The David de Gea Dilemma


Arguably the hardest position to play.

Constant pressure piled on, as you look to appease tens of thousands of fans whose mood for the next week, will be defined by whether you can keep the opposition from scoring.

From the bottom of the barrel in National League, to the very top of the footballing hierarchy, playing as a goalkeeper is as hard as it gets in football.

At Manchester United, it’s a different level of pressure.

For years the Red Devils have had the very best in between the sticks.

The likes of Peter Schmeichel and Edwin van der sar, just epitomise the level that the United teams of old were at.

Following Van der sar’s retirement in 2011, a new relatively unknown Spanish goalkeeper was brought in from Atletico Madrid for £18.9m.

David de Gea.

De Gea had risen up the ranks in the Atletico academy before becoming a first team regular in the 2009/10 season. By the following season, the young Spaniard was Atletico’s number one.

Upon his arrival, Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson said: He’s a young goalkeeper, very quick, good composure, presence and an outstanding replacement for Van der Sar.”

Discussing the deal, De Gea said: “I saw Man Utd’s interest as an extra motivation to work even harder to show off my ability.

It’s a great privilege to be part of a club like United.”

2018 World Cup

Over a decade has passed since De Gea broke into the United team. In this time the Spanish international had built up an impeccable reputation as one of, or if not the best goalkeeper in the world. This form was best displayed in the seasons before the 2018 World Cup.

However, at this World Cup, De Gea made costly errors which ultimately led to Spain crashing out in the last 16 to hosts Russia.

Five years after this tragic tournament, De Gea has never truly been the same.

Spanish excellence

When discussing De Gea, it’d be outrageous to ignore the countless times the 32-year-old goalkeeper has saved United.

De Gea excels in his shot stopping abilities. The Spaniards ability to make breath taking saves time and time again, is what set him apart from the very best.

His performance in United’s victory over Arsenal in the 2017/18 season epitomises this.

In his 12 years at the club, De Gea has won the golden glove award once officially in 2017/18, but will soon win his second in the present 2022/23 campaign upon the completion of the season. He’s also won the Sir Matt Busby player of the year award four times, with three coming in a row.

Thus, De Gea’s significance and importance to the team in recent years cannot be underappreciated.

At his best, De Gea saved United.

To such extent, a football fan believed he could save the titanic.

The former Atletico Madrid goalkeeper spent most of his years at the club playing in varying systems and differing managers with very little stability. Each manager tried to find their best centre half partnership, but none provided the elite shot stopper with great protection.

A common feeling amongst fans is that in multiple seasons with a different goalkeeper, United would have finished a lot lower in the Premier League table.

Despite his decline since the 2018 World Cup, it would be naïve to suggest the 32-year-old is a complete shadow of his former self. Although mistakes have regularly crept into his game, his shot stopping has still remained at the highest pedigree.

Sky Sports uploaded a video of De Gea’s best saves in the current 2022/23 season five months ago. This illustrates the calibre of saves the Spaniard has been making, even this season.

The Divide

Amongst the United fanbase, huge division remains over the opinion on De Gea and whether he should stay or go.

Every fan has been head in hands with the feeling of disbelief at how they haven’t conceded thanks to the Spaniard.

However, what splits the fans is the importance of shot stopping opposed to the more ‘modern goalkeeper’ attributes like quality on the ball, dominance in the air and the ability to sweep off the line.

In the 13 years the 32-year-old has been at the club, the demands of the goalkeeper have changed.

World class manager Pep Guardiola removed Joe Hart at Manchester City to bring in Ederson due to his ball playing abilities. Similarly, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp splashed £66.8m on Brazilian goalkeeper Alisson from Roma. These signings illustrate the transition of expectations in the modern goalkeeper.

In recent years, Guardiola and Klopp have been the two dominant managers in English football. They have imposed a style of play which is consistently built up from the back using the goalkeeper as an integral part of this puzzle. Therefore, to fit in these systems, a goalkeeper has to be comfortable on the ball. This is where the questions are raised around De Gea.

The Spanish international struggles significantly when in possession. The 32-year-old lacks the needed composure and passing ability to play accurate long balls, or to play out from the back when under pressure from a high press. This can leave United incredibly vulnerable as the Spaniard can consistently give possession away when Eric ten Hag’s men try to build up from the back.

Thus, many fans believe this is one of the reasons it’s time to let De Gea go as he can’t meet the demands of the modern goalkeeper. This is additionally emphasised as Ten Hag likes to play a ‘modern’ brand of football, following Pep and Klopp’s ideology of building up from the back.

In addition, De Gea’s lack of arial presence and his inability to sweep effectively has led more fans to turn against him.

The Spaniard can lack the physicality needed when in the air, which often leaves him going down under minimal contact. Furthermore, he tends to stay on his line heavily. With an array of crosses being fired into the box, De Gea doesn’t move off his line to catch the ball, but rather hope he can save a shot instead. This works at times, but isn’t an effective technique to consistently rely on, and has been costly for United at times.

In addition, when balls are played in behind the United defence, De Gea is slow to anticipate, or doesn’t move off his line enough. This compared to goalkeepers like Alisson, who reduce pressure by effectively sweeping, is a major difference.

Finally, mistakes are the final nail in the coffin for those against keeping De Gea.

As a goalkeeper, you can get away with giving the ball away a couple times when playing out from the back, but it’s when you make a costly error, is what really brings the attention to you.

De Gea can be susceptible to making a major error.

Against West Ham just last week, De Gea made another huge mistake when attempting to save Said Bebrahma’s shot.

At what point do the errors become too frequent, or too significant?

With Ten Hag fighting for trophies, is relying on an inconsistent goalkeeper going to be a major mistake?

My Verdict

Regardless of what happens in the next few months, De Gea is a United legend for what he’s done in the seasons prior. It’d be wrong to suggest he’s been bad since the World Cup, but equally, he’s not been consistently that same goalkeeper who was seen as one of the world’s best before that.

Despite his shot stopping expertise, De Gea should be moved on. He does save United at times, but such moments often come from pressure resulting from the Spaniards inability to pass out the back, or claim a cross, or sweep the line. With Ten Hag looking to adopt a modern style of playing, replacing the former Atletico Madrid goalkeeper becomes a priority.