By Thomas Doyle
After a first full season in the Premier League, David de Gea has jumped from the frying pan into the fire, been dumped out and into a bucket of ice water, and then thrown back in to the inferno without so much as an pause for breath along the way. The fact that he will enter the 2012/13 season as Manchester United’s first-choice goalkeeper says much about his talent, but perhaps more importantly about his temperament and the effect that form, injuries, and luck all play in top-level football.
The 21-year-old Spaniard endured a difficult start to his Old Trafford career, and was dropped on a number of occasions by Sir Alex Ferguson for the more experienced presence of 27-year-old Anders Lindegaard. He suffered in the Charity Shield win against Manchester City, and struggled on the opening day away to West Brom; de Gea let Shane Long’s speculative shot dip underneath him, and made hard work aerial battles and crosses. He was badly at fault for Blackburn’s winning goal in the shock 3-2 home defeat in December, and fans may look back on that game as the one which cost the team the title. He made important saves in home games against Arsenal and Chelsea, but doubts over his reliability became serious worries. Pundits were lining up to say that he was not ready to fill Edwin van der Sar’s huge shoes (or gloves as it were) at the Theatre of Dreams, and questioned Ferguson’s judgement in signing a relatively inexperienced replacement for a hefty £18.3 million. However, an unfortunate injury for the Dane Lindegaard led to de Gea being reinstalled to the starting line-up in January, and he hasn’t looked back since.
Since being back in the team, de Gea has been calmer and more authoritative in his area, and has made a string of world-class saves, most notably to deny compatriot Juan Mata a brilliant stoppage time winner in the 3-3 draw at Stamford Bridge. The sight of de Gea clawing away the free kick is surely seared into the memories of United fans the world over, and with that, he seemingly announced his true arrival in the number one jersey at Old Trafford. After making a series of great stops away to Blackburn, Ferguson remarked that: “He has really grown in stature the boy.” Indeed, his performance was unrecognisable when compared to his previous encounter with Blackburn that led to his omission. It has been revealed that de Gea has the best save success rate in the Premier League (of the keepers with 10 or more apps) with 77.8%, which is no small feat in your first season. Comments have been made about the need for him to bulk up for the physical demands of the league, but his gymnasts’ body allows him to make saves that others keepers simply cannot; he needs more strength and to be more assertive at corners, but it is a fine line to tread, and United’s medical staff must ensure he maintains his elasticity.
In terms of comparing de Gea to van der Sar, the Dutchman finished his career with United at 39, while de Gea joined at 20. To put it in context, van der Sar had already joined Ajax before de Gea had even been born. There were bound to be a few hiccups, as people forget that David de Gea is still a young man that has moved to a different country and culture, is playing in the most competitive league in the world, and has been tasked with following a world-class professional; a tall order, by anybody’s standards. Perhaps the rationale was more that it was Ferguson himself who should have introduced a more mature presence between the sticks. However, the chance to snap up de Gea proved too great, and based upon his form in the title run-in, de Gea already looks like an inspired piece of business.
While van der Sar was a brilliant shot-stopper and claimed crosses superbly, his distribution was an unsung trait, particularly for United’s style of play. It is a well-worn cliché, but as with a number of Spanish keepers, de Gea is comfortable on the ball, and this will serve him well at United. Ferguson seems to encourage his players to return to the keeper when under pressure, with van der Sar often acting as a sweeper behind Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic as the full backs pushed on and wide. Keeping possession ensures that the opponent has to chase it, and it is clear that de Gea is talented in this regard. His distribution with both hands and feet is first-rate, often searching – and finding – wingers and full-backs with carefully-aimed lobs to the wings.
It goes without saying that while his aerial strength has improved immeasurably since the start of the season, he still needs to work to improve this aspect of his game. While Chris Smalling was blamed for Vincent Kompany’s winner at The Etihad in April, there is a nagging suspicion that de Gea should have come and taken the corner, or at least gotten it away from danger – Eric Steele will have to ensure that this is a core aspect of pre-season training.
He will undoubtedly start the new campaign as the number one choice, and having had an undisturbed run in the side free from the fear of being dropped, de Gea looks like a player at ease with himself, and his football. He may have cost United a couple of points last year, but David de Gea certainly saved United far more, and goalkeepers like him do not come around very often. This is a player that can win you titles, and United fans should be glad to have him – for next season, and for many more.
Report card: B
Strengths: Distribution, shot-stopping, temperament, youth.
Weaknesses: Command of area, aerial battles, wispy beard.
Moments of the season: Penalty save vs. Robin van Persie (Arsenal home), Mata free-kick (Chelsea away), Ramires save (Chelsea at home), Blackburn away.
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