In defence of the Spanish Wall.
By Will Guthrie
Rarely does something get more post-game attention from pundits and fans alike than a goalkeeping howler. Despite the fact that it’s arguably he toughest position in football, the gleeful way that fans like to put a keeper’s mistake under a bright spotlight is one of the great injustices of football. It takes not only incredible skill and reflexes to play the position, but courage as well, and the general misunderstanding of how tough the position really is can be seen in the comments that follow any sort of mistake. Perhaps even more galling is that goalkeepers are often one of the lowest paid players in the starting line-up, despite their job being arguably as important as that of a forward. Over the past 12-18 months, a frankly hysterical amount of criticism has been aimed at Man United’s David De Gea by seemingly anyone and everyone with access to social media or a microphone. There are several plausible theories as to why this might be the case but it’s not hard to imagine that were he playing for a different club, the criticism wouldn’t be anywhere near as fierce.
There’s no doubt De Gea has made more mistakes than he usually would, however that’s the most salient point – than he normally would. Do people honestly expect a goalkeeper to never err? You’d be hard pressed to find one that’s had or has a flawless record. While the fact that he’s a victim of his own high standards is one thing, the more frustrating element to those that defend him is the general lack of acknowledgement that he’s been excellent for the best part of 7 seasons leading up to this ‘slump’. Not to mention that, statistically speaking, he has still been very good this most recent season, but more on that later. Perhaps it’s the mental weight of being the highest paid keeper on the planet, or the fact he’s been at Old Trafford for eight years now and a change of scenery is required to recharge the batteries. There’s also the possibility that with a very capable understudy in Sergio Romero and the extremely talented Dean Henderson (now returned from loan at Sheffield United), De Gea may feel uncomfortable in his position as the number 1. Whatever the case, there’s no arguing the fact he’s not been at his best.
What no one seems to be mentioning is the fact he is comfortably one of the best goalkeepers the Premier League has ever seen. Having won the title with United in 2012/13 and been named in the PFA Team of The Year in 2017/18, he also for a time was almost impossible to get past. For a stretch he was United’s best player, winning their player of the year four times in five seasons between 2014 and 2018.
That’s right, a goalkeeper winning player of the year four times.
This highlights not only the consistent excellence he produced and how important he was to United in that period, but also, and definitely most importantly, how much the players in front of him let him down. For a few seasons he was peppered with shots, routinely bailing out those in front of him who failed to do the basics. The recent addition of Harry Maguire has helped on that front, but given he has the turning circle of a Mack Truck, this area could still use a lot of improvement. As the old saying goes, De Gea has the runs on the board.
So much so in fact, that up until the 2018/19 season, De Gea had only made four errors that resulted in goals in his entire United career. Admittedly, since then there have been seven more, hence the feverish rush to criticise him by all and sundry. What a lot of these mouth-breathing sub-humans don’t take into account are the statistics. De Gea faced roughly 30-45 more shots in the most recent season than both Ederson at Man City and Alisson at Liverpool, whilst simultaneously maintaining a higher save percentage than both (see table below). This is the crux of the issue. De Gea plays for United, the most hated team in the league, hence the fanatical attempts to take him down. It’s part and parcel of playing for the club, every man and his dog will come after you at even the merest hint of a slip up. Where is the same frenzied condemnation on Kepa Arrizabalaga from Chelsea, currently an €80 million benchwarmer who can’t get into the team ahead of journeyman Willy Caballero? Or for Ederson of Manchester City, the €40 million clown who has been lobbed from halfway multiple times this season alone? Both these players cost far more than De Gea and have achieved far less. The fact they play for clubs not named Manchester United likely plays a key role in the lack of focus on their mistakes.
Putting it simply, goalkeeper bashing has become a sport for fans and pundits of questionable intellect in recent times. The fact that one player, a quite literal last line of defence, should be the one who gets scrutinised the most is a reflection on how sports media has simply become a weapon to attempt to bring people down. Rarely mentioned is that there are ten other players on the team, fifty percent of whose job is to prevent goals being scored against them. If there is blame to go around, it surely needs to be dished out proportionately? In this particular instance, De Gea has done more than enough to be spared from this level of criticism, potentially for the rest of his career. Let’s not forget that this most recent season would be classed as a ‘bad season’ for him, yet he still made more saves than the aforementioned colleagues at the top teams. It’s time to show him a little respect.