Keepers in trouble

For most of the time against West Bromwich, Manchester United's goalkeeper David de Gea looked sadly vulnerable, not least with high crosses, which have often been known to trouble Continental goalkeepers when playing in England, writes Brian Glanville.

As Alex Ferguson, Manchester United's revered long reigning manager, may have thought, watching his much heralded, experienced young Spanish goalkeeper, David de Gea, blundering, pitifully at Wembley against Manchester City in the Community Shield, and against West Bromwich Albion in United's opening League game, he may have been excused for thinking, “Oh, no, not another Massimo Taibi.”

By comparison with the doomed Italian, Massimo Taibi, whose price now seems a mere GBP4.5 million, which was big money then, De Gea is expensive indeed at GBP18 million. But after those awful errors, he could make Taibi, who packed off home after his manifold mistakes, seem almost cheap at the price. Taibi arrived in 1999. Playing against Southampton, he led a shot from the celebrated Matt Le Tissier through his legs and into the net.

Against Chelsea, at Stamford Bridge, one saw him in disastrous form, conceding five, embarrassing, goals soon after which he packed off home. As for De Gea, he is 20 years old and had greatly impressed as a keeper both with his club, Atletico Madrid and the Spanish Under-21 team.

United, meanwhile, badly needed a resourceful successor to the Dutch international, Edwin van der Sar, a hugely reassuring keeper between the posts. De Gea was much younger, much slighter, and experienced. And at Wembley, he gave away one dubious and one embarrassing goal against Manchester City, both of them in a first-half that was largely dominated by United who, at the break, found themselves bafflingly 2-0 down.

The first goal was knocked in by the City centre-back, Joleon Lescott, after a free kick by winger David Silva. Rio Ferdinand, the England centre-back, didn't get there, De Gea stayed on and United were a goal down. Far worse for United and De Gea was the second goal, when Edin Dzeko, the Bosnian centre-forward, struck from almost 30 yards. True, the ball swerved, but De Gea, who had plenty of time to sight it, allowed it to fly past him into the net which put City 2-0 up. In the event, they would lose 3-2, giving away a shocking winning goal themselves, but De Gea was hardly inspiring.

So to West Bromwich and more disasters. For most of the time De Gea looked sadly vulnerable, not least with high crosses, which have often been known to trouble Continental goalkeepers when playing in England. Just what didn't go wrong? But it was a straight and commonplace low shot from Shane Long, booming in from the left, which bizarrely ran under De Gea's body and into the goal. In the words of one reporter, “De Gea screamed to the heavens in frustration. Suddenly all the buoyancy ebbed from the champions.” “Shoot!” cried the scathing Albion fans whenever their team, earlier outplayed by a fine goal by Rooney, came anywhere near shooting distance.

In vain, De Gea's team-mates tried to encourage him. There was a breathless moment when he rushed out in quest of a ball, got too far under it, but dashed desperately back just in time to prevent it sailing into his goal. But, in the end, United secured an own goal and won.

And Ferguson? Ever ready with an argument, asserted, “Any goalkeeper would be under pressure from their kind of physical attack. This is all new to him, having to collect so many crosses and high balls, but we knew that would be the case when we bought him.”

My own mind went back to a far bigger, bulkier United goalkeeper in the substantial shape of Denmark's Peter Schmeichel, the blond giant who would excel and dominate in the United goal for nine seasons.

But correctly enough, one journalist mentioned in passing that he himself had had his early problems. True enough, I watched his game for United at Crystal Palace and mentioned afterwards to himself that Schmeichel hadn't looked too happy on the cross. He smiled, didn't disagree, and said that when foreign keepers came to England, they did have such problems at first. Schmeichel would certainly solve his in spades and Ferguson is hoping that De Gea too would in due course. Meanwhile, he can only hope. The problem being that the vulnerability of a keeper can have a detrimental effect on the defenders. Time will inevitably tell.

Yet, one remembers Felix, and Brazil. The Brazilian team played the 1970 World Cup in such splendour, with a majestic Pele, left-footed attackers in Gerson and Rivelino, a dynamic winger Jairzinho. But, in goal they had Felix, surely the worst keeper ever to gain a World Cup winners' medal, vulnerable alike, be it in the air or the ground. Crosses sailed over his head. Low shots were always a difficulty.

One was reminded of the old Brazilian saying: In Brazil, no boy wants to be a goalkeeper; they all wanted to be an attacker; ideally, like Pele. Yet in Mexico, 1970, the Brazilian team didn't lose a match; and they thrashed Italy 4-1 in the final.

I suppose that if so many of your outfield players are stars, your team can carry a weak keeper. Meanwhile, how will it behove for De Gea to justify Ferguson's hope and faith in his abilities? He's surely just too costly to be jettisoned.