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Manchester United are falling into old habits by keeping David de Gea



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Credit: IMAGO / Colorsport

It has been reported in the last week that Manchester United would like to keep David de Gea for the upcoming season, with Erik ten Hag himself reportedly sanctioning the decision.

Manchester United have been scouting goalkeepers across Europe for many months now, it is a pressing need and addressing it will be vital to Erik ten Hag being able to implement his ideal style of play at his club.

There are a number of issues with keeping David de Gea at Manchester United, and the root of those issues is a feeling of sentimentality and a re-emerging pattern of holding onto the past, long after it has gone.

Part of United’s downfall in the last decade, following the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, has been an obsession with replicating his reign at Manchester United. ‘The United Way’, many call it.

Ironically, a huge part of what made Sir Alex so successful for so long at Manchester United was knowing when to let go, move on, and evolve. It is somehow the one lesson United did not learn whilst spending a decade trying to rebuild the empire he designed.

Back to De Gea. He is a problem for Manchester United, and keeping him poses no benefits for reasons both on and off the pitch. On the pitch, he has failed to adapt to the shifting demands of his position over time. His weaknesses have only become more obvious as a result, and his strengths have diminished in recent years.

Shot stopping has, and always will be, a fundamental requirement in a top goalkeeper and despite some decline, this remains De Gea’s greatest strength. He retains the ability to react at remarkable speeds and stop shots that would end up as goals for most other goalkeepers; but in many cases, his saves can be likened to a fireman putting out his own fires.

Commanding the penalty box is also a quality that has been and remains a fundamental requirement in goalkeeping. Where elite goalkeepers come off their lines and aggressively look to claim crosses, therefore defending their penalty area and giving their defenders support and confidence, De Gea remains on his line, opening himself up to being shot at where he backs himself to save the ball.

Often these lead to corners, and the same process starts over and over again. Teams are able to keep the pressure on United until a defender – usually Raphaël Varane – finally gets the ball clear.

United are more susceptible to conceding shots from crosses and set pieces because of De Gea’s refusal to leave his line in many cases, and many goals conceded this season have come from these kinds of situations.

As the tactical landscape of football has shifted towards more possession-based systems, looking to pin teams back and sustain pressure on them whilst dominating the ball, the role of goalkeepers has changed. They are now expected to play the ball far more than they ever were before, often acting as an extra outfielder to outnumber and play through an opposition high press.

David de Gea seems reluctant to play the ball, often not showing for it, which leaves United at a numerical disadvantage against an opposition press. When the ball does make its way to his feet, these opponents are more than happy to let him have the ball and simply cut off the short options, knowing that he struggles when asked to clip the ball out wide or to play over the press into midfield.

Multiple times in many games, fans will see De Gea either kick a ball out for an opposition throw-in or aimlessly kick long, ending in a transition attack for United’s opponents. When he does pass to his teammates, it often reaches them in unfavourable situations.

Both his passing decisions and execution are poor, and Erik ten Hag will never be able to actualise the United he envisions if his goalkeeper is this poor in possession. If not for Lisandro Martínez being Lisandro Martínez, United’s poor build-up play would be infinitely worse.

Paolo Maldini once famously stated that if you have to make a tackle, you’ve already made a mistake. Often this quote is taken out of context amongst United’s online fanbase, leveraging the quote to prove points that aren’t there to be made. However, many of De Gea’s saves do ironically come directly from his mistakes in commanding his area and playing the ball.

To De Gea’s credit, he has become a more active sweeper off his line. When teams are dominating possession high up the pitch, this sweeping is required as a defence mechanism against offensive transitions behind the high defensive line and actually gives them the confidence to push higher up the pitch, knowing that they have this safety net.

De Gea has done this more frequently when asked for United this season in the moments where the team can play higher, although still, you would like to see more frequency and aggression from him in this regard.

To conclude this section, it may be the case that De Gea stops a lot of shots. But a lot of these shots would not occur if he was simply doing the right thing in the first place. Given his shot-stopping metrics are coming up negative too, it is simply not good enough [see FBref].

This is just on the pitch, but also a discussion must be had with regards to off it. It is no secret that David De Gea is on a very big contract; the third highest in the league in fact, at a reported £375,000 weekly. Reports have said that United want to negotiate this down to around £250,000 weekly, and potentially still bring in a new, younger goalkeeper to compete with De Gea.

£250,000 weekly for a goalkeeper, one who might not necessarily be the number one all the time, is still by far the highest in the Premier League, £100,000 ahead of the nearest competitors in Chelsea’s Kepa Arrizabalaga and Liverpool’s Alisson.

It would have him as United’s fourth-highest earner behind only Varane, Casemiro, and Jadon Sancho; two all-time great footballers, who remain amongst the world’s best in their position, and a player who at 23 has already had a stellar career and still holds the potential to be one of the best players in world football, despite some struggles at United.

Should Marcus Rashford, United’s talisman offensively, pen a new deal then he too will likely be above De Gea. Yet, the number is still baffling.

Many seem to think that this new wage reported would be fine, and yet it is only being seen as a positive because his current salary is so problematic. He would be dropping £125,000 weekly, a figure just the aforementioned two goalkeepers in the league earn more than weekly.

Even within United’s utterly insane wage structure in recent years, his salary has been inexplicable. £250,000 a week might be ‘better’, but only in the same way a broken wrist is ‘better’ than a broken leg.

If United were, in theory, to buy a younger goalkeeper to play understudy, potentially rotating regularly, then it may seem a fair compromise to some but may not go as smoothly as they think. In the past, De Gea has been reportedly notoriously problematic behind the scenes when dropped.

Taking a more optimistic view of things, he may have matured into more of a leader, and he has publicly expressed a desire to remain at United. But all things considered, is it really worth keeping him around?

On the pitch, De Gea is not good enough. Statistical and observatory analysis more than back this up. Off the pitch, he has been problematic in the past when things are not going his way. His salary is the biggest part of an issue the club have desperately needed to fix for a while.

In United’s failed mission to replicate what Sir Alex Ferguson achieved at Old Trafford, the club have forgotten that understanding when to move on was central to the dynasty he created.

De Gea’s current contract expires in the summer and United should not renew it. Thank him for his service to the club with a good sendoff come May time, and give him what would be a well-earned testimonial. But no player is bigger than the club, and United need to outgrow David de Gea.