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What Does David de Gea Need To Improve at Manchester United?

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What Does David de Gea Need To Improve at Manchester United?

David De Gea has been Manchester United’s number one for eleven years, but now more than ever he needs to adapt.

With Dean Henderson now likely to go out on loan to Nottingham Forest next season, it is all but confirmed that De Gea will be Manchester United’s starting goalkeeper next season.

The Spaniard has just come off one of the best shot stopping seasons of his career, but with new boss Erik ten Hag’s style requiring a specific role from his goalkeeper, now more than ever he has to adapt.

David de Gea is one of the best shot stoppers around, there is no doubting that. But his overall game as a goalkeeper is lacking.

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In past teams, this has not been as much of an issue, but now it is a pretty major one, with there being an argument that overall he hinders the side defensively despite his shot-stopping brilliance.

Dean Henderson has often been praised over David de Gea for his more commanding style of goalkeeping. (Alamy)
Dean Henderson has often been praised over David de Gea for his more commanding style of goalkeeping. (Alamy)

De Gea’s attempts to command his box are extremely weak. Whilst you may feel secure when facing shots with him in goal, defending them is uninspiring. De Gea seldom leaves his line, whether it’s to sweep up a ball in behind or to deal with a cross, and when he does attempt this he often does so poorly.

On the ball he is poor, with his passes often either going out for a throw in or not crossing the halfway line, and he does not help his team out in build-up often, leaving the side at a numerical disadvantage when facing a high press from their opposition and placing greater burden on his defenders and deep midfielders to play their way out of this pressure.

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At Ajax, Erik ten Hag played possession-based football and his goalkeeper was very important to this. When you look at how other top sides play, almost all of them now have goalkeepers who are able to contribute on the ball.

If United are to get back to that level, De Gea must start helping his team out more in build-up. He isn’t an Ederson, and shouldn’t be expected to be so, but just by making himself more easily accessible in build-up he can make a huge difference to his side.

Better pass selection, which could be aided by a greater build-up structure and new personnel in midfield, would also make a difference.

Another issue is the Spaniard’s unwillingness to leave his line to sweep and/or close down attackers. Last season he stopped 6.7 more goals than expected, but he often has to face higher probability shots because of this unwillingness to leave his line.

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David de Gea often makes fantastic saves while in goal for Manchester United. (Alamy)
David de Gea often makes fantastic saves while in goal for Manchester United. (Alamy)

Some may argue he is right to back himself due to his clearly excellent ability to stop shots and that leaving his line is an even bigger risk if he gets beaten. Whilst this a valid concern, if De Gea is smart about leaving his line then this will not be the case too often, just like with every other Premier League goalkeeper.

Doing this will not reduce the amount of chances attackers get, as he will prevent shots by doing this, but he will also force attackers to take lower probability shots by closing them down. By sweeping, he will allow his side to more confidently play a high defensive line, pushing the entire team up the pitch and allowing them to press higher.

Just by doing something so simple, it almost has a domino-like effect on the relative positioning of the rest of the team. 

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Although the trait is often conflated with those of a ‘modern’ goalkeeper, commanding the box has always been a vital part of goalkeeping and it is maybe De Gea’s greatest weakness. For all the goals he stops with his picturesque saves, there are plenty that we concede that could be easily prevented with stronger command of his box.

As mentioned previously, De Gea is often unwilling to leave his line, and this applies to crosses too. De Gea stops just 3.2% of crosses, lying in the third percentile when compared to goalkeepers from Europe’s ‘big five’ leagues and European competitions.

David de Gea saves a penalty against Ismaila Sarr during Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's final game as Manchester United manager. (Alamy)
David de Gea saves a penalty against Ismaila Sarr during Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's final game as Manchester United manager. (Alamy)

With crossing being one of the most predominant creation methods seen in football now due to the emergence of attacking full-backs such as Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joao Cancelo, you cannot be a top level goalkeeper and be weak when facing this.

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For some comparison, Henderson’s 2020/21 season had him in the 67th percentile for this metric, UEFA Champions League winning Thibaut Courtois lands in the 70th percentile, and Liverpool’s Alisson remarkably falls in the 88th percentile. De Gea needs to make a significant improvement, and he needs to do it fast if he wants to remain the club’s number one. 

De Gea is reportedly willing to learn and make more adaptations under Ten Hag, which is a positive sign. With the Spaniard on such large wages, it is almost impossible to sell him.

He currently has one year remaining on his deal, and whilst the club have reportedly discussed a new contract for him, they must hold off and wait to see if he does make the required improvements in his game.

If he does not, then whilst thanking him for his many years of great service the club must move David de Gea on and replace him with a goalkeeper who stylistically fits what is needed. Luis Enrique has done it for the Spanish National team, and Manchester United must mirror this ruthlessness if the need to do so arises.

Featured Image Credit: Alamy

Topics: David De Gea, Manchester United, Erik Ten Hag, Football, Dean Henderson

Yusuf Haq
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