It looks like a deal is done. All it needs is for the paperwork to be finalised and Rio Ferdinand to take him on a tour of Manchester’s finest hotspots. David de Gea looks certain to being leaving Atletico Madrid for Manchester United. Sir Alex Ferguson has chosen the young Spaniard as the man to fill the sizeable gloves of Edwin van der Sar and the task of replacing a legend in goals begins again. It’s not always a task Fergie has performed with aplomb.
Despite having what Fergie described as a last-minute ‘wobble’,van der Sar heads off into the sunset. The rumours, speculation and posturing from agents looking to push their clients into the frame can come to an end and we can concentrate on arguably the hottest prospect amongst the emerging talents of the goalkeeping ranks as he makes his way at Old Trafford. For some time now, I’ve been certain that de Gea is good enough to make it at Man Utd. But – there’s always the get-out clause of a ‘but’ – his success at Old Trafford will depend on various intangibles we don’t know enough about at present. Here’s a look at the case for and against a long and successful stint at Old Trafford for de Gea.
Why It Will Work:
Quite simply, de Gea has the raw talent to make it at Old Trafford. He’s very agile, he’s got good hands, he’s generally confident in dealing with the high ball, he’s quick off his line – he’s a really solid all round performer. Making the comparison with van der Sar may seem overly convenient considering the timing, but long before there was talk of a move to the Premier League, the resemblance to the Dutchman in terms of physical build and style was obvious.
There was something rather gangly, lanky and almost rigid about van der Sar. At first glance you’d question if he has the agility to make it as top class goalkeeper, but it didn’t take long before he’d hurl himself across the goal with speed that seems to defy the psychical capabilities of his stature. Combined with that, he had the softness of hands to ensure he gathered almost everything at the first attempt and an uncommon ability to do the simple things with a minimum of fuss or drama. A lot of the same can be said about de Gea. Admittedly, his career in top flight football has been going for less than two seasons as opposed to the two decades of van der Sar, but already in that time he has shown himself to be talented and in time he will hope to achieve the remarkable consistency of his predecessor in the United goal.
What has perhaps impressed my most about the young Spaniard has been his attitude. It would be deeply disingenuous to suggest he’s been flawless since arriving in the Atletico Madrid first team. There have been errors and it’s these moments the critics will highlight as being major weaknesses. In response I would make the following points. Firstly, every goalkeeper will make mistakes and that’s an unavoidable constant. Whether it’s Iker Casillas in a World Cup final or a meaningless five a side with friends, there are going to be those moments when you cringe at the simplicity of an error. Secondly, the frequency of the mistakes de Gea makes is relatively low for an elite goalkeeper of any age and especially low for an elite goalkeeper of his tender years. And – without wanting to entirely shift the blame to someone else – playing behind a defence like Atletico’s last season is likely to leave you more exposed than most.
Even when he has made his mistakes, I’ve been impressed. He recovered well and didn’t inhibit his future decisions. At once, It was cleared out of his mind and he carried on continued to command his penalty area with authority and play like a goalkeeper bubbling with confidence. His response when asked about the relatively colossal transfer fee involved in his move to Manchester United spoke volumes about his character and focus. “The fact that I could become one of the most expensive goalkeepers ever does not interest me. The value that really counts is what you do on the pitch,” he insisted. Placing too much emphasis on the obligatory answers given by footballers in interview situations is dangerous, but I find the focus and determination to be extraordinary for a young man and in terms of his attitude, the Premier League should hold no concerns.
Why It Won’t Work:
If the talent isn’t in doubt, then the questions marks must arise elsewhere. How he handles the intense scrutiny that comes with the territory of being the Man Utd first choice goalkeeper is the main area of concern. The suggestion implicit in that claim is that his temperament is suspect which is hugely unfair on de Gea. I could probably claim to be a closer acquaintance of the Queen than I am to the Spaniard, so I lack any sort of personal insight, but from what I’ve cobbled together from interviews and the dubious accuracy of Google translate de Gea seems to be a young man of uncommon maturity, focus and levelheadedness. It’s speculative, but his career to date paints a picture of a character comfortable in the spotlight. He already has Europa League and European U17 Championship medals to his name and although that won’t compare the pressure that comes with the latter stages of the Champions League or a crucial end of season Premier League game, it’s more than the vast majority of his contemporaries.
Although Atletico are no longer amongst the elite in La Liga, their substantial fanbase means they continue to receive extensive coverage in the pages of the Spanish sports dailies. He’s well accustomed to microphones being thrust into his face and seemingly innocuous comments being twisted and shaped into something more interesting and significantly less factual. The spotlight is nothing new to him, but just how brightly it shines at Old Trafford may take a while to get used to. I have little knowledge of the Spanish sports press, but it would take something remarkable if they could match the vicious vitriol their British counterparts launch in to every time a goalkeeper commits – in their informed opinion – a ‘howler’. In my opinion, the ridicule of Robert Green in the British press following his error at the World Cup was a disgrace to rival some of the most shameful moments in Fleet Street history and my concerns about de Gea succeeding at Manchester United are almost entirely based on the pack of wolves viciousness of the press.
If he makes a couple of errors early on in his Old Trafford career, the labels will start to fly. He’ll be called a flapper, spoken of as a waste of money and tarred with the brush of being another one of Fergie’s ‘continental’ keepers who just doesn’t have the machismo to make it in the man’s world that is Premier League football. Application of the ‘continental’ label would be particularly erroneous as if anything, de Gea is more British in style than the geographically vague categorisation that comes with being from mainland Europe. The accuracy of the labels is something of a red herring anyway, because my point is, for all their struggles with truly understanding the nature of goalkeeping, the British media are experts on establishing consensus, regardless of how true a reflection of reality it is. If they start to bang the drum that de Gea isn’t good enough, it’s only a matter of time before it takes hold with the fans and the pressure builds. Fergie may pride himself on being his own man, but rarely in his entire tenure at Old Trafford has his selection policy differed too greatly from the notions of the fans. He may have occasionally stuck with a player for slightly too long, but – unless out of absolute necessity – it’s rare that he’ll persist with a player that the fans have identified as being sub-standard. de Gea appears to be mentally strong enough to ignore the press, but as a young man in his 20s in a new environment, losing the confidence of a manager who has convinced to him make the trip is another matter.
We wait with immense interest and fans of football and goalkeeping will hope that we see the best of de Gea in coming years.