In England, fans, pundits and players relish the verity foreigners find the style of play difficult, and there’s a peculiar fetish for newcomers struggling with physicality. Though, there’s also huge respect for the players who manage to adapt. In the summer of 2011, David de Gea’s first interpretation on his arrival at United was: “I had no idea of the size and grandeur of United. Everyone tells you it’s not just any other club, but until you arrive and see how they work, how they manage their football, you have got no real idea of the scale of it.” Certainly, de Gea was well acquainted with the pressure he would face ahead.
For all his quite-evident excellence, de Gea remains a footballer who thrives best under pressure: Being prodded, cajoled and bullied into adopting new standards by ex-goalkeeping coach Eric Steele. The pressure of impressing and winning the trust of Sir Alex Ferguson, particularly while being rotated with Lindegaard. The pressure of having lots of work to do during matches. Perhaps even the pressure of having Victor Valdés around the training ground too.
David de Gea always felt respected by Sir Alex Ferguson even when United’s former manager played Andres Lindegaard instead. “The faith that he showed in me at all times was very important,” the Spaniard indicated. “To know that he was behind me all the time and backing me up was great, and it’s probably one of the reasons that I’ve continued to improve: The confidence he showed in me.”
De Gea’s development into a reliable first-choice goalkeeper is not primarily due to an improvement in positioning or a different approach to shot-stopping – it is because of a change in overall attitude. Former Manchester United goalkeeping coach Eric Steele depicted his previous concerns about de Gea’s all-around professionalism. “There were lifestyle issue: He’d sleep two or three times a day. He’d have his main meal late at night. He would eat too many tacos.”
Steele also accused de Gea of being “lazy” when it came to learning English – the keeper eventually got around the problem by watching English television with the subtitles turned on, but Steele also learned Spanish himself in the intervening period. Steele’s a parental figure, improving de Gea’s overall lifestyle and his goalkeeping technique. De Gea needed to change his lifestyle: His diet needed improvement, and had more importantly he started lifting weights for the first time; improving physically over the years, and having notoriously struggled with physical pressure in his early days at United, Steele remembers that “one issue was that he was just 70 kilos. We worked to make him more powerful; also, we pushed protein drinks on him straight after training. We physically made him drink. We had him in the gym a lot. He hated it, they don’t do gym in Spain as much, but we needed to build his core strength.” It’s helped when dealing with crosses, but it’s improved his success rate in one-on-one situations, too, and perhaps it’s partly the reason so many striker have fired straight at him recently.
In a psychological sense, de Gea seems more comfortable now, too. He‘s an interesting character and had a difficult transition to life in England. In addition to the usual problems settling in England, he was unsettled by tabloid press intrusion into his private life, had to cope with this girlfriend remaining in Spain, and instead lived in England with his parents. His father, in particular, seems an important character to de Gea. He’s a former goalkeeper himself, and used to accompany David to training session with Atlético Madrid and gave him feedback after sessions (where the figure of Martin Ferguson was ever-present, with the Spanish youth setup as-well-as Atlético Madrid’s reserves, and identifying the Spaniard’s world-class potential), but this wasn’t possible in England. De Gea appears to need a certain type of environment off the pitch.
Peter Schmeichel remains the man every Manchester United goalkeeper is compared to, and he was famed for spreading his body, using every part of his anatomy to deny opposition strikers in one-on-one situations – a trick he learnt from his teenage years playing handball.
“I was used to the idea that high crosses delivered from the wings were my balls. I thought I could transfer to English conditions without any problems,” said Schmeichel. “But I realised that it was quite normal for strikers to make physical challenges in air, and I wasn’t used to that. I slowly began to accept that I would have to adjust my style of play.” The point of the matter being de Gea, whose adjustment to English football has been vital has experienced a similar development: He was a weak link in his early Manchester United days, but is now tougher mentally, tougher physically too and has been one of the Premier League’s best performers so far this season. De Gea is now, in relative terms, almost precisely where he was with Atlético Madrid in mid-2011. Glitteringly good, a stand-out amongst the club’s assets, immensely popular with the paying punters and fellow players – but also in need of being challenged by the next step, and not departing for a new challenge!
Manchester United’s Spanish keeper is on the brink of a handful of very special years. Already a trophy-winner, already of proven quality, he nevertheless has what van Gaal calls “room for improvement,” but is also on the verge of stepping-up and dominating completely. United still have plenty of problems under Louis van Gaal, but David de Gea isn’t a problem – but an obvious role model.
Manchester United’s back four is as consistent as the rains in Africa; as a goalkeeper, de Gea’s adapted to different situations admirably well. “As a goalkeeper it’s important to form a good understanding with your back four and become familiar with each other’s positions on the pitch,” he says. He added, “It’s difficult when players aren’t there but you have to adapt and concentrate on your job. The experience has definitely helped me improve.”
Though “he’s not a leader,” said former Manchester United assistant manager, René Meulensteen. “David de Gea’s been probably the most important player for United this season to keep them where they are. He’s matured. He knows the Premier League now. But really good goalkeepers have an element of they stop things from happening before they happen. They are part of that (defensive) unit, not a spate guy behind that unit, and they coach that unit continuously. That’s an element where David still falls short (unlike Thibaut Courtois), maybe because he’s still young, the language maybe. He’s a short-stopper.” For skills can be divided into four categories: Physical, technical, psychological and tactical. Over the past three seasons, de Gea has improved in all four aspects. Despite having ameliorated his ball collection – main challenge is to deal with crosses more authoritatively.
Opta counts the number of shots each goalkeeper has faced since 2012-2013 season. Next it calculates how many of those shots, and “phase of play”. Each goalkeeper is then judged on how many goals he conceded compared with Opta’s expectations. Let’s take into account Łukasz Fabiański. From the start if the 2012-2013 season through January 23, he faced 99 shots. Based on their difficulty, he was expected to concede 28.7. However, Fabiański let in just 22 – or 6.7 stops better than expected. The difference per 10 shots would be 0.68 goals. The last number is key; it ranks him as the league’s best goalkeeper since August 2012.
Admittedly this single measure doesn’t reveal anything. It ranks goalkeepers only as shot-stoppers. However, Opta’s stats also show that Fabiański excels against crosses: By mid-November he caught 35, more than any other keeper in Europe’s top leagues at that point.
|Łukasz Fabiański Arsenal/Swansea||
|AdrianWest Ham United||
Judging this season alone, a different winner emerges. Ahead of Łukasz Fabiański by a nose is David de Gea: the Spaniard faced 75 shots, and let in just 20, five fewer than expected. That’s the difference of 0.66 per ten shots. And his saves had an above-average difficulty rating of 0.333, says Opta.
Since, day one, David de Gea has been a great shot-stopper. This season’s showcased a massive enhancement is his determination. He’s holding the ball and dominating the box. His positioning has improved; helping him collect (91%) and distribute the ball effectively and accurately (67%).
The strategic question for de Gea and his representatives is whether United as a club, and as a squad, are in step with him – both now and over the next four years? Are they about to move up and become dominant?
In an interview with AS, when questioned whether Víctor Valdés will succeed him as United’s first-choice goalkeeper, David de Gea said: “Yes, my contract runs out in 2016, but they (Manchester United) didn’t sign him (Víctor Valdés) for that.”
Meanwhile, de Gea played down interest from Real Madrid by insisting he remains happy at Manchester United. “I feel very loved at Manchester United,” he said. “It’s difficult to know whether an offer will come from Real Madrid because there’s chatter in the press, but I feel very wanted in Manchester.”
David de Gea’s feeling “very good” with his position with club and country. The 24-year-old goalkeeper is close to dislodging Casillas from the number 1 position in the Spain squad, and with the Euro 2016 on the horizon, it would be a risk for de Gea to take on Casillas on two fronts in the build-up to the European Championships. Casillas is the most significant road-block between de Gea and Real Madrid.
Eighteen months ago, Casillas was dropped by José Mourinho in favour of Diego López and the Spain captain also battled to convince Carlo Ancelotti of his worth as the number 1 last season. And the summer arrival at Real Madrid of Keylor Navas, Casillas has re-established himself as first-choice this season, with Ancelotti making clear that Casillas is the club’s senior goalkeeper. Casillas admitted to Marca in January that he wishes the rest of his career at Real Madrid, and he has no desire for this to be his last season at the club.
While, Casillas continues to rebuild his power base at Real Madrid; within the dressing room and Real Madrid itself, few players carry as much weight and influence as Casillas; it would be the worst time for de Gea to throw himself into the bear-pit of the Bernabéu dressing-room.
David de Gea’s decision will not come down to money; it will be based on his confidence in United’s trophy-winning prospects outweighing his yearning for return to Spain at some point in his career.