On the spectrum of starts, it’s not an absolute disaster. It is however far closer to the catastrophic end of the scale than it is to the successful end. It hasn’t cost silverware or points, but two games into his Manchester United career, David De Gea is on the ropes. And what’s probably more disconcerting for fans hoping to see the youngster succeed is the pace at which he has got to experience the sharp pens of the savage British press.
I wrote some time ago that my biggest fear about David De Gea being a success at Manchester United has little to do with his ability, it was more to do with the increased pressure and scrutiny that comes with being first choice at Old Trafford. He has the personality to handle it, but already the media have been quick to turn on him with the most ruthless of them crossing the line from warranted to criticism to ill-formed sneering mockery. Sean Custis, chief football writer with The Sun moronically wrote:
“The only thing that might stop this exciting, youthful United from retaining their title is new keeper David De Gea. Even his initials DDG look like a text form of DODGY and his early season howlers are causing consternation for Reds fans.”
Of course it wasn’t the finest moment in the history of goalkeeping, but such boorish ignorance is at best unhelpful and at worst the kind of brutality that has virtually destroyed the progress of countless young England goalkeepers in recent seasons. Plus it’s plainly wrong. As pleasing on the eye as some of the football from “this exciting, youthful United team” was, they failed to carve out many clear-cut chances in the second half and with the wealth of attacking talent at his disposal, that is worthy of almost as much examination as De Gea’s goalkeeping.
Sadly it wasn’t an isolated incident with many other pundits prepared to jump on the bandwagon of ill-formed conclusion and declare De Gea’s United career over before it has got the chance to get going. Attempts to pin the blame on him for City’s first goal in the Community Shield highlight the premeditated witch-hunt I believe some members of the press are on. The reason United conceded that goal was down to the fact it was superb deadball delivery and a good header from Joleon Lescott. De Gea may have made the briefest of motions forward, but he was hardly flapping at the cross or causing chaos for his defenders and his final position was pretty much where a keeper should in such a situation. A certain amount of such negative comment about his time in England so far is merited, but the relish with which Custis and certain others grasped the opportunity to deride another human being was an appalling reflection of the standards of journalism and punditry in Britain.
Thankfully, more constructive explanations have abounded in the aftermath of the West Brom game also. The excellent Shaka Hislop (@ShakaHislop) suggested that his problems are related to poor footwork and could be coached out of him by Eric Steele. The equally excellent Adie Creamer (@gkaade) , goalkeeping coach at the Watford FC academy put forward a theory that leaned more towards the mental aspect of the game and the young Spaniard’s ability to handle the overall pressure that comes from the Premier League. I can see some merit in both. At the moment, De Gea’s footwork seems a touch uncertain – as is much of the rest of his game – but from watching his development at Atletico Madrid, I know under normal circumstances his footwork isn’t bad and is actually one of his virtues. Something is happening that is affecting the very fundamentals of his game and I would say his problems are almost entirely psychological rather than technical.
What’s even more frustrating is that in between mistakes his talent is obvious. His reactions are solid and his handling sound, but he just isn’t at the races at other times. My hypothesis – for what it’s worth – is that De Gea is over-thinking at present. There has undoubtedly been a certain slowness to his game so far. Difficultly adapting to the pace of the British game may partially explain it, but I think it’s more than that. I suspect when the ball looks to be coming his direction at the moment, for a split second, either consciously or in his subconscious, De Gea thinks ‘I have to save this’. It’s a result of the pressure that comes with playing for such a huge club and the fact he has left his comfort zone by leaving Atletico. He doesn’t feel comfortable as yet and his quest to compensate leads only exacerbates the problem. It only takes a millisecond, but whilst De Gea takes this millisecond, he’s no closer to making a save, but the ball’s arrival is imminent. In the Community Shield, he seemed to be ponderous for the Dzeko goal and by the time he committed to a dive, he couldn’t adjust for the movement and dip in what was an otherwise straightforward shot. Against West Brom, Shane Long hit a shot that he would gobble up 99.99% of the time away from the intensity of a Manchester United match. At the risk of sounding like a Danielle Steele, I would equate it to breathing. Breathing is instinct to us all and for goalkeepers, throwing whatever part of your anatomy will do the job in the path of the ball feels natural almost to the point of being innate. As fanciful as the comparison is, when you start to think about your breathing or inhaling and exhaling correctly, it starts to feel somewhat laboured and far from the automated process it should be. When De Gea doesn’t have that moment to think and relies on his instinct, there doesn’t seem to be a problem as we saw with his fantastic save moments before the calamity.
As for Fergie, he may be tempted to turn to Anders Lindegaard. The Dane showed some good form in pre-season and has reportedly been making noises about not being happy with regards to his place in the pecking order. Games like Sunday only lend weight to his claims and it’s only natural that Fergie might want to give him a run out. I stand by my previous assertions that De Gea is good enough to succeed at Old Trafford, but equally the press have disproportionate power when it comes to hammering the nails into his coffin. That’s part of the deal when it comes to being Manchester United’s number 1 and he now has very little margin for error.