Sir Alex Ferguson must be wondering if he persuaded the wrong star to come out of retirement this January. While Paul Scholes filled a hole in midfield left by Darren Fletcher’s illness, the Manchester United boss will have been wondering what Edwin Van Der Sar is up to these days after Saturday’s game with Liverpool.
The Dutchman’s calming presence between the sticks at Old Trafford was one of the main explanations of the recent success United have enjoyed, indeed the veteran stopper marshalled the meanest defence in the Premier League, whilst looking unflappable himself under every cross, shot and other flying ball that came his way. The same cannot be said for the man who was earmarked as his long-term successor at Manchester United. No-one expected David De Gea to slot into Edwin’s shoes with consummate ease, but something tells me even the Spaniard’s worst nightmares couldn’t have conjured up this scenario.
The latest criticism levelled at the goalkeeper came after he hesitated following a Steven Gerrard corner, allowing Daniel Agger to guide the ball into an empty net, setting Liverpool on their way to a 2-1 victory over their bitter rivals. It is just the latest of a string of errors following an erratic start to his time at Old Trafford. He started badly in the Charity Shield win over Manchester City, being caught out again from a cross that allowed Joleon Lescott a free header, before letting an Edin Dzeko strike from range slip through his fingers. Not too many eyebrows were raised, indeed this was still pre-season essentially, but his mistake from Shane Long’s shot during the opening game of the season against West Brom had a few people muttering behind their hands. A few shaky performances later and people were openly questioning the decision to pay Atlético Madrid£18.9 million for his services. To De Gea’s credit, he has produced a few performances out of the top drawer, displaying his superb shot-stopping ability, in particular from Ramires during the 3-1 win over Chelsea in Septmeber, not to mention a couple of spectacular saves that won his side a point against Stoke City. His inability to command the penalty area is worrying everyone concerned with the club however, and after a dreadful display against Blackburn on New Year’s Eve, Fergie finally dropped De Gea for Anders Lindegaard. Now, De Gea has failed to grasp his second chance with the blunder against Liverpool, where do United go from here?
Obviously the club has made the effort to defend their under fire signing. Fergie told BBC Sport that other players were to blame for Agger’s goal, stating “Our own players created a problem for the first goal. They didn’t give him [De Gea] enough room to deal with it.” One would expect Ferguson to back his player publicly, any manager who openly criticises their own players is in deep trouble, but the problem is, we’ve heard it all before. After that mistake against Blackburn, the manager chose not to focus on the mistake, but more the positive character traits of the man himself, insisting “he’s been terrific, the boy. He trains very well, so it’s easy to manage that.” It doesn’t take an MI5 analyst to see Fergie’s attempts to cover up his young star, indeed De Gea probably needs that fatherly arm around him right now.
Short on confidence, the Premier League is an unforgiving place for a struggling goalkeeper. Just ask many of those former England contenders. Paul Robinson, Rob Green, Scott Carson. Just three examples of decent keepers whose careers were sent spiralling down the pan after certain high profile mistakes. The way sides like Stoke or Blackburn approach the game makes life difficult for a goalkeeper without the command of his penalty area. This is where De Gea struggles. He lacks the communication skills that say Joe Hart, for example, has in abundance, or the ability to claim a hanging ball that all top keepers need. This isn’t a problem faced by the leading La Liga keepers, as the Spanish league doesn’t feature sides with the so-called ‘rugby’ tactics. If De Gea is to achieve his potential with the Red Devils, he needs tutelage in this area and fast. He also seems to lack the physical presence to deal with the Premier League’s more aggressive forwards. Good job Duncan Ferguson has long gone.
Too many people rated De Gea as a top prospect for him to fail completely. Many scouts round Europe had their eyes on the Spaniard, indeed Fergie and his scouting had picked him out well before Van Der Sar retired. To write off one of the game’s brightest stars would be premature, but it’s difficult to know what United can do for the time being. His demeanour after the cup tie was almost depressing, the man seemed to be suffering on a personal level, hoping for the turf to open and swallow him up. To discard the man at this stage could prove a fatal blow to his confidence and ruin him forever. Lindegaard is a capable understudy and has made it clear he isn’t at Old Trafford to hold hands with Michael Owen on the substitutes bench. To keep picking the underperforming Spaniard would be an insult to the Dane and in fact to Fergie’s selection policy. But De Gea needs further acclimatisation time that will allow him to adjust to the demands of his new country. Food for thought for Sir Alex.
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