David de Gea represents an older generation of goalkeepers, where importance was given to the saves they made rather than the passes they gave.
Unfortunately for De Gea and his ilk, modern football needs, or rather demands, goalkeepers who are at par with an outfield player in passing.
For the Spanish keeper, his inefficiency with the ball at his feet has cost him a spot in the Spanish team and is now threatening an imminent departure from Manchester United, a club he has served for more than a decade, making seemingly inhuman saves on the way to two Premier League Golden Gloves and four club Player of the Year awards.
The paradox between De Gea’s keeping and what is regarded as modern goalkeeping was put on display over a week, across two cup finals: the FA Cup and the Champions League (Both won by cross-city rivals Manchester City, whose keeper Ederson is known for his range of passing as much as his shot-stopping).
In the FA Cup final, De Gea didn’t make any seemingly obvious errors. The first Ilkay Gundogan goal, within 15 seconds from kick-off, was a bolt from the blue, with neither the United defence nor midfield set in shape. The blame for the second can be pointed at De Gea, considering that he had his hand on it and that it was a scuffed shot from Gundogan with no real pace, but with the ball coming through a sea of players, one could probably forgive him.
His real inadequacy, though, shone with the ball at his feet. When City’s press would force United to play back to the keeper, which Pep Guardiola would have wanted to happen, De Gea would cut a sorry figure.
The 32-year-old would often pass to the wrong option, helping City players put the United defence under pressure. A few mishit passes flew past the sidelines, forcing United No. 1 to raise his hands in apology.
De Gea was also found lacking when loose balls popped over his defensive line, with the Spanish player refusing to deal with the danger by coming outside his box. This didn’t come as a shocker to many, as in this Premier League season, De Gea had the fifth-least number of defensive actions by a goalkeeper outside the box/90 minutes (0.84).
United did play better than expected, often putting Guardiola’s side under pressure. But it could never control the game the way Erik Ten Hag would have envisioned, mostly due to its limitations in building the game from the back.
A week later, in the UCL final, Inter Milan was forced into a shell by a resolute City outfit, which utilised defender John Stones as a central midfielder to outnumber the Italian side in the middle of the park. Inter, though, had a trick up its sleeve in the form of Andre Onana, one of the best goalkeepers in the business when it comes to passing.
The Cameroonian shot-stopper was confident with the ball with his feet, finding spaces between the City’s lines and firing the ball to his teammates, both with flighted and grounded deliveries.
Onana’s passing range helped Inter bypass the City press and create goal-scoring opportunities, which, though weren’t taken up by his wasteful teammates, led to a narrow 1-0 defeat.
Ten Hag, who had previously coached Onana at Ajax, can only help but wonder how different (read: better) his side could have played with a keeper more sure-footed than De Gea.
Ten Hag, right from his Ajax days, has been seen as a flagbearer for possession-based football, very similar to the style of Guardiola, with whom he had worked closely during their time in Bayern Munich.
His football in the Eredivisie had much of Europe raving. Manchester United, though, was a completely different animal to tame. The team was at its lowest ebb after a disastrous end to the Premier League season under interim manager Ralf Rangnick.
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A 4-0 loss to Brentford in the second game of the season was a stark reminder to Ten Hag about the capabilities of this team. The midfield was no match to Brentford’s high press with Mathias Jensen’s goal the perfect example of De Gea and the midfield’s inability to build up from the back efficiently.
An important asset in overcoming the opposition’s high press is the goalkeeper’s ability to recycle possession between the defenders and spray a pass to the man free at either flank. De Gea’s shortcomings in this have caused quite a few problems, signified by the team ranking sixth for possession turned over in its own third (106 times) this season.
Ten Hag has therefore created a system where the ball is rotated within the team’s final third before a quick direct attack is launched with the forwards making runs behind the opposition defence. If possession is lost, the forward and midfield immediately engage in a high press to get the ball back, thus creating a space between the first line of press and the backline.
This space invites more attacks into United’s final third where the likes of Casemiro, Lisandro Martinez and Raphael Varane are well-equipped to deal with the threat. If United can quickly turnover possession and get the ball directly to the forwards, then there is an opportunity for a quick counter. But De Gea’s lack of ability in making that long-range pass into the middle further dents these chances.
De Gea is still one of the leading keepers in the league when it comes to just save percentage (71.1 per cent this season), better than the likes of Ederson, Aaron Ramsdale and Hugo Lloris, but his deficiency in playing out with his feet is preventing the team from fully adapting to Ten Hag’s style of football.
Manchester United is currently in the hunt for a new goalkeeper, with Onana considered by many to be a front-runner for the iconic No. 1 jersey of the Red Devils, adorned by legends like Peter Schmeichel and Edwin van der Sar. The tumultuous nature of the transfer market means we don’t know for sure, who will United end up with. But one thing we can guarantee is Ten Hag would prioritise the footwork of his new no.1 as much as his shot-stopping.
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