 Reply

what are you talking about?

he is rubbish, he concedes more then he saves! and don’t blame the defence! he is the last line of defence and is rubbish!

you will all catch on in a year or two

I just have a better football brain!

sell him to Madrid!

Subterranean Steve - October 2, 2014 Reply

Love your stand-up, Mr. Lee.

mongoletsi - October 2, 2014 Reply

Well, thanks for setting us straight. We were labouring under the impression that his recent full call-up was something to do with how he’s grown and proven himself.

Glad you cleared it up for us; we know he’s shit now…

UEFA U-21 Championship Team of the Tournament: 2011, 2013
Premier League PFA Team of the Year: 2012–13
Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year: 2013-14
Manchester United Players’ Player of the Year: 2013-14

Yugal - October 6, 2014 Reply

If he’s that bad, why would Madrid want him?

mongoletsi - October 7, 2014 Reply

So, Stewart… still think he’s shite? 🙂

Luke - October 2, 2014 Reply

Glad this has been highlighted. Whilst he had admittedly not made many outright mistakes in the goals we have conceded I can only think of two saves he made all season – the one vs Burnley and vs West Ham ! Taking G Nev’s argument re the Everton goal and Mignolet on Monday whilst the keeper may not be at fault it iss making the saves which he would not be expected to make which make keepers world class. No doubt he’ll come good but its definitely been a patchy start for him this season

Denton Davey - October 2, 2014 Reply

DDG is a great shot-stopper BUT he’s very poor in commanding his area and communicating with the other defenders. More than anything else, these weaknesses have given the impression that UTD’s injury-ravaged central defence is sub-par but just ask yourselves “how many times have the centre backs looked back at DDG in complete and utter dis-belief at his positioning and/or decision-making [actually, non-decision-making].”

The gap between the steadiness of Edwin and the current keeper is not getting any narrower. DDG caught too much flak in his first season but he has not really progressed in communicating with the central defenders or in commanding-the-area.

And, let’s not get started on his ball-distribution !

Ed - October 3, 2014 Reply

Denton – can’t say agree with very much of this. Last season demonstrated that De Gea had significantly improved his command of the area – at the age of 23. Remember that Schmeichel was playing in Denmark until he was 26, and Van Der Sar didn’t joined United until he was in his 30s. The comment about his distribution is bonkers – he’s excellent with the ball at his feet. As I said, I’m sure this is a temporary blip and my article wasn’t meant to provide stimulus to the old clichés about De Gea.

Denton Davey - October 3, 2014 Reply

Right now – disregarding age/experience – DDG is a superior shot-blocker but decidedly inferior in the two other aspects of his game that I mentioned: communicating with the central defenders and commanding his area. My suggestion that his distribution might be weak might seem to be “bonkers” to you but what I’ve seen is good ball-control but lousy distribution. That’s the point about opinions.

Of course, I understand that he is still “young” but he is actually highly experienced for such a young man. More to the point I was making, I’ve not seen a huge improvement in the parts of his game that were suspect when he joined UTD. To be sure, he’s bulked up and seems somewhat better at anticipating and absorbing contact but his command of the area/communication – e.g., the goal against West Ham – seem still to need a great deal of work.

Let me say one more thing: there has been a lot of discussion about the problems of UTD’s back-line/central defenders but, to my way of thinking, these “problems” start with the lack of command/communication/distribution which starts from the back.

Having seen three of last year’s back four move on, it is a quicker group which has been on the field. Last year – and the year before that, too – UTD’s aging, veteran back four were caught-out for pace all the time; Evra’s positional issues were, I think, largely to do with his attempts to compensate for Vidic’s inability to recover on-the-turn.

And, for all the talk about “defensive problems”, the bigger issue in the first three matches was the lack of connection between defence/midfleld/attack. Getting regular game-time for Blind/Herrera has gone a long way towards sorting out that problem.

By the way, a counter-argument can be made against me by pointing to the LeicesterDebacle but, to my way of thinking, that was a matter of simply-appalling refereeing by Clattenburg, aided and abetted by some naivety on the part of both Rafael and Blackett.

A lot of the commentary after the LeicesterDebacle focussed on the non-calls for Vardy’s aggressive play but, from what I saw, the key non-call occurred when Richie De Laet should have been red-carded for his egregious push against TheAngel. It was very dangerous: Di Maria was out of bounds when De Laet pushed him in the back which, combined with the steep incline outside the touch-line, threw him off balance while running-at-speed. It was appalling that neither the referee nor the linesman saw this; it was unpardonably-negligent that the FA took no further action after reviewing the game-film. That said, the LeicesterDebacle has to be put into the “shit happens” category which, hopefully, will be a learning experience for the manager and the two players.

Billy Boycott - October 2, 2014 Reply

De Gea is no van der Saar or Schmeical. He is not able to command his goal area when United are under siege from crosses aimed at big strikers.Good shot stopper he is, but other attributes such as decision-making, positional play and communicating with defenders need more work. De Gea is not a commanding nor calming presence which exacerbates the problems in a make shift back four.

luke - October 5, 2014 Reply

That told us ! Outstanding today

Denton Davey - October 5, 2014 Reply

Yep. Fantastic reflex saves.

The ball-distribution was still quite inadequate BUT saying that is just churlish after saving at least two points for TheLads.

Luke - October 7, 2014 Reply

After those two saves he could have kicked everything straight out of play for all I care 🙂

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