Most football followers these days accept squad rotation at top clubs like Manchester United as something of a necessity. It allows players important rest time as well as breeding healthy competition for starting places. Many, however, would also agree that these benefits simply don’t apply to goalkeepers. It’s a whole different ball game - almost literally in fact, given that they can handle the ball in question; a different approach to selection is therefore required. Despite 26 years as the arguably the greatest manager the country has even seen, Sir Alex Ferguson doesn’t seem to have fully grasped the apparently obvious: De Gea and Lindergaard- whichever it is- don’t need rest, they need game time and a show of faith, and their constant swapping over the past two years has only served to create uncertainty, inconsistency and low confidence that has spread across the entire team.
Yes, United are sitting pretty at the top, but this is very much despite their glaring defensive frailties, which are intrinsically tied to the goalkeeping situation. Shelling out £8million on Stoke’s Begovic in January, as rumoured, is in no way a solution; he would only add a further complication to a question that actually has a very straightforward answer.
Why Stick With One?
As Alan Hansen loves to say- having essentially run out of anything else to say- ‘Indecision is final’; the idea being that even making the wrong choice and sticking with it beats to-ing and fro-ing between decisions and ultimately ending up haplessly stranded in (the slightly over-epically named) no-man’s land. No goalkeeper wants to end up here; nor indeed in the dreaded ‘corridor of uncertainty’- as the name suggests, not a place conducive to simple decision-making. Anyway, the point is that, up to a limit, I think this rule of making a decision and sticking with it applies to selecting 'keepers.
Why shouldn’t 'keepers get dropped if they don’t play well, like anyone else?- it might be asked. Well, obviously the basic fact of whether the 'keeper is good enough in the first place needs to be established, and there is an unacceptable margin- repeated howler after howler isn’t going to get anyone anywhere. By and large though, I’d argue that for keepers, playing in the knowledge that you’re constantly on probation is never going to boost your confidence, and as anyone who’s ever heard a few football clichés knows, ‘For keepers, it’s all about confidence’. When a striker- Hernandez for example- knows he’s playing for his place in the team, he can roar about, demand the ball, make up for small mistakes within seconds by chasing the ball down or taking another shot. A keeper cannot. If he fumbles a cross that ends up just about getting scraped away, he can hardly chase after the ball to immediately redeem himself (well he could, but I’m not sure his fate would improve much). Instead he stands there, thinking ‘I can’t believe I fumbled that f**king cross!’
At best, he makes a concerted effort to bring his focus instantly back to the game, shout at a defender and clap his gloves together, in order to distract himself and appear unfazed. The great keepers are great because at this point they have developed the confidence and self-belief to manage these moments with minimal dwelling. For those short of confidence though, it’s like being told not to think of a white elephant. ‘Whatever you do, don’t look at Sir Alex’… ‘Don’t think about that fumble’… ‘I bet Anders is smirking right now’… These are thoughts David De Gea will no doubt have had on many an occasion. In addition, knowing that he’s only one bad game away- which in goalkeeping terms is only one mistake away- from sitting out the next few games until Lindegaard inevitably does the same, is only going to sap at the confidence reserves.
Last season Lindegaard picked up an injury in January. He and De Gea had been jostling for the no. 1 position throughout the season, and the Dane was in fact starting to emerge as the likelier of the two to make the position his. Once he got injured though, De Gea played with a level of assurance not yet seen. His decision making improved, as did his distribution; all the while his authority grew, and he ended up starting in the final 15 games of the league, despite Lindergaard’s return. Knowing his position was not imminently under threat would have eased the pressure, leaving De Gea to concentrate solely on task at hand.
For the rest of the team too, stability at the back is obviously vital. With United’s centre-back pairing so far this season comprising of various combinations of Evans, Ferdinand, Smalling, Jones, Carrick, Wootton and Vidic, surely holding one controllable variable steady throughout is a no-brainer. Knowing who is behind them, without having to remind themselves of who is currently on their five game run between the posts, would help any centre-back make split-second decisions, as well as crucially giving defenders the chance to build up a solid understanding with the keeper.
It’s particularly hard to believe that United haven’t settled on one keeper given the recent history lesson provided by Tim Howard and Roy Carroll. It’s now pretty clear Howard’s the better keeper, so it seems a bit disingenuous to argue that he obviously should have been given the no.1 shirt for good, but what was clear even at the time was that the constant shuffling between the two only weakened their performances. Yes, Manchester United is a difficult club to come to as a keeper, as Bosnich, Barthez, Tiabbi, Foster and now Lindegaard and De Gea can attest to, but the performance anxiety induced by being placed on trial from day one by the Old Trafford faithful is only ever going to be compounded by the knowledge that you’re only a very few small mistakes away from giving up your position.
Why De Gea over Lindegaard?
Well, the simple answer is I think he’s just a little better. Here’s the slightly more complicated answer: Both keepers have played eight league games this season. Their stats are essentially equal; Lindergaard has kept two clean sheets versus De Gea’s one, but United won one more game in which the Spaniard played than the Dane. There are couple of things that stand out though: De Gea has started in the two biggest games of the season so far, against Chelsea and Man City away. On Sunday against City, as at Stamford Bridge, he truly stepped up to the plate away from home against the best domestic opposition United will face this season. He essentially won United two points with a great save from Mata’s late free kick in October, and for me was candidate for man of the match against City, looking composed with the ball at feet and making a series of good saves. Surely these performances alone are enough to warrant the no. 1 shirt for the season?
Lindegaard is generally seen as the more ‘dominant’ keeper, the more ‘Schmeichel-esque’ in bossing his area and claiming balls into the box. I personally see very little evidence of this so far. Against Reading he could have come for at least two of the crosses resulting in goals, arguably all three. Some guy called ‘Alex Stepney’- who apparently gloved up for United a few times- weighed in on the matter when talking to the Manchester Evening News: ‘Lindegaard had a run in the United team last year and then got injured before his recent spell. But at times, no authority at the back was shown against Reading’.
De Gea has featured in five Champions League games compared with Lindegaard’s one. This is a clear sign Fergie favours the Spaniard against European opposition, who are generally heavy on quality and light on crossing. Over the course of what I hope has been the trial period this season for United’s competing keepers, De Gea has clearly come out on top. His shot-stopping and distribution quality were never in doubt, but he has recently proven that his decision-making and authority have stood up to expectation. Manchester United legend Stepney said ‘The role of the keeper in any game is simply to be totally focused and show his authority’. For me, playing both United keepers for limited blocks of games only serves to undermine whatever authority they carry. My point is not that De Gea is vastly superior to Lindegaard- he’s not; what I am saying is that it’s high time Fergie sticks with one man, and given the performances of the season so far, De Gea is the man for the job.
Follow Fabio on Twitter at @Fabzucci