Thursday, 22 September 2011

What a difference a De Gea makes...

By Diarmaid Hill

Manchester United’s start to the Premier League season has been widely acclaimed by journalists, pundits and fans alike. A vibrancy and enthusiasm generated by a new breed of youth has swept aside its challengers so far and led many to believe the Premier League is already Manchester bound with United and their ever-loudening neighbours scrapping for it. And yet, Manchester United’s start has come with an all too familiar footnote – the man between the sticks. David De Gea endured a tough start to life at United, his errors for Edin Dzeko’s goal in the Community Shield and Shane Long’s goal against West Brom brought him in for intense criticism from all corners, with some United fans immediately writing him off.  The T-word was used. That incredibly offensive and degrading title for any keeper… Taibi. 

However, apart from the minority who wrote him off, the United fans have since engaged in one of the more admirable qualities that we as a fanbase possess. The shields went up. No criticism, past that reasonable for his two errors, was allowed without severe sanction. Whilst this faith and support for our players is great, there are always those who take it too far. James Ducker of the Times had the temerity to make the remark “De Gea looks like a school-kid who has won a competition to keep goal for United” on Twitter. How dare he? The response was so brutal, he quit Twitter. It was a shame to see innocent remarks, meant in good humour, be misconstrued into something insulting towards De Gea.  It would appear as though Ducker was making a joke, albeit one that was poorly-worded, and even if he was insulting De Gea, surely one of the brilliant things about the beautiful game is that people can have opposing opinions? Whilst it was done in an extreme and idiotic way, the response showed how quick United fans can be to defend our own.

De Gea’s career has been an opportunistic one – based on seizing his chances when they came. In 2009, Athletico’s number one Sergio Asenjo went to the under-20 World Cup with Spain, leaving De Gea to deputise to new number 1 Roberto. Unfortunately for Roberto and very fortunately for De Gea, Roberto was injured within 30 minutes of a Champion’s League game against Porto and on came De Gea. Whilst De Gea conceded 2 in a 2-0 loss, the door was now open for him. In the next game, at home versus Zaragoza, De Gea conceded a penalty in what seemed like a nightmare full debut but then immediately redeemed himself, saving from Marko Babic. Athletico went on to win 2-1. De Gea continued until Asenjo returned from international duty and then his more experienced teammate took over. Not for long however, as after a few major errors from Asenjo and Quique Sanchez Flores’ arrival as manager, De Gea became Athletico’s number one, playing in the rest of the games that season, including the 2-1 win over Fulham in the Europa League final. 

At the end if the season, he was widely praised, with Spanish Football expert Sid Lowe acclaiming him as the best player to come out of Athletico’s academy since Fernando Torres. The 2010-2011 season was even better for the youngster, especially it’s beginning, a 2-0 win against Inter in the Super Cup final, with the Spaniard saving a Diego Milito penalty. He went on to play every La Liga game that season, including sensational performances against Barcelona and Valencia. He was so good, he prompted Sir Alex Ferguson to miss only his third match in 24 years (at that time) to watch him. At the end of the season, De Gea was again widely praised, with Lowe naming him as the best goalkeeper of the year (though he admitted that he chose DDG over Valdes because of De Gea not playing for one of the big two). It was after Gary Neville’s testimonial on the 24th of May this year than Sir Alex announced a deal to sign the Spaniard had been agreed. This was denied by Athletico and De Gea’s advisor, though this was simply because De Gea was changing agents and didn’t want to sign before switching, thus avoiding paying a commission to his agent at the time. The deal was sealed after De Gea travelled to the under 21 European Championships with the Spanish teams. He excelled, making UEFA’s team of the tournament (I particularly remember a sensational save from Danny Sturridge in the first group game vs England). After the tournament, De Gea finally joined Manchester United on the 29th June (though it became apparent on the 27th after a blunder with United trying to hide the identity of the player having his medical).

That’s the story of De Gea’s career before United. As far as replacing Van Der Sar goes, De Gea was arguably second choice behind Manuel Neuer but at the point where people realised Neuer was around (after the Champions League tie versus United, despite him already being a regular starter for Germany it was this game that pushed his case in many people’s eyes) he was already halfway to Bayern Munich. Also, for the record, Neuer has enjoyed an inauspicious start at Bayern, where he was already hated by the fans. However, De Gea has always been compared to Van Der Sar, even garnering the nickname “Van Der Gea”, mainly because of how good both are at distributing the ball, a necessary attribute for a keeper who hopes to secure a place not only in United’s team but also hopes to overthrow Diego Lopez, Pepe Reina, Victor Valdes and Iker Casillas, no mean feat, eh? 

There is no doubt that Manchester United have signed a real gem, one of the top 3 young keepers about, sharing that distinction with De Gea’s replacement Thibaut Courtois (on loan from Chelsea) and Arsenal’s outstanding Pole Wojciech Szczesny. It’s rare that a keeper becomes truly world class at a really young age, Gigi Buffon, Iker Casillas and Francesco Toldo being three notable exceptions, but all three of the aforementioned youngsters can become top keepers even at their young ages. Miguel Delaney wrote a fascinating article on this issue and pointed out that whilst few keepers can become world class early on, he uses the example of Victor Valdes as a keeper who wasn’t a great keeper straight away but with faith and a run in the first team, he has become one of the world’s finest. It is debateable whether such leeway will be granted to De Gea at United, with demanding fans and a brutal media ready to leap on any error he makes, however, under Sir Alex Ferguson he will be given every chance. Some even subscribe to the theory in some quarters than the recent media revelations that De Gea was to be dropped against Bolton came from the club in a move to show support for the Spaniard. Sir Alex’s reaction to questions about whether Anders Lindegaard would overthrow De Gea shows just how determined he is to support his big money signing. De Gea may be a flop at United but I seriously doubt it. His talent is not in question, the main problem being his mentality. However, Sid Lowe says his mental strength is a major attribute and when I asked Athletico Madrid fan blogger Gareth Nunn on the excellent Madrid Athleticos site about his thoughts on De Gea’s chances, he was confident. He emphasised that United’s new keeper was both very confident whilst remaining grounded, a seemingly recurring theme from anyone who speaks of him.

James Ducker’s phrase will long be remembered but it matters not whether “De Gea looks like a school-kid who has won a competition to keep goal for United”. What matters is whether he plays like it.

By Diarmaid Hill (Follow on Twitter)


  1. i'd like to dispute neuer having an inauspicious start - he's unbeaten in eleven games. and counting

  2. De Gea seems to have a really good future
    may god bless him....
    Glory Glory Man Utd