The curious case of David De Gea

David De Gea has been one of the best shot-stoppers in the past decade of world football.

The Spanish goalkeeper rose to prominence after his stellar displays for Manchester United under David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal. His cat-like reflexes and spider-monkey agility were on full display as he consistently made jaw-dropping saves.

However, his best performances to date came in the 2017/18 season under Jose Mourinho. He kept 18 clean sheets en route to the Golden Glove and, at the time, was considered by many as perhaps the world’s best goalkeeper.

By all accounts, he should have gone into the 2018 World Cup brimming with confidence. He was coming off the back of a stellar season and was the undisputed no. 1 for club and country.

His performances at the World Cup, however, were a stark contrast to the Golden Glove-winning performance he had just put up. De Gea had a disaster class of an opening game vs Portugal, and that set the tone for the rest of the tournament.

David De Gea, Manchester United
David De Gea had a terrible World Cup for the Spanish national side in 2018, making several errors and keeping just one clean sheet at the tournament. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED BY GOAL.

He made the most basic of errors, kept just one clean sheet in four games, and was abysmal as Spain got knocked out by the Russian hosts in the first Knockout round.

The World Cup in 2018 exposed all the weaknesses in the Spaniard’s seemingly invincible armour. David De Gea the Superman returned to Manchester weakened, his kryptonite discovered, and his reputation in shambles.

His shortcomings were now common knowledge. His poor command of area, below-standard kicking, poor distribution, reluctance to claim crosses, and lack of concentration had all gone under the radar because of his dazzling reflexes and superb-looking saves.

At Manchester United under Jose Mourinho, the Portuguese boss had set up the defensive structure to best maximise De Gea’s strengths, and eliminate channels for opposition to exploits his weaknesses.

The team defended crosses and set-pieces aggressively, Chris Smalling’s aerial prowess proving particularly useful. The defensive structure allowed for a higher volume of low-quality shots to come in.

David De Gea, Manchester United
David De Gea had a stellar 2017/18 season for Manchester United, keeping 18 clean sheets and winning the Golden Glove in the process. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED BY SKY SPORTS.

This worked for De Gea, who is at his best when he’s busy, but seems to lose focus during long dry spells. The system was set up to help him excel, and excel he did. After the World Cup, however, the excellence seemed to wither.

Basic errors became more frequent, clean sheets harder to come by, and solidity an illusion. A change of manager and the loss of his long-time goalkeeping coach in 2019 did little to help matters.

Under Solskjaer, De Gea has largely been an enigma, good enough to be the starting goalkeeper, but prone to the odd game-changing error. This recurring pattern has become frustrating for fans, with many calling for him to be replaced.

Dean Henderson’s re-emergence seemed it could possibly spell the end of the Spaniard’s time at Old Trafford, but instead it’s brought about quite the opposite. De Gea seems better, more confident, and even more vocal.

Perhaps the knowledge that a real replacement is waiting in the wings has him on his toes, upping his concentration levels. Sergio Romero and Victor Valdes never really put his position as no. 1 under threat, but Henderson definitely will.

It can be viewed as unfortunate for the young Englishman that his return has sparked a return to form for his Spanish counterpart. However, for David de Gea, it seems like all is well with the world once more.

The Spanish Superman is back, but with the knowledge that he’s one disasterclass away from being replaced, which is perhaps what he needed all along.

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