He stares at him for three or four seconds…it’s not because he fancies him Ed. As amusing as Gary Neville’s commentary on the replay of Tottenham’s late goal against United last week was, it was disappointing to see even Neville has resorted to shallow tactics to expose the perceived weaknesses in David De Gea’s game. His aggressive criticism towards United’s keeper that day was surprising.
If there was one positive from Andy Gray’s lecherous sexism on Sky last year, it was that it gave Neville the platform he deserves as a pundit, and his performances have generally been excellent. Incisive, informative and honest, the Match Of The Day team must have been eyeing him suspiciously for months. What’s he doing now Alan? I’ve got no idea, it looks like arrows on a screen and seems to be something called analysis….
But on this occasion, Neville seemed fixated. Obsessed even. It was a weak punch from De Gea – albeit Vidic thundering into him made it difficult, but that’s what sometimes happens to goalkeepers – but suddenly it was being magnified out of all proportion, as if he had spun round and punched the ball into his own net. Neville’s critique reached its nadir when he resorted to timing the duration of Vidic’s stare. It started to feel absurd. If he had done that when Roy Keane was playing, it would have been a long show.
Of course, the press reported Neville’s critique with gusto, and at least one tabloid accompanied the story with a list of ‘De Gea’s gaffes’. It’s almost becoming a weekly feature.
Then, last night, it was Southampton at home. Michael Carrick, who has been magnificent this season, lobbed a horrible back pass vaguely towards his goal on a shabby pitch after just three minutes, allowing Jay Rodriguez to nip in ahead of De Gea and slide it into the empty net. It looked poor from De Gea at first but on second viewing it was more difficult to judge – if he had gone in full-bloodied, as many high-profile names insisted he should have, there was a high chance he would have conceded a penalty and being sent off – after just three minutes. His attempt was hesitant at best, unconvincing at worst, but he was put in an awkward situation and I would love to have seen the actions of other keepers in that situation. It’s a tough one, but for me, if we have to apportion blame, in this instance the majority must be aimed towards Carrick (who, to his credit, has held his hands up).
So what was the reaction of the media? Did they take a considered view of this? Take this piece of over-excited commentary from Match Of The Day “Was that another De Gea howler?” Another? Presumably adding to that long list of howlers from a shocking error-strewn season? And it seems goal-keeping mistakes now have a new name – a De Gea howler. Perhaps it won’t be long until we see Joe Hart or Pepe Reina make an error and hear “Reina just committed a bit of a De Gea howler there”.
Thankfully, the vast majority of United fans seem to be resisting this nonsense. It’s an important point. Once the supporters start to lose faith, then the future of that player, particularly a young one, at the club becomes less certain. This is a 21 year old developing in the spotlight of one of the biggest clubs in the world. And that spotlight shines brightest on the goalkeeper.
I’ve seen comparisons to Van Der Sar and Schmeichel, but at this stage they are largely pointless and irrelevant – Schmeichel was 27 and Van Der Sar 34 when they came to United. They were established internationals, with careers and reputations on which to lean. Sir Alex was decisive in his signing of De Gea – there were more obvious, more experienced candidates available when seeking Van Der Sar’s replacement. Critics may claim his defence of him now is his refusal to accept his mistake, having stuck his neck out so boldly in signing him. I believe he simply saw something special in De Gea, something he still sees.
De Gea’s age is worth taking into account. Perhaps it is part of the price of having a young keeper, knowing he is a long way from his peak and still ironing out the flaws in his game. But, even with that in mind, all keepers make mistakes (I’ve seen a few Hart howlers and Szczesny’s gaffes this season). Those who believe even Schmeichel and Van Der Sar were perfect are misguided – they were simply older, more experienced and ultimately better because of that. De Gea is 21. It’s worth repeating his age. Imagine him in five years. Ten. Will he be the best keeper in the world? I believe so. Will he be with United? Unfortunately, it’s hard to say.
I am curious why there is such a discrepancy between our own and the media’s view of our number one. As much as we tend to defend our players, if they are genuinely detrimental to our success, that defence will evaporate: ultimately, United are far more important than any player. Yet the majority want De Gea in the side. The media deem him not good enough. Why is there such a difference in our views?
I became involved in an interesting debate on Twitter with Oliver Kay last night, a journalist from The Times, who was questioned about the media’s obsession with De Gea and why he was scrutinised in a way other keepers weren’t. He responded that there was no obsession, and performances were judged how they saw it. He did eventually concede that “an error is magnified when a player is at a big club and struggling to retain the trust of his manager”, explaining that despite Sir Alex’s defence of De Gea, he believes the keeper is “struggling to retain the trust of his manager”. He went further to claim that Sir Alex “has doubts about De Gea”.
There’s two issues to this. The first is the notion that Sir Alex has doubts about our keeper. It seems unlikely. First of all, he defended him publicly only last week, branding his critics “idiots”. Oliver Kay believes that to be worthless but failed to explain why Sir Alex would continue to select De Gea if he had such reservations. Sir Alex has shown before he can be ruthless when players are under-performing, and the goalkeeper is possibly the most crucial position of all – hardly a place to gamble.
The second issue is more enlightening – the admission that errors are magnified at a big club. We know United garner the most attention and so will face the greatest scrutiny – but this does not prevent the identical judging criteria to be applied to every club. Every match is reported in the press. Every Premier league is covered and commentated on by Match of The Day. Fine, afford United, and De Gea more attention, but judge him how you judge every keeper. If De Gea made an error last night, so did Szczesny. Several times. Every other keeper from top to bottom has made mistakes. Apply the same criteria to each. Critique each player in the same way and by the same standards. If Gary Neville wants to investigate De Gea’s performance in minute detail, then do the same to Joe Hart and the rest.
There is a misconception United fans are asking for De Gea to be left alone, to be allowed to make mistakes without consequence. That’s wrong. We’re simply asking for him to be judged fairly and evenly.