There is a French expression ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’, which means the more things change, the more they stay the same. But perhaps for Manchester United it would be more apt if the words were Spanish rather than French.
The world seems a very different place than it was last time we were able to watch Premier League football and with the return of Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba, United seem like a different team. Yet one thing that was eerily familiar at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium last night was David de Gea’s fragility.
It is true that goalkeepers should be allowed poor patches of form like any other player and that unfortunately, for them, mistakes are always noticed because they inevitably lead to goals. But the question we have to ask ourselves now is whether this is a patch of poor form from the Spaniard or whether this is now the norm.
In 2015, United’s manager at the time Louis Van Gaal famously dropped the seemingly undroppable Spaniard at the start of the season – ironically for a game against Spurs – because he had noted erratic form in training and in friendly games. The Dutchman felt that the keeper was distracted by the transfer speculation linking him with Real Madrid.
Van Gaal got a lot of stick for it at the time. De Gea had been voted the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Season for two years running. But on reflection, he was perhaps strong enough to make an unpopular decision where five years on, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer remains afraid to make what would now be far less unpopular.
De Gea, incidentally, went on to win Player of the Season again that year, making it three in a row.
The difference between this occasion and 2015 is that there is now a pattern. Since winning the same award again in 2017/18, the Spaniard’s form has never been back to its best. That is nearly two seasons of costly errors and erratic performances.
In fact we can track this ‘run of poor form’ back to the 2018 World Cup. De Gea finished the competition with the worst figures of any goalkeeper in any World Cup since 1966, he was dropped from the national side and he was pilloried in his home country by fans who believed he was responsible for Spain’s exit from the competition.
On his return to club football, de Gea initially seemed to be back to his best. But then the mistakes started to creep in. First was a bungle against Arsenal’s Mustafi in December 2018. There was then a run of gaffes that ultimately cost Manchester United a place in this season’s Champions League, against Arsenal (Granit Xhaka), Manchester City (Leroy Sane) and Chelsea (Marcos Alonso). His pitiful attempt to save a Leonel Messi shot also saw United crashing out of the Champions League.
There were calls at the time for Sergio Romero to be brought in for the last few games but Solskjaer stuck by his man. In hindsight, maybe Van Gaal’s method would have worked better.
De Gea’s mistakes have punctuated the current campaign with alarming consistency. In August he let a soft Patrick van Anholt shot beat him at the near post against Crystal Palace. In December, he flapped at a corner against Everton which led to an own goal by Victor Lindelof and a week later he allowed a tame effort from Watford’s Ismaila Sarr slip through his fingers into the net.
In March in the penultimate Premier League match before lockdown he missed a punch under pressure from Everton’s Calvert-Lewin leading to a goal which cost United two points.
Any optimism that the Spaniard might have used lockdown to sort his head out vanished quickly yesterday as he flapped tamely at Steven Bergwijn’s shot, palming it into his own net.
The shocking ‘errors leading to goals’ statistic – which now runs at eight since the start of 2018/19 – tells only half the story. There have been way too many errors that went unpunished. In United’s 3-0 February win against Watford, for example, a similar fumble led to a goal for the Hornets which was luckily ruled out for a foul.
Other stats make for equally poor reading. De Gea has not saved a single penalty since the 2015/16 season. And his ‘Post-shot Expected Goals per Shots on Target’ stat – which is essentially how many saves a keeper makes compared to how many, statistically, he would be expected to make – has dropped from +12.4% in 2017/18 to -0.1% this season.
Last season, the 12-match unbeaten run when Solskjaer took the helm at Old Trafford put United within touching distance of Premier League qualification. There then came that De Gea howler against Granit Xhaka which heralded a shocking run of form that saw the Red Devils win only two of their last nine games. Not all of that was De Gea’s fault of course, but his errors and shakiness were certainly a contributing factor to that collapse.
Yesterday saw United in a similar position, coming off the back of an unbeaten run of 11 games, in good shape for Champions League qualification, only to see another error from the keeper. It simply cannot be allowed to develop into a pattern as it did last season.
The comparisons with United’s exciting on-loan keeper Dean Henderson have come thick and fast this season along with debates as to which of the two should be United’s number one next term. But with United needing a top four finish and still competing in two cup competitions in the current campaign, arguably the situation is becoming more urgent.
Solskjaer’s loyalty and faith is commendable, but there is too much at stake and he might do well to show the courage that Van Gaal did back in 2015 and put Sergio Romero between the sticks until De Gea finds the form of three years ago. Otherwise, history might just repeat itself, despite the landscape of the current season having changed beyond all recognition.
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