In a disappointing campaign, there are few shining lights. Should United win the FA Cup it will bring joy to a club in dire need of a celebration three years after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. Yet, there have been too few players who emerge from the season with credit and reputation intact. It left Manchester United’s goalkeeper, David de Gea, as the club’s Player of the Season for the third campaign running. But was De Gea really the most worthy winner?
Reporting on speculation that David De Gea could sign a new deal at Manchester United, the Telegraph’s Mark Ogden noted “any move to extend De Gea’s contract would be a surprise.” Given De Gea’s failed transfer to Real Madrid this summer, this weekend’s announcement that the Spaniard has signed on for a further four years at Old Trafford, with an optional fifth, should come as no surprise at all. After all, De Gea – and perhaps more importantly his agent, Jorge Mendes – had no option but to seek a new contract at Old Trafford – if they are rational.
Game theory has been under attack for the assumption of rationality, but in negotiations that involve a significant sum of money, however, rationality can safely be assumed. After all, people tend to be very thorough when there is a significant sum of money on the table. Here, we apply basic game theory to show that De Gea had to sign a new contract at United.
United’s position was simple. It was absolutely critical for the club to tie De Gea to a new deal lest he leave on a free transfer come next summer. On the other hand, the goalkeeper was faced two options: negotiate a new new deal or leave on a free transfer, with the presumption that he would be able to negotiate a higher wage than he would have been able to otherwise.
Critical to De Gea’s thinking is the lack of guarantee that Real Madrid would sign the stopper next summer. It may appear likely, given the player’s desire to move and Madrid’s summer-long chase, but after Los Merengues‘ behaviour in recent weeks, it was never a foregone conclusion. Keylor Navas or Kiki Casilla might have a terrific season, while the Madrid club has typically focused on recruiting the best player from each international tournament as a marquee signing. It is not inconceivable that Real will focus entirely on the stars of Euro 2016 next summer, although acquiring a goalkeeper of De Gea’s quality for free might be hard to resist
De Gea’s options were limited to two given that few clubs in Europe can match the package on offer at United or Madrid. In essence, De Gea would be putting all his eggs in the Real’s basket if he did not extend his contract at United. So this contact “game” is entirely between De Gea and Real Madrid, with the ‘keeper proceeding with Madrid’s possible action in firmly mind.
By signing the reported £200,000-per-week deal, De Gea is set to earn roughly £6 million more per annum over his current £80,000-per-week contact. This new deal has reportedly been backdated to the start of negotiations in 2014 – a sum that runs into the millions. By refusing to sign, De Gea would have lost out on a huge amount of money.
No matter what Real Madrid’s action, the rational De Gea prefers to sign a new contact. This is because Madrid might still make a big-money move for the Spaniard – after all, the Spanish side has already displayed willingness to invest a significant sum in a player with only one year left on his contact.
To put this another way, Madrid has everything to gain by signing De Gea on a free, but since there is a realistic chance of Madrid buying De Gea for a fee anyway, the player has a financial incentive to sign a new contact. Indeed, it is no surprise that De Gea was amenable towards a new deal for this very reason. Moreover, in many jurisdictions, Mendes could be sued for professional negligence if he did not negotiate that new contract with United given the risks to De Gea’s career
United’s executive vice chairman Ed Woodward had a critical role in this game. Given De Gea’s rational need for a new contract, the executive could have, conceivably, driven down the proposed wage since, post 2 September, the Spaniard benefits by any offer that is greater his current deal.
Still, awarding De Gea a huge contract has its benefits too since the deal places De Gea beyond the reach of most, if not all, clubs in Europe. No matter how much De Gea wants to go to Madrid, his tenure at Old Trafford is now secure if the Spaniards fail to make an offer.
Arguably De Gea deserves that huge new deal having been the Reds’ standout player for past two seasons. The fact that he is a goalkeeper should not preclude him earning the kind of wage on offer to star outfield players. In addition, a high wage serves as a useful deterrent against future Madrid medling. United could have exploited that fact by offering De Gea a higher wage still; creating a permanent barrier any future move.
It is football’s equivalent of Oscar Season; that time of year when the gongs are handed out and the focus is on individuals rather than teams. This year Manchester United’s sole nominee at the Professional Footballers Association ceremony, held last Sunday, was David De Gea. As the country’s outstanding stopper the Spaniard fully deserved recognition after being voted into the PFA’s Team of the Year. Indeed, no other Red will be come close to being in contention for the Football Writers’ Association award when it is revealed next month.
And yet Louis van Gaal is seemingly in danger of losing one of his few genuinely world-class performers. It is, after all, no exaggeration to conclude that United would be some distance from Champions League qualification but for the 24-year-old’s outstanding form – especially from October to March. In the past month De Gea’s performances have, observationally at least, deteriorated just a touch – perhaps a hangover from the pending drama this summer.
After all, the lure of Real Madrid and greater proximity to his girlfriend, the singer Edurne, have seemingly won De Gea’s heart despite United’s reported £200,000-per-week contract offer. The youngster will earn far less at Bernabéu, but the nights will no longer be lonesome and Madrid’s glitter is always alluring.
United paid almost £18 million for the teenage Atlético Madrid ‘keeper in 2011; signing the 19-year-old on a five year £75,000-per-week deal after he had appeared in just 84 matches for Atleti. That inexperience and a steep Premier League learning curve told, however, as De Gea faced a barrage of critical opinion in his first few months at Old Trafford. It could have broken lesser players.
“OMG,” extolled BBC pundit Mark Bright in August 2011, “Man Utd cannot win the Premier League with De Gea.” Meanwhile, in the Guardian, the typically circumspect Daniel Taylor noted that “there has to be a case for Anders Lindegaard to take over,” arguing that the “Dane is seven years older than De Gea, has a greater penalty-box presence and… the trust of his team-mates.”
The assessment bordered on personal in the Times podcast, where critic-in-chief Patrick Barclay described United’s new net-minder as “Heurelho Gomes with less shot-stopping skills,” arguing that the “goalkeeper is like a jelly. I can’t see what he’s got. How on earth Ferguson and all his millions of coaches could have watched this boy week-in-week out and then signed him for the first team I just don’t know.” It was a theme continued in plethora tabloids, broadsheets, podcasts, blogs and phone-ins across the country.
Except on Rant, of course, where there was never any doubt.
The critique stopped though. In 2013 De Gea was voted into the Premier League PFA Team of the Year, while the Spaniard picked up the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year and Manchester United Players’ Player of the Year in 2014. It really should have been a second PFA award last season – and a third in this. De Gea’s performances were consistently better than winner Petr Čech. The Madrileño is a rare talent indeed; one that may not be long for Old Trafford’s appreciation.
Should De Gea move this summer then his compatriot Victor Valdés is the front-runner to come straight into Van Gaal’s team. On paper Valdes offers much: a three-time Champions League and six-times La Liga winner with Barcelona. Valdés, with 15 major medals, is comfortably the most decorated player in United’s squad. He has also secured the Zamora Trophy on five occasions – an award for the goalkeeper who has the lowest ‘goals-to-games’ ratio in La Lifa – and the La Liga Goalkeeper of the Year award twice. Valdes offers both experience, with more than 500 appearances for Barcelona, and a medium-term option. He is just 33-years-old.
Yet, for all the Catalan’s experience, Valdés is not without fault. The stopper made a number of high-profile errors during his time at Barça, including a mistake to gift Angel Di María a goal in the 2012 Supercopa against Real Madrid. One replayed the world over. Valdés is also vulnerable to pressure under the high-ball – unsurprising for a player school in La Liga and just six feet tall.
United could yet look to acquire a replacement, although there are few stoppers available to match De Gea’s quality. Tottenham Hotspur’s Hugo Lloris has enjoyed another fine season in north London, with a consistency of performance and the protection of a lengthy contract that will enable Spurs to demand a fee in excess of £20 million. However, the 28-year-old is reportedly desperate to secure Champions League football three years after he joined the Londoners from Olympique Lyonnais.
Lloris is unlikely to achieve that goal with Spurs next season. Little wonder manager Mauricio Pochettino recently moved to deny that his player is unhappy. Yet, for all Lloris’ experience and quality, the Frenchman’s distribution with his feet is concerning – an area where Van Gaal’s possession-based game demands much from a ‘keeper. It is a fault on which to ponder.
Also in London the aforementioned Čech is available after falling behind Thibaut Courtois in the Blues’ pecking order. While manager José Mourninho has promised Cech his choice of destination it is a theory yet to be tested with a bid from a key rival for next season’s Premier League title. There is certain to be interest from other domestic clubs, including Liverpool and Arsenal, with Čech’s fee likely to be in the £10 million range for a player who is still only 33. Čech’s performances became more erratic after he suffering a fractured skill against Reading in 2006, although the Czech Republic international secured a dubious nomination for the PFA Team of the Year last season.
In Spain Real Madrid’s Keylor Navas could be available, with the Costa Rican international appearing on just 10 occasions for Los Merengues this season. Even if Iker Casillas is finally, mercifully, released after a long walk into mediocrity, Navas is likely to face the prospect of keeping De Gea’s bench warm next season. Or Čech’s. Either way, it has been a tough campaign for the 28-year-old former Levante player who was outstanding at last summer’s World Cup. Navas was voted La Liga’s Best Goalkeeper in 14 prompting a €10 million move to Madrid. After 12 long months it may be time to move on once more.
Barcelona’s young reserve Marc-André ter Stegen might also be available. Despite promising much, after a summer 2014 move to the Catalan giants, ter Stegen is yet to break into the team ahead of Claudio Bravo. Meanwhile, 23-year-old Bernd Leno has enjoyed a fine season in Bundesliga with Bayer Leverkusen. Not that United would gamble on a young ‘keeper!
Elsewhere, and probably only in a fit of desperation, United could look to a clutch of experienced stoppers around Europe, including Internazionale’s Samir Handanovic, Bayern Munich’s bench-warming Pepe Reina, AC Milan’s Diego López, and Hamburg’s René Adler.
Yet, in compiling any list, it is clear that there are few options for United to retain parity in the goalkeeping department. Not unless the unequivocally unavailability of Courtois and Bayern Munich’s outstanding Manuel Neuer changes this summer.
It is a somber thought as De Gea plays out the end game in a long-running strategy to join Madrid; one that United can only block by forcing the player to remain for a further season. In that scenario a new contract may yet be signed, if only to offer De Gea a handsome final pay-off, and the Reds some leverage next summer. Few doubt the player’s destination of choice though.
Former Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdés will sign for Manchester United this week after recovering from a serious knee injury. But what does a deal for the 32-year-old Spanish international say about the future of incumbent number one, David de Gea?
Valdés has been training with United since October in a bid to recover from the anterior cruciate ligament injury sustained against Celta Vigo last season. Now fully fit, Valdés is set to ink an 18-month contract with United, after missing much of Barcelona’s campaign last year together with the World Cup in Brazil. As a free agent Valdés is eligible to register for any team during the winter transfer window.
Despite the serious nature of his injury Valdés comes with an illustrious past, having won six La Liga and three Champions League titles with Barcelona, before departing at the end of last season. Valdes, who spent 12 years at Barcelona before leaving Camp Nou for a fresh challenge, had initially agreed to join Monaco before the French club pulled out of the deal following the player’s injury.
Yet, for all his trophies Valdés also harbours critics, with the Spaniard both short for a top-level stopper and not always dominant under the high ball – a skillset that will certainly be tested in the Premier League.
United’s deal for Valdés will likely end reserve Anders Lindegaard’s time at Old Trafford this winter, but it is the future of De Gea that fascinates most. The 23-year-old was named United’s Player of the Season last year; an honour he must surely be favourite to retain at the half-way stage of the campaign. Yet, with just 18 months left on De Gea’s contract, and Real Madrid reportedly interested, there appears little guarantee the former Atletico Madrid player will remain at Old Trafford beyond next summer.
In this context Valdés’ acquisition could be a precursor to De Gea’s inevitable departure, with the younger man seemingly not keen to extend his stay at United. Alternatively, it may well simply be good business for an experienced ‘keeper that will provide fresh competition to his compatriot.
It is not often, mused former Manchester United defender Gary Neville, that a goalkeeper is awarded man-of-the-match in a 3-0 victory, especially when it is the victors’ stopper. Indeed, David de Gea’s nine-save performance against Liverpool at Old Trafford merited every award coming on Sunday. It proved to be yet one more in a string of increasingly inspired performances from the 24-year-old Spaniard this season. One that also begs the question, with De Gea out of contract in June 2016, and Real Madrid frequently rumoured to be interested in acquiring the Madrileño, just why it is that United has not yet tied the ‘keeper down to a new deal?
The Reds paid almost £18 million for the teenage Atlético Madrid ‘keeper in 2011; signing the 19-year-old on a five year £75,000-per-week deal after he had appeared in just 84 matches for Atleti. That inexperience and a steep Premier League learning curve told, however, as De Gea faced a barraged of negative media opinion in his first few months at Old Trafford.
“OMG,” extolled BBC pundit Mark Bright in August 2011, “Man Utd cannot win the Premier League with De Gea.” Meanwhile, in the Guardian, the typically circumspect Daniel Taylor noted that “there has to be a case for Anders Lindegaard to take over,” arguing that the “Dane is seven years older than De Gea, has a greater penalty-box presence and… the trust of his team-mates.”
The assessment bordered on personal in The Times, where critic-in-chief Patrick Barclay described United’s new net-minder as “Heurelho Gomes with less shot-stopping skills,” arguing that the “goalkeeper is like a jelly. I can’t see what he’s got. How on earth Ferguson and all his millions of coaches could have watched this boy week-in-week out and then signed him for the first team I just don’t know.”
It was a theme continued in plethora tabloids, broadsheets, podcasts, blogs and phone-ins across the country. Except on Rant, of course, where there was never any doubt. Yet, the flood of criticism cut the player deep, with De Gea recently admitting that he considered moving back to Spain after those torrid opening months in England.
“It was difficult when you get a lot of criticism like I did,” said Spanish international. “I felt bad, even though Alex Ferguson always backed me. I tried to be positive. What helped me is that I loved the daily work on the training ground, and used that to get better. But at first it was not easy to cope with all the criticism.”
The critique bleeds no longer. In 2013 De Gea was voted into the Premier League PFA Team of the Year, while the Spaniard picked up the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year and Manchester United Players’ Player of the Year last season. Even the wake of De Gea’s muted start to the campaign, where the Spaniard’s confidence appeared to wane with each new defensive system, supporters held little genuine concern that De Gea would not return to his outstanding best.
Indeed, against Liverpool on Sunday, as in United’s fixtures against Arsenal, Southampton and Everton this season, the Spaniard was the difference between victory and defeat. So pivotal was De Gea in that quartet of matches that United might well be some distance short of Champions League qualification was it not for the former Atlético player.
On Sunday, though United’s victory was ultimately comfortable, the result may well have been very different had Raheem Sterling beaten De Gea with the game’s first chance inside 10 minutes. Liverpool started brightly, with United once again guilty of being wasteful in possession during the opening 20 minutes – and the Merseysiders’ confidence might have taken a different turn but for De Gea’s early intervention.
Even better was to come in the second half where the Spaniard pulled off two outstanding stops to deny Sterling once again and then Mario Balotelli. The latter’s shot on the turn was pushed against the crossbar to seal United’s path to victory.
Yet, Van Gaal has not always been forthcoming with praise for United’s ‘keeper this season, although the Dutchman described De Gea’s performance against Liverpool as “a big influence.” Still, there remains a body of evidence that United’s coach is either seeking more from the young stopper or remains the tough-love practitioner of folklore. In typical fashion, Van Gaal brushed aside praise of De Gea’s match-winning performance at Southampton last week, arguing that the ‘keeper had “stopped three balls, three in total,” adding the pithy rejoinder: “Is that normal or not. Is that exceptional?”
Such are De Gea’s performances of late that it remains curious that the club has not yet been able to tie the player to a new long-term deal, despite any reservations Van Gaal may hold. It is, presumably, not a matter of money after United spent heavily during the summer in the wake of David Moyes’ dismissal last April. Nor is De Gea likely to be seeking wages out of step with his peers. After all, the ‘keeper is within the third tier of earners at Old Trafford, alongside new acquisitions Daley Blind, Ander Herrera and Marco Rojo, but at least £50,000 per-week short of second tier earners such as Ashley Young, Juan Mata and Angel di Maria.
More intrigue still comes with Victor Valdes, the former Barcelona goalkeeper whose proposed move to AS Monaco fell through after the 32-year-old suffered a cruciate knee injury last season. Valdes has been training with the club, on a non-contract basis, since 23 October. And yet it takes very little foresight to understand that the Spanish international could replace his younger countryman should De Gea move to the Bernabeu next summer. While De Gea has dismissed talk of a move back to the Spanish capital as “speculation” he has, pointedly, not ruled out a transfer either.
There is, of course, still 18 months before De Gea’s contract runs its course, although the player’s value will presumably depreciate the closer to June 2016 it is allowed to run. In the meantime speculation abounds: both of a transfer away from Old Trafford and a bumper new deal. Then again, supporters have been there before – rumours of a new contract surfaced in summer 2013 as well to no eventual effect.
For the moment, however, the Spaniard remains a pivotal figure at United – pushing the Reds back towards the Champions League with each outstanding performance. Not bad for kid once lampooned throughout the fourth estate.
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.
April 2012: Manchester City’s Joe Hart was named in the Premier League team of the year, while Manchester United’s David De Gea faced a summer of seemingly endless debate about his future as the club’s number one keeper. There were plenty of suggestions that the Spaniard could be replaced permanently, either by Anders Lindegaard, or by a new number acquisition.
Fast forward 12 months and few United supporters were surprised to see the 22-year old named in the PFA Premier League Team of the Year after a series of terrific performances that underpinned the club’s march towards a 20th league title.
De Gea has been an ever-present in the team in 2013, starting all but one fixture – United’s FA Cup replay versus West Ham United – since Lindegaard’s calamitous performance in the 4-3 win against Reading in December. In the period De Gea amassed an unbroken sequence of 678 minutes without conceding a Premier League goal until James Milner beat the Spaniard with a deflected shot in the recent Manchester derby.
It hasn’t always been rosy though. Early criticism of de Gea’s lack of physical presence and the youngster’s weakness in dealing with crosses seemed warranted as he struggled to acclimatise to the physical rigours of the Premier League, as a 20-year old in his first season at United. The improvement has been tremendous, with the Spaniard benefiting from a customised strength-building programme, which has aided his confidence in dealing with crosses and some of the more robust aspects of the English game
Still, it has not been an easy season for de Gea in the media. In January, there was a universally brutal press assessment after the ‘keeper’s weak punch led to a late Tottenham Hotspur equaliser at White Hart Lane. That many commentators failed to mention de Gea’s heroics throughout the match smacked of a pre-meditated agenda to savage the young ‘keeper.
More surprising, perhaps, was ex-Red Gary Neville’s assessment, who used his platform as a Sky pundit to lambast de Gea for his gaffe against Spurs.
The lone voice of support, it seemed, was ex-United goalkeeping great Peter Schmeichel, who offered a robust defence of a stopper who has dealt with a constantly changing back-four this season. While the finger of blame was squarely pointed at the player, many commentators draw parallels between de Gea’s acquisition and Sir Alex Ferguson’s “disastrous” attempt to replace Schmeichel with Massimo Taibi and Mark Bosnich, among others.
Indeed, though Ferguson stood firm in his support for de Gea during a difficult period, many pundits had already begun writing the obituary on the younger ‘keeper’s time at United.
“Sir Alex Ferguson has become exasperated by De Gea’s inability to iron out the flaws in his game,” said The Telegraph’s Mark Ogden in January.
“Senior players at the club are understood to have lost faith in the 22-year-old even before his costly injury-time mistake against Tottenham on Sunday which led to the home side claiming a 1-1 draw at White Hart Lane.”
Meanwhile, Alan Nixon in the Mirror claimed that “United chief has asked supremo David Gill and the club’s American owners to fund a buy for a genuine number one.”
The Daily Mail, widely recognised for a hyperbolic approach to reporting on United, preposterously suggested that United could move for Liverpool’s Pepe Reina or Barcelona stopper Victor Valdes, ignoring the very real truth that the two ‘keepers’ position in the Spanish squad were in fact under threat from de Gea. When Real Madrid number one Iker Casillas suffered injury recently, it was de Gea that received the call-up for World Cup qualifiers against Finland and France.
In contradiction to the reporting in England, it is widely accepted in Spain that it is now a matter of time before de Gea replaces the aforementioned trio to become Spain’s numero uno.
In the meantime, de Gea has continued to improve. Confident performances against physical teams such as Stoke City and West Ham in recent weeks seemingly underscored the benefits of a stringent gym routine. And while accusations of physical frailty are common, few can now doubt de Gea’s mental strength after coming through a sustained media witch-hunt. Perhaps the player’s apparent poor command of English helped.
de Gea should remain at the club for the long-term too, with the 22-year-old refuting suggestions that he is homesick. Re-affirmation of the player’s commitment to remain at Old Trafford was welcome in the face of the player’s stunning performance against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu earlier this season. De Gea made a number of crucial saves – one shot tipped on to the post with his finger-tips and another saved brilliantly with the right foot.
Credit for the player’s performances is seemingly shared between Sir Alex and United’s goalkeeping coach Eric Steele, who remained undeterred in a conviction that the player’s is potential world-class. Ferguson has since then credited de Gea for United’s significant defensive improvement during the second half of the season.
“David de Gea has developed and matured as the season has gone on,” said Ferguson. “We’ve seen a very progressive and developing young goalkeeper and next season he’ll be even better.”
With an inaugural Premier League title secure, and a consistent season under his belt, de Gea’s campaign has culminated in the Spaniard being chosen ahead of City’s much-lauded Hart as the PFA’s choice for the Premier League goalkeeper of the season.
Replacing one of the game’s great, Edwin van der Sar, was never an easy task, especially at a club of United’s stature. The job isn’t complete, tet de Gea has shown the mental fortitude at a young age to withstand the pressure directed at him. It is surely good preparation for a long United career.
David de Gea’s Season
Premier League Games: 27
Goals Against: 25
Goals Allowed Average: 0.93
Shots faced: 300
Shots on Goal faced: 112
Saves Percentage: 78.3%
Clean Sheets: 11
Yellow Cards: 0
Sir Alex Ferguson could face a challenging start to the new season, with Euro 2012, injury, and the Olympics disrupting Manchester United’s preparations ahead of the Premier League’s start on 18 August. Seven United players will miss the Reds’ pre-season tour of South Africa, China and Norway after appearing in the Euro 2012 tournament this summer. Meanwhile, four Reds are set to appear in the Olympics, with the gold medal match scheduled to take place in London just a week before the new season kicks off. It could leave Ferguson without a dozen players during United’s pre-season programme.
United’s Euro 2012 players – Wayne Rooney, Phil Jones, Ashley Young, Danny Welbeck, Patrice Evra, Nani and Anders Lindegaard – will not travel with the touring party after being given extra time to recover this summer. None will miss the big kick-off, injury permitting, but neither will the group benefit from the pre-season matches required to be match fit for the start of the new campaign. The group will each return to training late, although Rooney played just twice at the tournament, Evra once, while Jones and Lindegaard spent Euro 2012 on the bench.
United began pre-season training on Monday 2 July, with Sir Alex’ side taking on Amazulu FC in Durban on 18 July, followed by matches with Ajax Cape Town in Cape Town three days later. United’s tour moves on to China, where Ferguson’s side meets Didier Drogba’s Shanghai Shenua, followed by a fixtures with Valerenga in Oslo, and Barcelona at the Ullevi Stadium in Gothenburg. The lengthy and five country summer tour concludes with a match against Hannover 96 at the AWD Arena on 11 August.
Adding to Ferguson’s early season challenges, it appears likely that four players will also take part at the Olympics. Fixtures in the under-23 tournament are spread across the UK, with the football tournament starting on 25 July and concluding just a week before the new Premier League season finishes on 11 August in London.
David de Gea is included in Spain’s strong Olympics squad, with La Roja’s juniors one of the tournament favourites. The provisional Spanish squad also includes Juan Mata, Javier Martinez, and Jordi Alba, each of whom appeared at Euro 2012 this summer. Luis Milla’s young Spaniards are heavily based on the squad that secured the European U-21 championship last summer.
Challenging Spain for the tag of tournament favourite is Brazil, with coach Mano Menezes including Rafael da Silva in his provisional 35-man squad. The 50-year-old manager will cut his squad to 18 players by 6 July, and Rafael’s is not guaranteed. Brother Fabio, who this week joined Queens Park Rangers on loan for the 2012/13 season, is not included in Menezes’ tournament party.
Anderson, who played in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, is not included after losing his place in the Brazilian side, while the 24-year-old only qualifies as an over-age player.
Meanwhile, in the British Olympic squad Ryan Giggs and Tom Cleverley have been included by coach Stuart Pearce. Giggs’ inclusion had been long expected, adding an experienced bent to a young Anglo-Welsh squad. No Scots or Northern Irish players are included in Pearce’s squad.
Giggs is signed up to another campaign at Old Trafford, but will now miss pre-season to be part of Pearce’s squad, with the British taking on Senegal at Old Trafford in Britain’s first Olympic football fixture since 1960. Team GB play the United Arab Emirates at Wembley before the final Group A game against Uruguay in Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium on 1 August.
While Ferguson encourage Giggs’ participation, with the 38-year-old Welshman having missed out on tournament football with Wales, the United manager blocked all other over-age players taking part, including Rio Ferdinand, Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick. Chris Smalling misses out with the thigh injury that ended his hopes of being included in Roy Hodgson’s Euro 2012 party.
Cleverley’s inclusion is a mixed blessing though, with the 22-year-old having missed much of 2011/12 with a recurrent ankle injury. While Cleverley could play in at least three matches during United’s pre-season period, he will not join United’s touring party at any point. Cleverley, though, says he is taking part with Ferguson’s approval.
“Throughout my career I want to experience many things,” said Cleverley. “The Olympics would be a fantastic part of it. I’m buzzing about it. I cannot wait. It is a great way for me to bounce back after the disappointment of not going to the Euros with England.
“It’s a young squad, apart from the older-age players, and after England’s Euro 2012 experience a lot of people are talking about putting the accent on youth. This is a chance for me to remind people early. They’ve put trust in us and I want to repay that faith.”
“I need to hit the ground running for the new season and this is a great chance for me. The manager was happy for me that I was shortlisted and had no problems about me being in the Olympics. I will miss United’s pre-season tour and, ideally, I would have liked to do both. But after my injury spell out last season, Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick were doing so well I didn’t get much game time. So I need minutes on the pitch and I feel that playing in high-stake competitive matches like I’ll get at the Olympics is right for me.”
Elsewhere Ferguson has ensured that Javier Hernandez is not included in Mexico’s squad, despite suggestions that the 24-year-old could be his country’s flag-bearer at the Games. Meanwhile, new signing Shinji Kagawa will not be part of Japan’s squad for the three-week long tournament.
Add injuries to captain Nemanja Vidić, and Fletcher into the mix, and Ferguson faces up to United’s pre-season programme without a dozen players. It’s a disruptive element that will ensure some younger faces in the Reds’ touring party this summer.
“OMG,” extolled BBC pundit Mark Bright on Twitter in August, “Man Utd cannot win the Premier League with de Gea.”
Bright’s deliciously reactionary, and embarrassingly premature assertion, made on the evidence one suspects, of having watched young David de Gea in matches against Manchester City and West Bromwich Albion alone, was not the only knee-jerk response in late summer. Indeed, critics from the blogosphere to broadsheet newspapers rounded on the £18 million Spanish acquisition, varyingly comparing de Gea to the hapless Massimio Taibi, and questioning Sir Alex Ferguson’s sanity in replacing Edwin van der Sar with such a callow youth.
But this was not so much a critique of de Gea’s talent, as an assassination; a player thoroughly defenestrated by a media posse unwilling to entertain realistic mitigation. In the wake of de Gea’s outstanding recent performances, one wonders whether the English media pack will now discover the requisite humility.
de Gea’s critics were not simply intransigents in Bright’s mould, but media commentators of an altogether more studied nature. In the Guardian, for example, long-time United observer Daniel Taylor brought forward the question of dropping de Gea after the Spaniard’s Premier League début against West Brom at the Hawthornes. Similar responses came in most, if not all, Britain’s broadsheets.
“Not every team will be as generous as West Bromwich Albion and there has to be a case for Anders Lindegaard to take over,” argued Taylor.
“The Dane is seven years older than De Gea, has a greater penalty-box presence and, when he played in the United States in pre-season, had the trust of his team-mates. The Premier League can be an unforgiving place and, rightly or wrongly, De Gea has already been identified as a ‘dodgy keeper’.”
Meanwhile, in The Times, de Gea’s self-appointed critic-in-chief, and one-time Fergie biographer, Patrick Barclay described United’s new net-minder as “Heurelho Gomes with less shot-stopping skills.”
“The goalkeeper is like a jelly,” continued Barclay, in The Times‘ podcast last August. “I can’t see what he’s got. How on earth Ferguson and all his millions of coaches could have watched this boy week-in-week out and then signed him for the first team I just don’t know. It’s always a risk signing a goalkeeper from Spain, and Ferguson should have known this.”
“I’m looking forward to Man United versus Stoke,” Barclay added, with ill disguised glee.
Barclay, being Barclay, will likely be the last to come down from this particular high horse, let alone the xenophobic rant about Spanish ‘keeping, which has produced the considerable talents of Iker Casillas and Victor Valdes, together with Liverpool’s Pepe Reina, in recent years.
The theme continued in the The Independent, where the normally excellent Ian Herbert was quick to join the throng.
“It is unclear whether the English lessons, with which his manager says he is progressing so well, have acquainted him with an understanding of the term “dodgy keeper” but when it was being blasted out only 35 minutes into his competitive English career yesterday it was hard not to fear for him. The Premier League has a way of finding a player’s weakness and offering no sanctuary.”
Then in The Telegraph former Liverpool defender Alan Hansen, who has enjoyed a season-long war-of-words with Ferguson, was quick to claim that de Gea did “not have the trust of his teammates.”
“My record with underestimating how successful kids can be dreadful, but the crucial difference between the class of 1995 and Ferguson’s current crop is in the defence. It is too simple to say you will win nothing with a kid in goal, but it is a monumental challenge to ask a defence with an average age of 22 to go into games with the likes of Arsenal and Spurs.”
So monumental – it is tempting to point out – that United hammered 11 past the north London duo. Hindsight is a powerful weapon, of course, especially with the bravura of correct foresight in the face of overwhelming opposition. But none of the criticism really made any sense, except as a narrow observation on de Gea’s individual performances over a short period of time.
Certainly, the Spaniard should have kept out shots against City in the Community Shield, West Brom in the Premier League, and perhaps even Theo Wallcott’s strike through the ‘keeper’s legs in United’s 8-2 demolition of Arsenal at Old Trafford. Then came the calamitous performance against Blackburn Rovers in defeat, which precipitated the Spaniard’s demotion, and the cup loss to Liverpool at Anfield, where the home side thoroughly bullied the young ‘keeper.
In truth this was a quintet of games in which de Gea will have learned much about the brutality of the Premier League, but more about the media pack covering the world’s most widely broadcast competition. The former Atlético de Madrid stopper, who has already won a Europa League medal and the European Under-21 Championship, deserved none of the widespread psychological over-analysis.
After all, here was a kid, in his first weeks away from home, girlfriend a plane ride away in Spain, living in a hotel room, and who had little serious command of the language. What else, bar uncertain performances, could ever have been expected, of even the most the brilliant young player?
“There’s obviously an agenda from the media on de Gea and we experienced that again after the game in Benfica,” mused Ferguson in September.
“For some reason, it seems to me they [the press] are desperate for the boy to fail. I don’t understand it. They will all want interviews when he is doing well.”
Six months on and the tidal wave of revisionism flows freely. Some praise followed de Gea’s outstanding performance at Stamford Bridge in early February; barely a week after the loss to Liverpool, which had prompted some commentators to suggest the Spaniard’s time at Old Trafford was up. Assured performances against Norwich City, Tottenham, Fulham and Blackburn Rovers demands even more.
On Monday night, at Ewood, two outstanding saves kept United in the game as the home side tried, and failed, to break the Reds as the game seemed destined for a goalless draw.
Indeed, de Gea’s phone – or more accurately his agent’s – will now be ringing off-the-hook with media requests such is the turnaround. If the Madrileño was culpable for goals conceded earlier in the season, then he undoubtedly saved United points against Chelsea, Norwich, Fulham and Blackburn.
Barclay, who in October accused United fans offering de Gea support of being “trolls,” only partially revised his former position, claiming in October last year that his was merely an observation, correct at the time. The Scot has said nothing on the subject since. Ferguson, and his “millions of coaches” who bought “a jelly,” might wonder when Barclay will take a step further and bite down on humble pie.
Other commentators will be forced to offer revisions to premature judgement too, as de Gea eventually – inevitably some might say – blossoms into one of the world’s finest goalkeepers, as his talent – evident to those who, unlike Barclay, have watched the kid from an earlier age – shines through.
“David de Gea made three fantastic saves to keep us in the game,” said Ferguson on Monday, echoing words he has now become accustomed to repeating.
“Although we had all the possession, we couldn’t create the openings to get in front. Javier Hernandez hit the post and we had a penalty kick claim – I didn’t think it was – so David has done his bit for the team. He has really grown in stature the boy. He was outstanding.”
Now five points clear – possibly eight by next weekend’s end – Bright is increasingly likely to be proven wrong. Both in United’s ascent to the Premier League title, and de Gea’s role in it.
Some, like Spanish commentator Guillermo Balague, never questioned the youngster’s ability to make it at United: “People doubting David de Gea? Seriously? It will be a feast of eaten words at the end of the season,” he said with much prescience in August.
It is a pity his English colleagues lacked the same patience.