Is Barcelona gaffe the perfect excuse to let David de Gea go?
Background photo: Xavoun, CC BY-SA 3.0
Reportedly, Ed Woodward and Manchester United spent the past year and a bit trying to coax David de Gea into signing a contract extension. It’s unclear whether his high wage demands are a dealbreaker or just posing while he waits to see whether the club takes the right steps in the summer transfer window. In any event, last night’s defeat to Barcelona in the Champions League proved why United should let Real Madrid or Paris Saint-Germain sign the heavily lauded goalkeeper.
Are those sour grapes over the gaffe he committed that effectively killed off the Red Devils gossamer hopes to reach the Champions League final? The error admittedly inspired a change in my opinion but it’s not an emotional reaction.
One critical error doesn’t diminish the years of excellent work he’s put in between the United sticks. He’s stolen so many points for the club that he’s been its player of the year in four of the past five years. Ironically, those were all seasons in which Real Madrid won the Champions League without him.
Nor is that a tinfoil hat statement. It’s a coincidence that illustrates exactly why United should save their money for other players.
Real Madrid tried everything to tap up the native Madridista over that spell, thinking the former Atletico Madrid shot stopper’s incredible reflexes would guarantee further crowns. Unable to pry him loose from the Old Trafford six-yard box, they conquered Europe repeatedly anyway. A steady, reliable keeper like Keylor Navas was sufficient for the task.
Similarly, Barcelona collected their Messi-era Champions Leagues with the unspectacular Victor Valdes and Claudio Bravo in goal. Chelsea won its European Cup [and lost another] with Petr Cech. The most outstanding keeper backstopping a finals winner in the past 15 years was Inter’s Julio Cesar. Three seasons later, the Brazilian was underwhelming for Queens Park Rangers.
Keepers in the argument over the world's best have twice manned the United goal during the Premier League era. When Peter Schmeichel retired, supporters fretted over who might replace him. Roy Carroll and Fabian Barthez weren’t long-term answers. Then a solid, reliable Dutchman named Edwin van der Sar appeared. His reflexes were no match for Schmeichel or De Gea. His strength was distribution. Sir Alex Ferguson once commented that his pinpoint clearance to Ryan Giggs on the wing, followed by a run down the line and an inch-perfect cross into the box for Ruud van Nistelrooy to finish was textbook United attacking play, 1-2-3.
The keeper in Manchester with that talent these days sends unerring long balls to teammates in cerulean blue kits. Like Van der Sar, Ederson Moraes wins titles. De Gea’s distribution skills can best be described as erratic. Nor does he play out confidently from the back. Ederson does, as does his Brazilian understudy and Premier League rival Alisson Becker. Like Barcelona’s current keeper, Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Bayern’s sweeper-keeper, Manuel Neuer, the Selecao goaltenders provide the skills a championship side requires.
Shot stopping is not the first priority at Bayern, Barca, Liverpool and Manchester City because strong defences limit the need. De Gea’s 106 Premier League saves rank him joint-third this term with Watford’s Ben Foster. The Hornets are 18 points below United, 10th in the table. The two keepers with more saves are West Ham’s Lukasz Fabianski [126, 22 pts adrift in 11th] and Cardiff City’s Neil Etheridge [114,- 31, 18th].
The next top-six keeper on the saves chart is Arsenal’s Bernd Leno with 83 saves, 23 fewer than De Gea. His numbers might be closer to De Gea’s had he began the season as Unai Emery’s No.1. The German didn’t supplant Petr Cech until halftime against Watford on Matchday 7. That said the Gunners  are the only other top-six club besides United  to concede at least 40 goals on the season.
Tottenham’s Hugo Lloris ranks 10th with 81 saves. Spurs defend more soundly, though, surrendering 34 goals in their 33 league games. The remaining trio rank 16th, 17th and 19th.
In recent seasons, Untied’s defence was repeatedly maligned even when Jose Mourinho coaxed a Premier League second-best campaign from Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Marcus Rojo and Eric Bailly. All and sundry acknowledged De Gea papered over the cracks.
The evidence is clear. The Spaniard is the ideal keeper for a mediocre club. United’s aspires to greatness. His wage demands are better spent on a world-class centre-half.
The error against Barcelona was a rare occurrence even though many will recall a similar gaffe with Spain at the World Cup. That both came in important games is alarming but De Gea makes mistakes in less meaningful moments too. Every keeper does. World-class netminders make fewer but can never guarantee perfection. Unfortunately, £300,000/week wages only become worthwhile when a keeper can.
In order for some chicks to learn to fly, mother birds toss them from the nest. In order to motivate United to defend better, maybe Ole Gunnar Solskjaer must do the same with David de Gea.