How Manchester United's David de Gea Changed His Game

Soccer Features Manchester United
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David de Gea has undergone a much-needed shift in public opinion over the last two years. Following the 2012-13 EPL season, many called for his removal from the starting spot at Manchester United. Critics cited de Gea’s indecisiveness and lack of strength (and some said he ate too many tacos) and wanted him benched, despite United winning the league that year. However, these last two years, de Gea has garnered an immense amount of respect.

Here’s how he did it:

The clearest growth in de Gea’s game is his approach to crosses. It’s not so much that he’s become better at claiming crosses, it’s more that he’s become smarter about knowing which crosses he can safely pluck from the air.

In his first season, de Gea chased after 92 cross in 28 games, around 3.3 a game, and punched 23 of those 92 crosses (25 percent). This season, he’s been more conservative, attacking 54 crosses in 24 games so far, an average of 2.25 a game, and punching only three of those balls (6 percent). Essentially, he’s staying on his line and leaving crosses to his defenders, especially the balls he can’t hold.

One could argue that a truly great goalkeeper is not so passive, that de Gea should actively dominate his box. But with de Gea’s slender build, only 185 pounds at 6’4”, it’s a wise decision to play to his strengths. It would take an awful lot of protein shakes for de Gea can’t to bulk up to a Tim Howard-like 210-pounds, and a rapid body change is a great way to ruin your game. So de Gea is wise to be playing the position to suit his strengths.

Another aspect of de Gea’s game that has improved enormously is his hand strength. In his earlier incarnation, we routinely saw de Gea push balls out for easy rebounds, giving sneaky strikers a second chance on goal. This season, his hands are holding long range shots with ease. As for skipping shots with pace that he can’t hold cleanly, he’s softening his hands to be able to cover up the second attempt. It’s a textbook example of a goalkeeper recognizing his weakness and improving on it.

Gary Neville went into great length about de Gea’s transformation from student to star on Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football in December 2014.

I agree with Neville on de Gea’s crossing approach and hand strength but I’d disagree on one-versus-one situations. Though de Gea has been making some eye-catching stops, I see some problems with his technique that may eventually cause problems.

Neville praises de Gea’s control in tight situations, but the keeper has an overly cumbersome technique that mimics a jack-in-the-box. He extends his feet very wide and crumples his body and arms together, then when the shot is taken, he explodes in a variety of directions. The problem with this is that it truly isn’t in control. Pause at 2:58 and 4:23 in the video, notice the awkwardness of his body in both situations. It is scrunched in and his feet have too large of a responsibility in the upcoming save. At 5:50 and 6:25, he is anticipating instead of reacting, which we see when he is caught leaning one way before the shot is taken.

The biggest problem with de Gea’s first season is that he was 22 years old. Considering that de Gea was thrown into the toughest league in the world for goalkeepers, he actually performed very well. But to say he is a world class goalkeeper already, or that he will eventually become one, is premature. He is still relying heavily on his reactions and not form. He is a great shot-stopper because he is quick, light, and able to get from post to post with ease. But when his body starts to slow down he will struggle to react quickly and will either learn to play percentages or revert to the popular guessing game.

Watch the growth and judge for yourself. The Internet has graced us with two save-by-save videos comparing his first season:

and his third season:

His hands are clearly stronger, there is an absence of bad punches in the second video, but his mechanics are not to be desired. He’s looking for the heroic, explosive save and giving himself more work than he needs to. Pay attention to his pre-shot routine. His jumpset is excessive and his hands are always at his hips, much like Iker Casillas, for what that’s worth.

In three years, de Gea’s entire career will be clearer. The question is, will he continue to grow or will he stagnate in his development? At 24, it is easy to change a part of your game. But, closer to 30, bad habits start to take over if they’re not taken care of. Based on the rapid improvements and smart decisions de Gea has made in the last two years, don’t be surprised if he keeps getting better.

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