FootballPremier League

De Gea’s decline: Sometimes an entire season of brilliance can mislead us all

March 6, 2020

THINK of your favourite football photograph. Maybe it’s that one of Maradona in 1982 facing all those Belgian players, before you realised he’d just received the ball from a free-kick and was facing the remnants of the defensive wall, rather than a terrified yeoman army.

Perhaps it’s Maradona in 1986 disgracefully scoring with his hand above Peter Shilton, before you realised that the England ‘keeper could have jumped in the air and before you realised how good the Maradona documentary was going to be. Maybe it’s not even a photograph of Maradona (though it probably should be), the point stands: football lends itself to iconic images and there are few more iconic than David De Gea’s goals prevented map from 2017-18.

You remember the season. Manchester United finished a distant second behind Pep Guardiola’s 100-point aesthetes but without De Gea in goal they’d have have finished down with the Burnleys and the Liverpools. The smash-and-grab visit to Arsenal in December is the game that probably defines De Gea’s Premier League career and rightly so, but the season as a whole remains the goalkeeping equivalent of the Spartans at Thermopylae or a tasty Begbie rearguard.

Based on Expected Goals De Gea stopped an additional 14 goals in 2017-18, which is one more than Petr Cech let in before Chelsea won the title in 2004-05. Do you want your goalkeeper to let in 13 goals and win the league or prevent 14 goals and come second? Ok, fine, but which one involves more goalkeeping?

1

De Gea is arguably the first data-era goalkeeper. When he joined Manchester United the (data) word on the (numbers) street was that he had been susceptible to long range shots at Atletico Madrid. Once that information would have been lost in translation as a player moved from Spain to England, but in 2011 it had been assimilated by other Premier League sides and De Gea’s Premier League home debut against Tottenham was notable for the visitors trying their luck from distance, with 14 of their 21 shots coming from outside the penalty area. De Gea denied their narrative, though, keeping what would be his only clean sheet at Old Trafford until March 2012 (this the campaign of the 8-2 win against Arsenal and the 6-1 defeat to Manchester City, more of which later).

De Gea’s first two seasons, his only two under Alex Ferguson, were busy but solid, saving 78% and 76% of the shots on target he faced, before settling into a reasonable-but-not-incredible groove in the post-Ferguson era, averaging a saves rate of 71% between 2013-14 and 2016-17 as United grasped for an identity and consistency under David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho. Then came 2017-18 and the leap up to 80% and those 14 goals prevented. Rather than the expected progression of a goalkeeper on a perfect trajectory, it now stands out as a one-off, a random spell of brilliance, a brief aligning of the custodial planets. The fact De Gea has reverted to his orthodox Premier League saves rate of ~70% in the two subsequent seasons only drives the point home.

And then came the errors. There are those who say a metric like ‘error leading to a goal’ is misleading because you might be someone like Kepa Arrizabalaga who doesn’t make many overt errors but often concedes shots you’d expect most goalkeepers to save. Even so, a goalkeeper error is the purest form of blunder in the sport. No-one thinks Dean Henderson is a bad ‘keeper because he let one slip in at home to Liverpool, but that’s because he has generally been excellent. If you are making clear errors and then playing averagely the question marks start to accumulate. And errors are something that have turned up in De Gea’s game ever since 2017-18 concluded. Seven of them since August 2018 is one more than the seven previous seasons combined and it is not an ideal look for the highest paid player in English football history.

Late on in Manchester United’s FA Cup tie at Derby County on Thursday evening there was a chance of some raw nostalgia as a bearded Wayne Rooney stepped up to take a free-kick against the club for whom he is the record goalscorer. The MLS veteran hit it well enough but it drew a solid save from Sergio Romero, surely the best reserve goalkeeper in the Premier League. Romero has only featured in seven league games for United but has kept clean sheets in six of them.

On Sunday De Gea will be back for his side’s game against Manchester City, a side he has conceded 33 times against in the Premier League. Six of those came in his first game against them back in 2011, a match that was an accurate prophecy for the direction of the two clubs in the 2010s. Sometimes a single match can point to the future. Sometimes an entire season of brilliance can mislead us all.