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Opinion: The decline of David de Gea

David de Gea has been Manchester United’s best player and most consistent performer since arriving at the club almost a decade ago. He has collected seven trophies in his ten years at Manchester United, including a Premier League title and UEFA Europa League.

De Gea should be heading towards the prime of his career after only turning 30 last November. However, the Spaniard’s worrying decline in form has been a cause for concern for the Red Devils and the Spanish national side since his disappointing 2018 World Cup.

Spain were humiliated at the World Cup in Russia, crashing out in the last 16 of the competition by hosts Russia and De Gea was held responsible for La Roja’s exit. The Manchester United shot-stopper made fewer saves from at least three World Cup matches than any goalkeeper since the 1966 tournament, conceding six goals in four matches.

Despite De Gea’s poor displays La Roja’s outfield players underperformed during the disappointing campaign with manager Julen Lopetegui’s exit two days before the start of the competition a massive destabiliser. The Spanish media slated De Gea after Spain’s disappointing World Cup exit with tabloid Marca rating De Gea lower than any other player stating: “De Gea did not save any of Russia’s four penalties and left Russia having lost his position as the undisputed No. 1 of Spain”.  AS described De Gea as a “ghost” for his performance in the exit to competition hosts Russia where he failed to make a save in the 4-3 defeat in the penalty shoot-out.

De Gea’s poor form continued into the 2018/19 season for Manchester United as the Red Devils struggled under the management of the increasingly erratic Jose Mourinho. The ‘Special One’ returned to the club for the pre-season tour of the United States bringing anger and negativity with him. He publicly criticised key players, claimed to the media that executive-vice chairman Ed Woodward should have signed his transfer targets and created a negative environment around the club. De Gea was one of the few players who continued to have Mourinho’s support despite his lacklustre performances between the sticks. Ed Woodward finally wielded the axe on the 18th of December 2019 sacking Jose Mourinho with the club in chaos behind the scenes due to his behaviour throughout his third season. Club legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was appointed as interim manager to replace Mourinho until the end of the season with the aim of bringing back attacking football, increasing morale and returning the club to normal after the Portuguese’s disruptive tenure.

De Gea continued to struggle despite the change of manager and a much improved atmosphere at the club. The Spanish shot-stopper made a number of high profile howlers such as fumbling shots and turnovers from his poor distribution, particularly in the last few weeks of the season as the Red Devils chased Champions League qualification. Manchester United finished 6th in the Premier League failing to qualify for the Champions League.

United conceded 54 goals in the league, their worst defensive record in the top flight since 1979, and went 13 games without a clean sheet during the season. De Gea did show some glimpses of his old form especially in his outstanding individual display against Spurs as United won 1-0 in North London. The Spaniard was heroic making 11 saves in the second half as the Red Devils claimed three points against Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs. Overall, De Gea conceded 50 goals 35 Premier league matches, conceding 22 more goals than he did in the entire 2017/18 season having played in two fewer games. The Spaniard kept 7 clean sheets in 35 matches his lowest tally since joining the club from Atletico Madrid in 2011. He also showed to be susceptible from outside the box, conceding eight goals from distance throughout the 2018/19 season. Paired with his disappointing 2018 World Cup performance for Spain, it has been quite the downfall for a goalkeeper who was regarded as one of the best keepers’ in the world in recent years.

Newly appointed manager Solskjaer brought in defensive reinforcements in centre half Harry Maguire and promising right-back Aaron Wan-Bisaaka with the hopes of shoring up United’s leaky defence. Maguire was immediately made club captain after impressing with Leicester City in recent years and becoming one of England’s most important players under Gareth Southgate. Despite his worrying drop in form and lack of consistency for the best part of 12 months, De Gea signed a new four-year contract with the club on the 19th of September 2019. The deal will keep the Spaniard at the club until 2023 with him earning £350k per week making him the highest paid player in the Premier League, as per The Mirror. De Gea’s new contract at the club was met with his long term mentor and current Manchester United goalkeeping coach Emilio Alvarez quitting the club and accusing the keeper of being “disloyal”. Alvarez coached the shot-stopper at Atletico and had worked with him at Old Trafford for three years before quitting his role two weeks after his new contract extension. He told Spanish tabloid AS (cited by GOAL):” It’s not true that Manchester United relieved me of my duties. In fact, once De Gea renewed, United put an offer on the table for me. It was we who asked to meet with the club so I could tell them I wanted to leave the club. It was at this meeting they asked me to renew. I told them I was going back I wanted to leave United. I wanted to stop coaching De Gea.”

The arrival of Solskjaer, combined with the new additions of Maguire and Wan-Bissaka immediately improved the Red Devils defence. United proved difficult to break down throughout the 2019/20 season, with keeper De Gea playing his part in the Red Devils keeping 13 clean sheets in the Premier League. Maguire and Wan-Bissaka improved United’s overall defence as they conceded 36 goals in 38 matches, achieving the third best defensive record in the Premier League. United’s back up keeper Argentinian Sergio Romero continued to prove to an excellent option as he kept a remarkable 12 clean sheets in 17 appearances as the Red Devils reached three consecutive semi-finals. Solskjaer decided to drop cup goalkeeper Romero in favour of no. 1 De Gea for the F.A Cup semi-final clash against Chelsea at Wembley. Frank Lampard’s Chelsea were gifted a place in the FA Cup final as De Gea made a series of costly mistakes in the 3-1 defeat. The Spaniard was at fault when he let Giroud’s shot trickle over the line in the first half at Wembley, before allowing Mason Mount’s shot to evade his weak attempted save in the second half. The Red Devils could not recover from the mistakes and eventually bowed out of the F.A Cup in the semi-finals.

Unfortunately De Gea made a number of high profile clangers throughout the 2019/20 season which resulted in calls for manager Solskjaer to drop the out of form keeper. Manchester United manager has backed De Gea to the hills despite his high profile howlers and inconsistent performances claiming to BBC Sport that “David De Gea is the best goalkeeper in the world”.

Despite the public backing from his manager De Gea’s performances statistically have drastically declined since the 2018 World Cup in Russia. According to Opta the Spanish shot-stopper has made seven errors leading to an opposition goal in the Premier League since the start of last season (2018/19), the most in the league since then. He is often caught out in matches due to a lack of concentration which was evident in his two howlers against Everton and Watford in the 2019/20 season. De Gea’s issues of ball playing and box command continued to be apparent in the 2019/20 season. He lacks the ability of elite keepers Alisson Becker and Ederson on the ball which is a problem as the Red Devils continue to play out from the back under Solskjaer.

Furthermore, even with the introduction of aerially dominant club captain Maguire, De Gea’s lack of physical presence in the box, especially on crosses from set-pieces, remain a major issue defensively for United. He prefers to stay on his line for most situations even when United need him to command the box and clear the danger. When he does come out it is weak and half-hearted which has been highlighted by a number of soft goals conceded. To elaborate the Red Devils conceded 11 goals from set pieces (9 corners/2 free kicks) throughout the 2019/20 Premier League season. Premier League clubs have targeted De Gea as a weak link from set-pieces often surrounding and crowding the Spaniard on his goal line inside the six yard box.

Solskjaer’s decision to keep Henderson at Old Trafford and deny the 23-year-old keeper another loan spell after two successful seasons at Sheffield United was made to challenge underperforming De Gea and make him raise his performances this season. The impressive Henderson is seen as the long term No.1 for the Red Devils for the future but has been used sparingly this season with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer keeping faith in David De Gea. Henderson has started nine matches this season and made 10 appearances in total, replacing De Gea at half-time in the win against the Saints at St. Mary’s in the Premier League. He has featured in all cup competitions, starting all six games in the Carabao Cup and FA Cup this season. The promising young keeper has kept four clean sheets in 10 appearances across all competitions conceding nine goals. The Spaniard has improved slightly since the arrival of Henderson as back up keeper’ but has been at fault for a number of soft goals conceded in the first half of the season.

The Red Devils are currently second in the table mounting an unlikely title challenge and chasing silverware in the FA Cup and Europa League. Henderson is expected to start in the FA Cup against West Ham at Old Trafford after De Gea’s horror show in the 3-3 capitulation against Everton last weekend. The academy graduate has impressed with his assured performances when called upon this season and it is only a matter of time before he takes the coveted No.1 position from the declining De Gea.

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