If you’ve read me on World Football Columns, you probably know that I’m Canadian, which means that I was raised on pucks and converted to footy late in life. Now, as the old saying goes, you can take the boy out of the country but you can’t take the country out of the boy. Personally, that means I still occasionally view football through hockey tinted glasses.
Goalkeepers are a good case in point. On the ice, the goaltender is the most important player. You just can’t win a championship without an outstanding puckstopper. On the pitch, the skill of the man between the sticks isn’t quite so crucial but a truly great keeper can keep you in a match until the rest of the squad can get their heads out of their collective posterior and he can be relied upon to steal a point or two for you on a regular basis.
Distribution is another area where I notice similarities between the different species of netminders. The New Jersey Devils have a goalie destined for the Hockey Hall of Fame. Martin Brodeur has played and won more games than any goaltender in history. He’s also earned the most shutouts (clean sheets), as well as three Stanley Cup championships and four Vezina Trophies, as the league’s outstanding goalie. Yet, he will long be remembered for being so gifted with the puck on his stick, despite all the extra padding and the huge scooped glove on his left hand, that the league was driven to change the rules of the game.
Brodeur was so good at retrieving the puck when opposing offences dumped and chased, then getting it to his own players breaking the other way or, on occasion, shooting and finding goal himself, that teams rarely scored on the Devils. Soon enough, young goalies around the league were adopting his technique and scoring was going down drastically everywhere. This was not so good for business. Finally, the league stepped in and developed the Brodeur Rule, limiting the areas behind the goal where a goalie could touch the puck.
Like their hockey brethren, football goalkeepers must also be adept at getting the ball to their teammates in good position to begin an attack. United thrive on this through Edwin van der Sar. How many times this season have you seen the Dutchman deliver the ball to Nani, Giggs or Valencia out wide in the opposing half and one touch later the ball is in the box, on the foot of Chicharito, Berba or Rooney, with a finish in the offing?
As many times as it’s been, you unfortunately won’t see it next season. Van der Sar, happily for him but not so much for the rest of us, is calling it a career. Second choice Tomasz Kuszczak, having learned that he will not be considered as the new number one is also departing. New signing Anders Lindegaard, from Norwegian side Aalesund, is not of the calibre to replace van der Sar, so United have been out kicking tyres, looking under bonnets and haggling with the footy equivalent of used car salesmen – aka agents and technical directors – to find van der Sars’ successor. Early targets have included Juve’s Gigi Buffon, Bayer Leverkusen’s Rene Adler and Schalke’s Manuel Neuer.
Buffon seems uninterested in standing in the English rain and Neuer is intent on moving to Bayern Munich, the winter palace for German number ones. As for Adler, United’s interest in him seems to have cooled, although rivals Arsenal, also desperate for a bona fide number one, are thought to still be courting him.
As July’s summer tour of the US, with five matches against the New England Revolution, Seattle Sounders, Chicago Fire, MLS All-Stars and some Spanish club with a mop-headed little striker who plays with Lego sets in his hotel room edges nearer, Fergie and goalkeeping coach Eric Steele have shifted their focus to Ajax and Oranje first choice Maarten Stekelenburg and Atletico Madrid’s Spanish wunderkind David de Gea.
The Dutch veteran, 28, is largely thought of as a poor man’s van der Sar. He is tall, 6’6″, like his compatriot. His technique is more refined than the young Rojiblanco stopper, as his extensive experience – thirty-nine caps, including one World Cup Final, for the Dutch and almost two hundred appearances for Ajax, including plenty of Champions and Europa League nights – would lead you to expect. Both his positioning and reflexes in goal are excellent and his long frame allows him to take away a great deal of the target from shooters.
De Gea is two inches shorter and much leaner, at 20, than Stekelenburg. While his game is not as polished, the difference is minimal and can be put down to lack of experience. As well, he is far more agile and aggressive in coming out to meet balls. On top of that, he has an arm that would make an NFL quarterback jealous. Wearing thick keeper’s gloves and handling a slick, round ball, his ability to accurately sling balls to teammates with both pace and distance is incredible. It is a quality at which he already outdoes his older rival.
Surely it is also a talent of which Fergie and Steele have taken note. United thrives on attacking from the wings. Whomever the Old Trafford brain trust settles upon, their ability to get the ball to the outside will be a major factor in making the choice. That de Gea will be able to deliver the ball quickly out to Evra or Rafael, as well as hoofing it up to Nani, Giggs and Valencia just adds to his versatility.
The big question of course, is his relative naivety. The youngster is largely touted as Iker Casillas’s successor but with the Real Madrid captain only 29 and Pepe Reina and Victor Valdes of similar age and also in the frame, de Gea has much to do before that becomes more than idle speculation. He has not played at the senior level internationally, nor has he been involved in a domestic title run, with Real and Barça monopolising La Liga, but his yeoman work in Atleti’s Europa League championship run last season has hinted that he can deal with the pressures that Old Trafford will bring.
Stekelenburg may not be a sexy choice but, then again, neither was van der Sar. Remember, too, that Fergie went through a handful of highly touted, often adventuresome netminders over six seasons, including Roy Carroll, Fabian Barthez and an unpolished Tim Howard, before finding the ideal replacement for Peter Schmeichel. With those misadventures in mind, will he be willing to take his youth experiment as far as Arsene Wenger has? It’s just as likely that de Gea could turn out to be the next Lukasz Fabianski as he could the next Iker Casillas.
Of course, with £140 million in his office safe, Fergie needn’t necessarily choose between the two. There is sufficient room and games at Old Trafford for both.
This article was written by Martin Palazzotto from World Football Columns.