Football Features

David de Gea’s dip is a crash course in football confidence

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 16:38, 26 August 2019

It’s starting to feel like a lifetime ago when David de Gea was universally considered the world’s best goalkeeper.

Even during those halcyon days ‘Spanish Dave’ – as he has come to be known at Old Trafford – had formidable competition. But that being said, at the very least he was part of the conversation.

That is no longer the case. A string of uncharacteristic performances has seen De Gea exit the room.

In an incredibly short period he’s been usurped at home and overseas. Of course, form is temporary, but you’re starting to wonder if he will reach that elite level again or hover slightly below it.

De Gea was part of Man Utd’s last championship-winning team; since then he’s been named as the club’s Player of the Year four times, which goes to illustrate his importance, but also represents a serious indictment on those outfield players he has been competing with. No campaign best demonstrated De Gea’s worth than Jose Mourinho’s second in charge – which is starting to represent the beginning of a decline.

Dave saves

No footballer is ever faultless, even the greatest have their off days, but some come near to perfection. De Gea in 2017/18 is one such example. Man Utd finished that season an eye-watering 19 points behind Pep Guardiola’s relentless Man City, who became the first Premier League side to accumulate 100 points in a single campaign.

Mourinho’s men, though, were the runners-up. The much-decorated Portuguese tactician would subsequently attribute this result as his greatest achievement, which undoubtedly raised eyebrows given what he did at FC Porto and Inter Milan. Nevertheless, given what has since followed it’s hard to see Man Utd in that position anytime soon.

Every fibre of their success was down to De Gea whose freakish campaign must not be dismissed. This was a ‘keeper performing on a different planet to his teammates and rival shot-stoppers. Man Utd registered 68 goals, the least of any ‘top four’ side, but conceded 28 – one short of City’s defensive total. However, individually, De Gea shipped in 28 (from 37 played) compared to Ederson’s 26 (from 36 games).

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Of those with 30 or more appearances De Gea’s one goal conceded every 119 minutes was topped by Ederson (123 minutes). Such was the disarray that was Man Utd’s defence it was a surprise he didn’t concede any more or regularly.

In fact, his ‘expected goals conceded’ according to Opta’s xG model was 41.2, meaning that he made 13 saves “compared to the average goalkeeper facing shots from similar positions in similar game scenarios”.

‘Dave saves’ became a common phrase uttered by Man Utd’s supporters and it ultimately led to his first (and to date only) Golden Glove, having registered 18 clean sheets whilst Ederson bagged 16.

Back then De Gea did not make a single error leading to a goal, which is something alien today, with the current 2019/20 season just three games old no player has made more (3).

World Cup fallout

Considering everything that happened, it should have set him up for greater things, but the World Cup finals in Russia was nothing short of a disaster. De Gea, who bided his time to succeed the ever-green Iker Casillas, started in all of Spain’s games – which totalled four as they were dumped out by the hosts on penalties – but would concede six goals across 390 minutes (once every 65 minutes). He looked a far cry from the man who kept goal at the Theatre of Dreams.

Tactics were offered as somewhat of an explanation. Spain’s possession-based game often meant the ‘keeper wasn’t always tested whereas Man Utd often being under the cosh forced De Gea to be alert at all times.

It might not swim with many people, but there’s no doubt the Red Devils’ number one is someone that needs to be kept busy. This also leads into the confidence factor, being breached so often and regularly does no goalie the world of good.

That dark cloud followed him to Manchester in the forthcoming campaign. De Gea was below par, he kept just seven clean sheets, which equated to his worst return since joining Man Utd from boyhood club Atletico Madrid in 2011, when he previously averaged 13 per season.

More damning was the 54 goals he conceded – one every 63 minutes – his poorest campaign prior was 2013/14 (the first post-Fergie year) when he let in 43 goals. To say his reputation has taken a hit is an understatement.

Top of the class in 2018/19 was Liverpool’s Alisson (21 shutouts) and city rival Ederson (20) behind them was De Gea’s compatriot Kepa of Chelsea (14) who has since kept him on the bench for the national team. It’s hard to see him finding a way back unless he can recapture that 2017/18 form.

After all class, as they say, is permanent. Which explains why the likes of Real Madrid still keep an interested eye; a new contract is apparently signed, meaning he is likely to be around at Man Utd for a while yet.

But De Gea should be the least of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s problems especially when the writing had long been on the wall. His past heroics masked the club’s deficiencies at the back and it was only a matter of time before the dam burst. At the very least they’re attempting to fix it.

Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire, regardless of how much Man Utd spent, represent progress. However, as the recent 2-1 loss at home to Crystal Palace demonstrated, there’s still a long way to go.