David De Gea: Why Manchester United's Vampire Is Better Than Manchester City's Joe Hart
Some of Manchester United’s failure to retain the Premier League crown last season was aimed squarely at newly-recruited ‘keeper David De Gea, with the young Spaniard suffering criticism on several fronts after a series of blunders and altogether underwhelming performances that led some to believe that he would never fulfil his £18m price tag.
On the opposite side of the city, the star of bitter rival’s Manchester City’s goalkeeper, Joe Hart was continuing to rise at a meteoric rate. So, practically a full season on from City’s dramatic title-clincher, is De Gea still just living in the shadow of England’s number one?
Until James “He puts in a shift, that lad” Milner beat the Spaniard with a deflected shot in the season’s final Manchester Derby, De Gea had gone an enviable 678 minutes without conceding, almost seven games, and roughly halfway towards Edwin van der Sar’s Premier League record of 1,311 achieved in 2008/09. The Dutch legend has gone on record in recent weeks to voice his backing of the youthful stopper and highlight the difficult of entering the hurly-burly of England’s top flight at such a tender age.
Also adding his considerable opinion to the debate was Peter Schmeichel, arguably the greatest goalkeeper the world has ever seen, who came to the Spaniard’s defence following the Spurs game in which De Gea conceded in the 93rd minute. While many pointed the finger, it should be noted that were it not for the young keeper’s heroics throughout the previous 92 minutes, United would have probably been at least 3-1 down. A string of top saves kept Villas Boas’ men at bay, only to be undone by a late Dempsey goal.
However, for the large part - and you don’t get to keep seven clean sheets on the bounce through sheer luck - David De Gea has had a sterling season between the sticks, especially post-Christmas, with a host of assured performances. In contrast, City’s Joe Hart, who has been held in such regard over the past three seasons that some have decreed him one of the best goalkeepers in the world, has had a disappointing one by his standards.
De Gea’s major facet, and the one that draws the most acclaim, is his excellent and innovative shot-stopping ability. He often makes the right decisions in dealing with a shot, whether deeming it necessary to use his hands or his feet, and rarely do you see him parrying a ball back into the danger area. He appears to have developed an unorthodox, yet seemingly effective technique, of spreading one hand and balling the other when dealing with a close range shot he would have no hope in catching. While critics would argue that simply adhering to the old ‘W’ shape would be more efficient, De Gea now has the option of parrying and taking the sting out of the shot, or connecting with a clenched fist to beat the ball away to safety.
Similarly, he has zero qualms about using his feet frequently to deflect efforts on goal away, culminating most spectacularly in his waist-high, feet-led block against Real Madrid in the Champions League second leg. Sure, it’s unusual, but when you have a ‘keeper that is so comfortable using his feet, why complain?
His assurance with the ball at his feet has allowed United to counter-attack quickly from corners and free-kicks into their box. De Gea’s distribution is exemplary and the ratio of clearances that find a man as opposed to drifting out of play or hitting an opposition player is stacked heavily in his favour. Being so comfortable on the ball has also led to the United defenders trusting him with the backpass, knowing that, if anything, De Gea is more likely to hit the frontmen from distance than they are. In modern football the backpass is usually just a short reprieve from pressure as most ‘keepers simply belt the ball downfield and possession can be equally lost as it is kept.
A lot is made, however, of Joe Hart’s dominance of his box, and the City custodian strikes a commanding figure; he leads from the back, marshals his defenders astutely and will take control of a situation in that penalty area by claiming the ball with authority. De Gea, on the other hand looks much frailer when attempting to come for a high ball in his penalty area, and it this aspect of his game that has caused United fans the most consternation since his arrival in 2011. Admittedly, he appears much more dependable now, but it is the weight and muscle disadvantage that hampers his ability to bully players out of his way in that area.
But then you have to consider the implications of ‘bulking up’ such a goalkeeper as De Gea. Joe Hart is a mountainous figure, and although he exerts an aura of dominance, his agility and quickness of his line is a shadow of his United counterpart. Hart has been undone this season, especially earlier in the campaign, by a few unforced errors and poor positioning. His handling, at times, has been questionable, and he carried a leaden-footedness about him.
Conversely, United’s Spanish ‘keeper is agile and nippy, and has pulled off some truly tremendous saves over the course of the season, largely thanks to his ability to spring from a standing start and beat the ball away.
He still has to work a little on his positioning, as at times he can be caught out by opposition strikers: Demba Ba’s goal in the FA Cup semi-final was a wonderful strike, but with De Gea neither staying on his line, nor dashing out to present a smaller target for the Senegalese striker to hit, he ended up watching the ball fly straight past him as he stood rather aimlessly on the edge of his six-yard area.
There is much made of his potential succession of Iker Casillas as the Spanish number one and in recent months De Gea has justified claims that would have seemed ludicrous at this time last year. He has much to learn, but to be as good as he is at such a young age is not something to be scoffed at. It is generally said that goalkeepers reach their peak at a more mature stage that outfield players, usually as they approach their thirties, so one can only imagine what De Gea could be like in a decades time.
He can frustrate at times with a perceived lack of bravery when coming for the ball - Michael Carrick’s awful passback against Southampton was to blame for Rodriguez’s goal, but nonetheless, De Gea was extremely timid in his attempts to halt the Saints forward - and his hesitance when dealing with balls into the box, but he astounds with his uncanny ability to keep the ball out of his net from all manner of attempts.
Joe Hart is a solid, dependable steward between the Manchester City sticks, but rarely would you comment on him being spectacular. At the other end of the scale, De Gea has shown a propensity for inconsistency in the past, but when he’s on form he’s not solid, he’s sensational.
As a patriotic football fan I wouldn’t want Hart to suffer the curse that all recent England goalkeepers seem to succumb to - James, Robinson, Green, Foster - and go through a period riddled with errors and devoid of confidence, but as a Manchester United fan above all, De Gea has a set of supporters that I feel are a lot more forgiving than those that get behind the Three Lions.
With a bit of stiff competition from Lindegaard, a title under his belt and a season of good performances, United’s number one can develop from a goalkeeper that is sometimes brilliant, to a goalkeeper that is often brilliant.
With all things considered and rivalries put aside, I’d rather see De Gea taking to the field for my team than Hart, because the potential the young Spaniard has shown is frighteningly apparent.