David De Gea has had more obituaries than a comic book superhero at this point. Like Superman or Wolverine before him, the Spaniard is usually standing defiant by the next instalment. No matter how much you write him off, De Gea always seems to have enough saves left in his arsenal to expel the doubts.
But for this shot-stopping superhero, Sevilla was his kryptonite. A disastrous 3-0 drubbing saw Manchester United eliminated from the Europa League at the quarter final stage. De Gea was at least partly at fault for all three goals his side conceded, while the match played out like a reverse-Greatest Hits built specifically to highlight his weaknesses.
For all his prowess as a pure saver of shots, De Gea’s distribution has long been a hole in his repertoire. During his 12-year stint in the English game, the emphasis on kicking as a goalkeeper has increased exponentially. Gone are the days when a custodian could just leather the ball upfield and hope for the best. Now, thanks to the likes of sweeper-keeper extraordinaire Manuel Neuer and coaches like Pep Guardiola, playing out from the back is a considered practice. We live in the age of the transition in football, where every detail of how to win the ball and what to do if you lose it is mapped out. To simply hammer the ball up the pitch and hope your players beat theirs to the landing is leaving too much to chance.
Managers have tried to coach De Gea’s erratic passing style out of him. United boss Erik ten Hag’s attempts were a failure. See the 4-0 humbling at the hands of Brentford back in August, for example. So unsuccessful was Ten Hag’s effort to modify De Gea’s game that he has largely let the Spain international go back to just lumping it.
If De Gea had taken that sort of safety-first approach at the Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan Stadium on Thursday, his side might be preparing for the semi finals of the Europa League. That is perhaps a little unfair considering the ten players in front of him proved incapable of scoring a goal, or even looking much like scoring one. But his lack of discretion when dealing with the ball near his feet led to the first and third Sevilla strikes of the evening.
David De Gea will not want to watch this game back 😬
The first came about when Harry Maguire, restored to the lineup in recent games due to the absence of first-choice pairing Raphael Varane and Lisandro Martinez, showed for a pass on he edge of his own box. De Gea obliged, but his hit was tame and didn’t take into account the presence of Youssef En-Nesyri. The United captain bungled his defensive efforts and De Gea watched the ball sail helplessly past him. An opening goal completely of United’s own making.
The second at least had an air of slight misfortune, as Loic Bade’s shoulder caused an attempted header to loop over De Gea at a corner. But the goalkeeper still looked unsteady, mistiming his decision whether to rush out or stay put and doing neither as the ball rose over him. The third goal, a De Gea air-slice at an attempted clearance let En-Nesyri in again. All he had to do was roll the ball into an empty net to complete the humiliation of United and their veteran number one.
As we alluded to before, blaming De Gea solely for the result is harsh. But it was another symptom of a long term United ailment. While De Gea’s stock hit its lowest ebb a couple of seasons back, with costly errors leading many to question his worth, since then a number of save-laden wonder-shows have brought popular opinion back onside. The criticism has quietened. But De Gea’s shot-stopping and his club legend status risk a clouding of the very real issue at hand.
To play Ten Hag’s way, they said, United would need to buy a goalkeeper that could pass. Well that wasn’t quite the case. The Dutch manager has done a fine job of implementing version 1.0 of his style with De Gea and his rudimentary distribution. But if this project is going to reach 2.0, where the top four finishes and occasional Carabao Cups give way to title challenges and Champions League runs, then there must be a change.
Ten Hag needs a specialist in the role. The Sevilla game was not the first demonstration of this, but it was perhaps the most conclusive. Ten Hag respects De Gea and reportedly talks are underway for a new contract for the 32-year-old. Signing him to one feels like delaying the inevitable. A clean break at the end of his current deal would be a dignified way to leave things, for both player and club.
One game shouldn’t be able to make or break a player. But in truth, the Sevilla game hasn’t broken De Gea. It has simply widened some of the existing cracks. Ten Hag can keep applying the glue in hopes of holding him together. Or he can replace him before the cracks cause De Gea’s reputation to shatter.
*18+ | BeGambleAware