It’s a conversation we all thought we were finished with, but Manchester United’s shock 3-2 defeat to Blackburn Rovers once again brought a young Spaniard named David de Gea to the forefront of the nation’s football conversations. The debate rose from the dead again in homes, offices and pubs: should he be between the sticks for United?
Early season mistakes – notably against Manchester City in the Community Shield, when he was beaten by Edin Dzeko’s hopeful long range drive, and West Bromwich Albion where he allowed a tame Shane Long effort to squirm underneath him – meant that de Gea and his ability (or lack thereof, according to some) was a hot topic of conversation for many. Since then de Gea has, in the games he’s played, been fairly consistent, despite the odd ricket here and there (against Benfica and Basle especially) and it seemed the debate was over. He was United’s first choice ‘keeper and that was that.
United’s performance against Blackburn was poor but they looked all set to grab a point – a point that, with Manchester City’s result later, would have sent them top – until de Gea flapped at a corner and allowed Grant Hanley to head in Blackburn’s winner. Granted, de Gea was not helped by at least three static defenders who chose not to challenge Hanley, but his failure to get anywhere near the cross was the root cause of the goal. So, with Newcastle and free-scoring Demba Ba up next, the questions over de Gea’s place in the line-up are being asked again.
In a recent piece for The Guardian, Daniel Taylor highlighted that de Gea had been at least partially at fault for six goals against and a further three where his involvement could be questioned (those six – Manchester City (Dzeko), WBA (Long), Arsenal (Walcott), Benfica (Aimar), Basel (Streller), Blackburn Rovers (Hanley)). Stand in ‘keeper Anders Lindegaard meanwhile, who is both older than de Gea, at 27, and has international experience with Denmark, has kept a clean sheet in every one of his five league appearances thus far and has made it clear he wants the #1 shirt for his own. He is not at Old Trafford “just to pick [his] nose” as he once memorably stated.
So with a title race that is currently neck and neck and may well go down the wire, what does Ferguson do? Stick with his young ‘keeper and hope that further mistakes don’t cost (too many) points or parachute in a more experienced pro, knowing that every point will be vital in the race to the title?
It has been posited that a tight title race against the club’s local rivals is not the time for a young goalkeeper to be learning his trade. De Gea, at just 21, has years, maybe even decades left as a goalkeeper, so why let him learn – and make mistakes – now, people have asked. My answer to that is: if not now, when? The youngster has to learn sometime, so why not now? Is there ever likely be a season at Old Trafford while he’s still developing where the club are not looking to win the title and therefore grab as many points as possible? If Fergie drops him in favour of Lindegaard now, what happens next season should United find themselves in a similar position? Does he take de Gea aside and say “sorry, son, I can’t trust you in goal for a title race”? If he does that how will de Gea ever get the experience he needs of the high-pressure, high-stakes games in the Premier League? Surely loaning out an expensively-purchased and extensively scouted acquisition is out of the question, and that means Old Trafford is the only place for de Gea to hone his craft.
De Gea is, undoubtedly, a ‘keeper of ability and yet with the potential to become a lot better. He will make mistakes, that is undoubted, but he must be allowed to make them, and deal with them, and become a better player as a result. It may cost United points in the short term but if de Gea becomes the ‘keeper Fergie clearly believes he can be as a result of dealing with a steep learning curve, then he could save United plenty of points over the next decade and maybe even more.
Short term pain for long term gain is rarely accepted in the pressured atmosphere of modern football, but it needs to be the mantra in de Gea’s case, and so I believe Manchester United should stick with the gangly Spaniard and their faith will be rewarded.