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.