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Yalla Shoot :Manchester United: From unorthodox to unreliable – what has happened to David de Gea?

Karen Bardsley column

My worry for Manchester United before Saturday’s FA Cup final against Manchester City is that while David de Gea’s saving technique has always been unorthodox, now he often looks uncomfortable.

That’s no great surprise, given the amount of change he has experienced this season. From the club’s new playing style under Erik ten Hag, to the unsettled backline in front of him and the unpredictability of the decisions they make.

De Gea has had a lot to deal with, but I wanted to explore exactly how that has affected the effectiveness of every part of his game.

So, I’ve studied his support and set positions – where and how he stands in and out of possession or prepares to face a shot – as well as his shape and balance when he is called into action.

Let me begin, though, by saying De Gea has been a talisman for United since he joined the club in 2011.

During my career, I was intrigued by the unique technique he used for his shot-stopping, and I was especially impressed by the spectacular way he channelled his inner octopus in the 2017-18 season.

Manchester United goalkeeper David de Gea denies Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez in December 2017
Perhaps the standout moment of De Gea’s stellar 2017-18 season was his display in United’s win at Arsenal in December 2017, when he set a Premier League record by making 14 saves, including this trademark stop with his feet to deny Alexis Sanchez, who was following up after Alexandre Lacazette had been thwarted

Unfortunately, this campaign has mostly been a different story.

De Gea played every minute of every Premier League game and, just as in 2017-18, won the Golden Glove award for keeping the most clean sheets (17), but on numerous occasions he has appeared uncertain and indecisive.

It would seem he has played much of the season with frustration and tension, feelings which have been known to inhibit judgement and decision making.

This obviously reflects his situation off the pitch too, with his future at Old Trafford still up in the air, but more on that later. First I want to focus on the technical side of his game and explore what is actually happening there.

De Gea is facing fresh demands

We’ve seen De Gea struggle before, notably when he arrived at OId Trafford as a scrawny-looking 20-year-old in 2011 and many teams targeted him with crosses from deep and, as a result, tried to intimidate him physically.

He’s still not an aerially-dominant goalkeeper – he rarely comes off his line to deal with crosses – but he found his way in the Premier League as a brilliant shot-stopper and flourished, winning the club’s Player of the Year award three seasons running from 2013-14 to 2015-16, as well as in that truly exceptional 2017-18 campaign.

Graphic showing David de Ge has played 544 games for Manchester United and kept 190 clean sheets
De Gea has won the Premier League, FA Cup, League Cup (twice) and Europa League during his time at Old Trafford

Now, though, the way the game and especially the role of a goalkeeper has changed means he is facing fresh demands, such as enticing a high press and having calmness on the ball in tight spaces that are much harder to adapt to at this stage of his career.

United’s uneasiness at the back in those situations is not all just down to him, though.

Their ever-changing defence has seen them use 15 different backlines this season, including eight centre-back partnerships. Some are better suited than others to Ten Hag’s philosophy of playing out from the back but, because they all do things differently, that adds elements of uncertainty to De Gea’s role.

Surely that’s connected to the costly errors he has been making – and so is the fact he is actively trying to improve.

As Ten Hag says, De Gea has been working on his distribution. Developing new skills takes time, especially for a 32-year-old goalkeeper, but focusing so much on a weaker aspect of his game seems to have affected one of the things he is usually very good at – stopping shots.

Is De Gea still in the right positions to make saves?

De Gea knows his strengths, but he is constantly being asked to do the things that are the weaker aspects of his game.

I know myself how that potentially leads to frustration, second-guessing and, ultimately, the dreaded ‘paralysis by analysis’, which is the inability to react effectively in the moment.

He has still made some tremendous saves this season but, unfortunately for every goalkeeper, people only remember your embarrassing errors – like the one De Gea made against West Ham in May and shown in the image below.

Said Benrahma scores for West Ham against Man Utd in May (image one of two)

I really felt for him when this one went in. Said Benrahma’s shot should have been a routine save but, as any goalkeeper coach will tell you, it’s the easy ones that catch you out because you have too much time to think.

That was certainly the case here, but what I also noticed was De Gea didn’t make a step, or shuffle, towards the ball. He pushed from his back foot, but failed to generate any power and then the ball bobbled over his mistimed extension, showing why you should always go with two hands where possible, not one.

Said Benrahma scores for West Ham against Man Utd in May (image two of two)

Mistakes happen, but after I replayed it several times, it just seemed so poorly executed, which made me wonder about his perception of situations.

De Gea has always done things slightly differently and we have become accustomed to seeing him save so much with his feet, but why is this – and how has it affected his shot-stopping with his hands.

Sometimes it seems as if he is caught in two minds about which technique to use, for example in the video below, which shows United’s defeat 4-0 at Brentford in August and specifically Josh Dasilva’s opening goal from approximately 20 yards.

As Dasilva’s shot comes towards De Gea, two things stand out for me. Firstly, De Gea’s left foot is pointing towards the left touchline, when a slight angle would be ideal, not 180 degrees. Then, biomechanically, this forces his knee to rotate and his hips and shoulder to open, affecting his hand position.

A more conventional technique here would be to take a smaller step, which would keep his knee out of the way and allow his hips, torso and shoulders a faster route to the ground, creating a barrier or body save.

Or, if he had the time, he could get his hips and legs together and land on the ball in a kind of front smother.

What he went for instead suggests to me that he changed his mind mid-shot about which technique he was going to use.

That indecision, and the problems it brings, stems from his starting position and stance, then the movement that follows. All of that is inextricably linked and, watching him, you see how he often does not help himself.

In the image below, against Everton in October, De Gea is siting deep in his set position with his hands behind him as Alex Iwobi shapes to shoot.

Alex Iwobi scores for Everton against Man Utd in October (image one of three)

His weight is distributed through his heels and this position limits how he moves because he cannot move as quickly as if he was on his toes, in order to take a step and generate power to cover distance.

He’s slow to react and also off balance as the shot comes towards him, because he is leaning to see the ball through the bodies in front of him.

Alex Iwobi scores for Everton against Man Utd in October (image two of three)

As a result of all of this, he does not get near it when he dives, despite being on the correct side of the goal.

He barely gets off the ground as the ball flies past him and into the net.

Alex Iwobi scores for Everton against Man Utd in October (image three of three)

As with this goal, which came after Casemiro was caught in possession in his own half, United are a team which concede numerous transition moments so I can understand why De Gea might be caught in two minds or out of position at times.

Interestingly, he was back-pedalling here, and just before the Benrahma goal too, which can force body weight backwards.

That doesn’t begin to explain the unusual goals we’ve seen him concede this season, but there might be a common theme – his movement cannot compensate for these other issues, when maybe it used to.

Does De Gea doubt his own distribution?

So much is made of De Gea’s passing not being good enough for the way Ten Hag wants to play out from the back, but I don’t think it’s as simple as that. It’s not necessarily because he’s using the wrong technique, the problem is more of question of judgement, confidence and/or self-doubt.

Perhaps I’m projecting my own experiences as a goalkeeper who went through a similar evolution. But earlier in the season, the decisions De Gea made, it looked like he didn’t have the tactical or technical understanding of what he needed to do and when he needed to do it. Or perhaps he did know, but he didn’t believe he could do it.

Graphic showing David de Gea's pass map in the second leg of their Europa League defeat by Sevilla. He played only three long passes, all of them unsuccessful
Graphic showing David de Gea’s pass map in the second leg of their Europa League defeat by Sevilla. He played only three long passes, all of them unsuccessful

Technically, he seems much more comfortable kicking long, particularly from a stationary ball, like he frequently did in United’s FA Cup semi-final win over Brighton.

But Ten Hag is determined to involve De Gea as the spare player when United play out from the back and this requires confidence, bravery, decisiveness and execution from the entire team.

After watching many of his games back, there are obvious moments where he puts the ball out of play, but also times when the build-up breaks down because his team-mates are out of position.

As a player, if you are having to think about what you should be doing and that keeps changing, then it is difficult to focus on the specific problem in that precise moment. That’s as true for a keeper receiving the ball and being closed down as it is for any outfield player.

Graphic showing David de Gea's pass map in United's FA Cup semi-final win against Brighton
Three days after the Sevilla defeat, in United’s FA Cup semi-final win [on penalties] against Brighton, De Gea frequently played long passes, even though most were unsuccessful

You can almost see this with De Gea when a pass is coming back to him.

He’ll be trying to identify where the pressure is coming from and how fast – say, is there a secondary press or trap? Then, he’s working out where his options should be, and are they where they’re meant to be?

It’s a lot of information to take in in a short space of time. No wonder things are going wrong sometimes.

Fewer saves, more passes

Premier League 2011-12 2017-18 2022-23
Games 29 37 38
Minutes 2,610 3,330 3,420
Long passes per 90 min 19 17.8 13.7
Short passes per 90 min 8.6 7.6 14.8
% passes long 69 70 48
Open play crosses per 90 min 14 11.4 11.8
Saves per 90 3.5 3.1 2.7
Save % 77.9 80.3 69.9
Save % outside box 93.2 93.9 80
Save % inside box 65.3 73.1 66
Clean sheets 13 18 17

There are some simple statistics that show what De Gea is doing differently now compared to his first season at United, and also to that 2017-18 campaign when he was at the very top of his game.

In 2011-12 and 2017-18, around 70% of the passes he played were long ones, and that has fallen to under 50% this campaign.

While he’s only played slightly fewer long passes per game, he has hit almost double the number of short balls. He’s also dealing with fewer crosses than when he arrived, and facing fewer shots.

What those numbers don’t show you, though, is how the demands on him have evolved.

With the ball, De Gea is now asked to manage playing very deep to begin and support build-up play in United’s defensive third, but also play higher to support his backline as possession progresses up the pitch.

Without it, he has to anticipate through-balls played in between or over his centre-backs and full-backs, when he is used to having a defence who would sit far deeper.

You need to be more of a sweeper-keeper these days, to support your backline, and you can tell De Gea is not as comfortable doing that. He’d prefer to be deeper, protecting his goal rather than guarding the edge of the penalty area, but that’s not the profile of the player Ten Hag needs.

De Gea has still tried to do what his manager wants but sometimes things have gone very wrong. Their Europa League defeat by Sevilla was one of those occasions.

Things couldn’t have gone much worse for him as a goalkeeper, starting with the two late deflected own goals in the first leg.

Then the second leg was a complete nightmare.

Every element of his game was exposed: dealing with crosses, guarding the area, his kicking. It was painful to watch.

Stay or go? A new contract for De Gea?

You cannot discuss De Gea at the moment without considering his future – he is out of contract in the summer – and I think it’s clear if he is to stay, he will need to evolve very quickly.

If United are going to progress, it feels obvious they need someone calm and decisive in goal, with unshakeable confidence and, for me, De Gea is not yet that person.

He’s been an amazing servant to the club but put yourself in Ten Hag’s shoes. While United’s squad planning has been a mess for a few seasons due to their transient managerial situation, they now have someone in charge who has a clear identity in mind for his team, but does not have the players he needs to implement it yet, including a goalkeeper.

I hate to take the human element out of the equation but, from a purely financial standpoint, it also makes sense to look for a new number one based on his age.

De Gea is 33 in November – and United are unlikely to get much more out of him.

That does not necessarily mean De Gea will leave. He could take a massive pay cut and agree his role is going to change to that of a back-up as he enters what is probably going to be the twilight of his career.

If he does move on, he will have no problems finding a new team but it will have to be the right fit for him to be successful and I cannot see it being a top club in the Premier League. Everyone is trying to play out from the back now and they all want a ball-playing keeper.

Before that gets sorted, De Gea could still be the hero again at Wembley this weekend, as he has been so many times for United in the past.

But a lot will have to go in his favour and I hope for his sake he doesn’t make a mistake that costs United the match.

Karen Bardsley was speaking to BBC Sport’s Chris Bevan.

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