Fernando Hierro has confirmed that David de Gea will start Spain’s World Cup last 16 match against Russia on Monday. The announcement came against the backdrop of fervent criticism of the Manchester United No.1, who again has endured a shaky start to a tournament for his country.
Spain would probably have taken all three points from their opening game against Portugal had De Gea not spilled Cristiano Ronaldo’s shot into his goal despite at first appearing to have it well covered. Since that incident, the scrutiny has increased from the press at home as well as from fans.
Any time a Spanish player has had to face the media this week, he has been asked about the De Gea situation. In general his team-mates – such as Isco and Thiago Alcantara – have been supportive.
"It is the most unfortunate position on the field that David plays in and if you haven't seen him in United or national team games, you should check him out," the Bayern Munich man stated. "Do some self-criticism as well and assess what a great goalkeeper he is.
"He's the best goalkeeper in the Premier League, he works like a f***ing animal and our confidence in David is huge but we have three great 'keepers."
There has been speculation that Hierro – who replaced Julen Lopetegui on the eve of the tournament – would see fit to bring in Real Sociedad’s Kepa Arrizabalaga for the Russia tie. But De Gea’s claim on the shirt remains secure.
"Yes, he will play," said the Spain boss. "I respect the opinions of everyone, but the one who makes the decisions is us, I have a lot of clear ideas for the match against Russia."
And rightly so. It is vital that Hierro persists with his No.1. A starting goalkeeper needs to be assured of his position and cannot be looking over his shoulder after every mistake.
This is De Gea’s second tournament as a starter since taking over from Spain and Real Madrid legend Iker Casillas. It is a big ask to come in and match the efforts of a man who won two European Championships as well as the World Cup.
Euro 2016 was an awkward campaign for Spain, characterised by a strange lack of belief. Back then De Gea was no different. There were misjudgements against Croatia - which arguably cost Spain top spot in the group - and Italy - costing them their place in the tournament.
But De Gea must be allowed to flourish in the Spain goal as he has for Manchester United. When he moved to Old Trafford from Atletico Madrid in 2011, De Gea was supported at every turn by Sir Alex Ferguson as a series of misjudgements blotted the start to his career there.
Gradually, he became the undisputed pick as the Premier League’s best goalkeeper. He has held his position in the Team Of The Season five times in all and is the current incumbent. He has pulled United out of the fire time and again and was named their Player of the Year last season for the fourth time. He has thrived there and his confidence has grown and similar needs to happen for Spain.
Mistakes happen to goalkeepers; no one is immune but it’s easier for a keeper to get on with his job when there is not a cacophony of criticism ringing in his ears before every game. De Gea needs the space and the confidence from his manager and his squad to get on with his work. Kepa is a promising goalkeeper but Spain are right to persist with their current No.1.
He will be aware, however, that improvements and adjustments can be made to his game. He faces far more shots for his club than he does for his country. His 115 Premier League saves in 37 matches last season averages out at just over three saves per game. For Spain in the qualifiers he made only 12 saves across nine games.
The number of shots on target faced in the Premier League last season averages out at about 3.8 per match, but that figure was down at 1.5 on La Roja's journey to the finals.
It means his concentration – when the time comes – has got to be spot on. He is expected to be a different style of goalkeeper in the national team and maybe working with Jose Mourinho has made that adaptability a little more difficult.
At United he is a shot stopper first and foremost. He is not an attack instigator like Ederson over at Manchester City. Last season he lost possession around 10 times a game as Mourinho put him under instruction to go long. That figure across his nine qualifying games for Spain was down at 3.6. There he is expected to look after the ball and be available for passes when the likes of Gerard Pique or Sergio Ramos need to go back to him.
He hasn’t shown many signs of being uncomfortable with those demands in the Spain team but it helps illustrate the details of the job he’s being asked to do. De Gea should not necessarily be judged in the number of goals he concedes. He is facing far fewer shots on target in the international game and so it’s about being alert to that one big chance when it comes.
The stakes are higher in the knockout rounds of course but Hierro has done the right thing in making sure De Gea goes into the Russia game with the full backing of his team-mates – and his manager.