Man United’s De Gea unfairly targeted as seasoned pros like Reina struggle
Man United's David De Gea is being unfairly targeted for a wobbly patch as more seasoned goalkeepers like Pepe Reina struggle
David De Gea bounced back from a turbulent period with an impressive display in Manchester United’s 1-0 victory over Fulham on Saturday as another Spanish goalkeeper stole the limelight for all the wrong reasons.
The 22-year-old earned praise from Wayne Rooney, who scored the 80th-minute winner at Craven Cottage, for what the striker deemed a vital contribution to a win which firmly swings the Premier League title race in United’s favour.
United supporters agreed with the England international after De Gea received 44 per cent of the votes to receive the club website’s man-of-the-match award.
His highlights reel included an athletic save to push John Arne Riise’s swerving volley over the crossbar in the first half, before the Spaniard showed excellent athleticism to tip Bryan Ruiz’s snapshot onto the post.
It was a performance that went some way to banishing the demons from United’s last trip to London, which saw De Gea’s tame punch result in Clint Dempsey’s injury-time leveller in a 1-1 draw at White Hart Lane.
A mere 24 hours later, Gary Neville delivered a masterful insight into the demands of being the first-choice keeper at Old Trafford. The former United defender highlighted the disgruntled reactions of Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and Danny Welbeck to De Gea’s “error”.
If it was an isolated incident then perhaps the scrutiny would have been less intense, but it was preceded by what was described as a poor parry from Steven Gerrard’s drive, allowing Daniel Sturridge to finish from close range as United beat Liverpool in mid-January.
Ten days after the Spurs incident, De Gea was chastised again. He was tame, bordering on cowardly, in his attempt to tackle Jay Rodriguez after the Southampton striker intercepted Michael Carrick’s calamitous back-pass and netted the opening goal in a 2-1 victory for the league leaders.
While Neville’s criticism fell short of scathing, the retired right-back is ideally placed to discuss the pressure of perennially competing for the top titles in England and Europe, which results in an unforgiving atmosphere in the United dressing room. The margins between success and failure are so small – as last season’s title race highlighted.
But let’s not forget the older and more experienced goalkeepers who have faltered at Old Trafford. Recent examples include Massimo Taibi, Roy Carroll and Tim Howard, while French World Cup winner Fabien Barthez also failed to successfully fill the void left by the exit of Peter Schmeichel.
Indeed, even the great Schmeichel struggled in the initial seasons after completing a move from Brondby in 1991, aged 27. In fact, he produced a catalogue of errors (warranting this YouTube clip) before he finally grew in stature and established himself as a brilliant leader and shot-stopper.
The Denmark international also benefitted from having the Steve Bruce-Gary Pallister partnership in front of him, offering excellent protection – and crucially consistency.
The constant chopping and changing at the heart of the United defence which at times has seen Carrick having to deputise, with Rio Ferdinand, Jonny Evans, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Nemanja Vidic all suffering injury setbacks over the past 18 months.
Without the presence of a steady centre-half pairing, De Gea has been deprived of the chance to build confidence.
De Gea does possess the raw attributes to be a success. The Spaniard is famed for his reaction saves and the former Atletico shot-stopper can develop the other qualities needed to be a worthy successor to Van der Sar, including greater command of his area and decision-making.
While Neville correctly highlighted the reaction of De Gea’s team-mates at Spurs, Sir Alex Ferguson and the United squad have rallied around him over the past week. Carrick accepted the blame for Rodriguez’s goal, Ferguson branded his critics “idiots” and Rooney hailed the goalkeeper for an eye-catching display at Craven Cottage.
Could the tide be turning?
He certainly received a timely boost from his compatriot Pepe Reina, who momentarily diverted the spotlight from De Gea by showing that even vastly experienced Premier League shot-stoppers are still prone to errors.
And what an error-strewn campaign it has been for the Liverpool No1.
Reina’s recklessly rushed out of his area to try and avert danger as Sergio Aguero chased a lofted pass – the Argentine conjured up a sublime finish from the acutest of angles. It cost the Reds a deserved victory.
He has been prone to mistakes since moving to Anfield from Villarreal in 2005. The FA Cup final in 2006 and the Merseyside derby in 2009 to name a couple – but he has remained immune to De Gea-like criticism after making a relatively solid start to life in the English top flight.
Of course, succeeding Jerzy Dudek, who, despite his Spaghetti-Legs exploits in Istanbul, struggled in the Premier League and was moved on by Rafael Benítez, helped Reina’s cause. Liverpool supporters craved a half-decent goalkeeper.
But it is remarkable that De Gea has received relentless criticism for a number of errors, which in truth, have been less obvious than the mistakes Reina has made this term.
It started in the second leg of Liverpool’s Europa League qualifier against Hearts, with the 30-year-old failing to scoop a straightforward save into his chest, instead deflecting the ball into his own net in the 85th minute.
Reina’s dip continued as he failed to react to Lukas Podolski’s low strike or Santi Cazorla’s near-post effort in a 2-0 loss to Arsenal. It was followed a fortnight later by yet another mistake in a 5-2 victory at Norwich.
For too long has Reina suffered from a lack of serious competition – unlike De Gea who is being pushed by Anders Lindegaard – and as one of the most established Liverpool players, it is hard to imagine the 30-year-old being subjected to the apoplectic rage of his team-mates.
It would be a disservice to say Reina has been anything but a success at Liverpool. He has won three Premier League golden gloves (2005–06, 2006–07, 2007–08), was voted the club’s Player of the Year in 2009, and has kept 167 clean sheets in 381 appearances. But his high standards are slipping.
In an ironic twist of fate, Reina has also been touted as a possible replacement for De Gea, but Ferguson would be wise to stick with his promising youngster.
The future Spain international has shown mental fortitude to bounce back from adversity and still produce match-winning displays, while at 22, he’s got another five seasons to develop into the next Schmeichel.
Meanwhile, Neville would do well to focus his next Monday Night Football special on Liverpool’s under-performing goalkeeper in a bid to prise Reina out of his current slump.