This weekend, Manchester United will line up against Arsenal with Anders Lindegaard in line to earn his sixth start in the last seven Barclays Premier League games for the champions. Lying in his wake is the young prodigy David De Gea who, despite starting during the 8-2 win against the Gunners earlier this season, finds himself on the bench for this fixture after what can only be described as a shaky start to his time in English football. On current form, it seems that Lindergaard may succeed in his aim to stop De Gea being the best keeper at United “until I have retired, which is ten years away”, which was stated the other day. But if he does succeed in keeping the Spaniard out of the first team, the decision to bench De Gea and his potential will almost certainly bite Fergie and future managers of the club hard in the behind over the next decade.
Before anyone shouts at me for being disingenuous, there’s no doubt the David De Gea has had a difficult time since he’s joined United from Atletico Madrid. A naturally talented shot stopper who is strong and agile, De Gea has suffered somewhat due to his difficulties in other supposedly natural areas of goalkeeping; namely commanding his penalty area and claiming crosses. High profile errors against Basel and Blackburn have contributed to the belief of many pundits that he is not ready to command a place at the heart of one of the solidest defences in the country and that he is something of a liability.
What’s more. the youngster’s current deficiencies are magnified by commentators in comparison to the competence of his supposed rival. Whilst Lindergaard knows that he lacks the explosiveness or the power of his competitor, he is also aware of the fact that he is a solid goalkeeper. His positioning and command of the area is perfectly fine, his shot stopping is adequate and he knows when to rush out. Lindergaard is nothing special but neither is he a problem. Compared to De Gea’s rawness and likelihood of making an error, Lindergaard offers the safety net that most top managers would want, right?
The first was the pioneering work of Rene Higuita as the world’s first notable libero keeper at the 1990 World Cup, which allowed his defence to push up
Perhaps, but the problem with Lindergaard is that he is an old school keeper. Whilst grabbing crosses, shot stopping and hurling abuse at defenders remains a staple of most goalkeepers diets, the past twenty years have seen three significant changes in the game have significantly redefined what it means to be a goalkeeper at the top level. The first was the pioneering work of Rene Higuita as the world’s first notable libero keeper at the 1990 World Cup, which allowed his defence to push up and offer more passing options up the pitch. The second was the introduction of the back pass rule in 1992, which forced goalkeepers to be competent in possession. And the last was the revolution in the professionalization of medical care, training and physiotherapy in the modern game which has ensured that at the top level sides are able to press more effectively for longer due to increased strength and fitness reserves.
With these shifts in the game, the most successful sides have learnt to increase the space they have available on the pitch by giving their goalkeepers a role in possession play, particularly retention and distribution, and to risk the problems that come with that. Barcelona’s Victor Valdes is a prime example of this. Despite making an error for the first goal in the first El Clasico of La Liga this season by gifting possession straight to a Madrid player, his continued willingness to receive the ball around his six yard box stretched Madrid’s pressing players across the length of the pitch and allowed for the space for his sides incisive passing and movement to open up the opposition. His confidence in his abilities, the confidence from his teammates and his manager to take the ball and use it enables his side to attack and defend higher up the pitch, which is crucial in the modern game.
By playing Lindergaard over De Gea Ferguson is committing the error of choosing a solid goalkeeper over one who has the ability to play in the way the modern game demands it. Instead of focusing on the wider tactical impact of playing a solid but technically limited goalkeeper at the heart of his defence, he’s focussed solely on the solidity of his basic technique as a short term way of plugging a leak. The result could well be damaging for the teams wider fortunes. For example, playing Lindergaard will ensure that the chance to harness the buccaneering playing styles of defenders Phil Jones and Chris Smalling will be wasted because Lindergaard’s sweeping and reading of the game will ensure they have to sit deeper. And the loss of the opportunity to launch counter attacks, such as a glorious one executed by De Gea in the 5-0 win over Bolton earlier this season, due to Lindergaard’s poorer distribution and vision will in the long term blunt United’s ability to raid the opposition’s half when the defence is least organised e.g. from corners.
What United may gain this season by playing a solid but unspectacular keeper could well result in an unwelcome long term tactical backwardness
Instead, he should be playing De Gea so that he can attain the tactical usefulness of his predecessor, Edwin Van der Sar. His ability to sweep the ball up and launch counter attacks, allied it must be said to his wonderful keeping skills, has been one of the principal reasons why United have been so successful recently. By allowing them to break up attacks and launch counters rapidly, Van der Sar ensured that United have been at the tactical forefront for a while. Giving De Gea the chance to build on this groundwork is essential. Granted, if De Gea is played, he will make mistakes and he will concede soft goals while he learns to position himself properly for crosses and corners and to communicate with his defence. Van der Sar and Valdes were both playing regularly at De Gea’s age and and were allowed the freedom to make mistakes because of their tactical usefulness, and therefore learning a style that would mark them out as tactically innovative goalkeepers
For De Gea to succeed, he needs the same backing from his manager that Valdes and Van der Sar received from theirs to become the great modern keeper that United will need in the future. With his form poor and his confidence knocked, Fergie needs to pick him up, place him between the posts as soon as possible and back him thick or thin. What United may gain this season by playing a solid but unspectacular keeper could well result in an unwelcome long term tactical backwardness. Playing De Gea in the short term might prove problematic but it will also build a base for long term tactical innovation and security.
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