Manchester United’s improvement under Erik Ten Hag has been undeniable, but whether the club can support him with the right players remains to be seen. A key position that will serve as a benchmark for the club’s proficiency in squad building is the goalkeeper.
David de Gea’s current contract is up at the end of the season, and though there is an option for a further year, reports suggest that he is likely to sign a new contract this season.
There are several reasons why this may be happening. De Gea has been among the club’s best players in a drab and difficult period in the club’s history. For some inside Old Trafford, he could be seen as a talisman and a significant dressing room figure who would be too significant to offload.
For a number of years, his shot-stopping has also been elite. However, De Gea is undeniably ill-suited for the stylistic approach of Ten Hag and creates issues for the team both in and out of possession.
The first thing to note is that despite some high-profile saves this season, De Gea’s shot-stopping numbers are not elite. When compared to other goalkeepers in Europe’s top five leagues, De Gea’s post-shot expected-goals minus goals allowed metric in the Premier League ranks in the 48th percentile.
In order words, compared to how many goals one would expect him to concede based on the quality of shots he’s facing, he is shot-stopping at an average rate. This is his lowest performance in this metric since it was recorded in the 2017/18 season, where he ranked in the 98th percentile and went on to consistently rank close to the 60th percentile or above. As such, while he is still capable of incredible moments of quality when defending his goal, on the whole, De Gea’s shot stopping is not at the level it once was.
When placed in the context of his other limitations, it becomes clear that De Gea should not be the starting goalkeeper for Manchester United going forward.
His clearest deficiency is his reticence to come off his line to claim crosses or make other defensive actions. Goalkeepers are often expected to be proactive predominantly in teams that play a high defensive line. Regardless of the defensive line height, though, having a proactive goalkeeper enables a team to defend with more security by allowing the team to manage space better.
Especially in transition when defenders are isolated or out of position, having a keeper who can aggressively close down opposition attacks makes teams less vulnerable. In Lisandro Martinez and Raphael Varane, United have centre-backs who consistently dominate defensive duels and are protected by a defensive midfielder in Casemiro with the same quality.
This has mitigated some of the issues caused by De Gea not being proactive off his line because in situations where many defenders could concede chances, United’s defenders have been able to curtail their threat. Nevertheless, as the team looks to improve, it is necessary for the goalkeeper to be more proactive.
This can also be seen from set-pieces. United have a tendency to be vulnerable from corners where the opposition loads the six-yard box, largely because De Gea is not dominant in his own area.
Once again, this requires his defenders to be in control of more space than they would otherwise need to be and makes their remit more difficult. Several games where United have conceded multiple goals, such as their 4-0 drumming at Brentford and their 2-2 draw at Camp Nou feature opposition goals or chances from these exact scenarios.
Finally, De Gea’s limitations on the ball hurt United’s build-up abilities. In their 2-2 draw with Leeds United, the on-ball limitations of Varane were exploited by allowing him the ball in certain areas and aggressively pressing other players. The Frenchman brings tremendous stability to the backline and merits a starting role, meaning Ten Hag has had to work around these deficiencies in games where United have been pressed high.
However, those workarounds are compounded by De Gea’s inability to play out. Even when under minimal pressure, he tends to panic and can either put the ball out of play or, worse, give it directly to an opposition player. This requires United’s centre-backs, mainly Martinez, to start extremely deep in the build-up and forces the team to progress through more territory to enter dangerous areas.
It makes sustaining attacks harder since playing back to the keeper usually means giving the ball away. Finally, it also means United have less variety in their build-up, making it easier for opposition teams to prepare to stifle their build-up.
David De Gea’s limitations in the build-up and reactive goalkeeping style make him a misfit in Erik Ten Hag’s Manchester United. The recruitment structure and hierarchy above Ten Hag seems to have largely deferred to him with transfer decisions. As brilliantly as Ten Hag is doing on the pitch, his success will be determined by the competency of those above him.
Loyalty to a player’s past glories should not plague the club’s decision making, and the club should look beyond De Gea’s salary and past virtues and recognize the need for a new goalkeeper.