De Gea has made too many mistakes this season for it to be ignored. It is not a blip anymore. Only recently he failed to save a tame Steven Bergwijn shot. Earlier this season, he flapped woefully against Watford. And while it might not have cost United any points this time, his FA Cup performance against Chelsea is one of the worst in recent memory.
The biggest worry is that there is no longer any shortage of competition. Last season there were mistakes against Chelsea, Barcelona and Arsenal (twice). They were the most high profile but they were by no means the only errors.
With mistakes coming with increasing regularity, it feels inevitable that against West Ham and then Leicester, two crucial games for United’s Champions League hopes, that he will be targeted by both sides. They will surely be instructed to shoot as often as possible, regardless of distance, in order to test the Spaniard’s shaky confidence.
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After all, at 29 it would be freakish if De Gea’s body was at the root of the problem. There have been enough elastic reflex saves even over the past two seasons of miserable form to demonstrate that physically there are no obvious shortcomings. It appears that the yips have taken him down, and there is no clear way back.
The same thing happened to Wayne Rooney, three or four years before his quickest period of decline. His brain, his best asset at 16 and for the next decade, was so incisive and quick-witted that his passing, control and finishing were some of the best shown by an English player in the modern era.
A couple of years later, even before he’d got to 30, it wasn’t just that his body was failing to meet the demands of top-flight football, it was that he could no longer do the basics. His first touch, almost an instinct for a footballer, deserted him. His passing and shooting was leaden, and he seemed to struggle to work out what he was doing most of the time. Something similar has gripped De Gea, perhaps for similar reasons.
Everton v Manchester United - Goodison Park, Liverpool, Britain - March 1, 2020 Manchester United's David de Gea
Image credit: Reuters
There were legitimate criticisms of Rooney’s lack of professionalism, that he took his eye off the ball and could never quite properly refocus. After years of indecision over a couple of contract renewals at Old Trafford, perhaps De Gea has wasted too long thinking about the future and lost track of the present. He has committed his long-term future to United and will be commensurately rewarded as a player with huge previous importance to the side, but it may have come at the expense of believing he has made the correct, ruthless decision. Only in the last couple of months have United looked anywhere close to a side capable of qualifying for the Champions League again, and are still a way from challenging for titles. Paris Saint-Germain or Juventus for example, might have been more sensible options for his career.
For all the criticisms of Rooney and De Gea’s attitude, there is a mitigating factor. Rooney was never the same after he played through injury against Bayern Munich in April 2010, and he had numerous strains and metatarsal problems before then. By the end of that campaign, he had already played eight seasons and more than 320 professional games, not including international appearances. Eight seasons into De Gea’s career proper he had played a similar amount. It may be that with the reliance placed upon both players, the strain mentally exhausted them.
FOOTBALL Wayne Rooney walks off injured during the Champions eague quarter-final second leg between Manchester United and Bayern Munich at Old Trafford
Image credit: Reuters
After Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure and coupled with Ferguson’s late-era underinvestment, Rooney took much of the strain. Once Ferguson left, both Rooney and De Gea suffered from the mismanagement of the team, and De Gea in particular was left exposed to more threats than he ever should have been. A better defence - and United’s backline is still full of mistakes - might have protected their ‘keeper’s wellbeing.
There is an injustice to all this. It is not De Gea’s fault that managers took him for granted and failed to afford him a proper team to play in front of him. But now that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has finally built the foundations of a potentially excellent team, De Gea is a palpable weak link. Dean Henderson and Sergio Romero are both better than him. For more than a year, that has been the case, and probably for much longer than that. De Gea could understandably feel he is owed more time by his team, but circumstances dictate that is no longer the sensible option.
Four points from two games for United will give them a place in the Champions League, guaranteed. It will ensure tens of millions of commercial income, to be spent on improvements for the squad. One that is finally travelling in the right direction, with a manager who wants to root out the psychological deadwood above all else. United can afford to spend this summer, but they can't afford to start next season with De Gea in goal.
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