How many rare errors can somebody make before the word ‘rare’ no longer applies?
David de Gea, the absolute model of consistency when pulling on a Manchester United shirt, has suffered the kind of run of form playing for Spain that would see many a fellow goalkeeper thrown to the lions.
Mistakes will always punctuate the career of a number one but it is generally the frequency that is considered the ultimate barometer of a keeper’s value. And while on that scale De Gea is possibly the greatest club goalkeeper of the last five years, he is rapidly developing a reputation at national level for failing his side with too great a regularity.
The high-profile error which saw him spill Cristiano Ronaldo’s speculative effort into the back of his net in the 3-3 World Cup draw against Portugal on Friday is far from the first from the 27-year-old when donning Spain colours in recent times.
In March he misjudged the bounce on Nicolas Otamendi’s header for Argentina, allowing it to go between his separated hands as he dived. Then in the warm-up clash with Switzerland earlier this month he failed to hold Stephan Lichtsteiner’s tame cross-shot and Ricardo Rodriguez tapped in.
After that error he had told the Spanish press: “Better now than in Russia.” But that not only glossed over the problem, it also did nothing to address the mistakes he had also made in La Roja’s disappointing Euro 2016 campaign in France when he was last on the big stage.
With a matter of minutes remaining against Croatia, and Spain destined for top spot in their group, De Gea conceded at his near post to Ivan Perisic when attempting to block with his feet rather than dive towards the strike. And in the very next game he got caught in two minds dealing with Eder’s free-kick and his bungled stop allowed Giorgio Chiellini to sweep home Italy’s first in the Spaniards’ 2-0 quarter-final loss.
Whether judging De Gea in the present context or the historical big-game context his record at international level has not been good enough. He has made three vital errors in the last four national team fixtures, three in three in tournament matches.
Spain’s new coach Fernando Hierro has insisted that De Gea’s place is not up for grabs ahead of their second Group B clash with Iran in Kazan on Wednesday though, telling the media on Monday: “I see David being very calm and he has all our confidence in full. Players need confidence and support at all times and my decision is clear.”
That backing came against the backdrop of concerted negative opinion from the Spanish media in relation to De Gea, particularly one scathing attack from AS’ Alfredo Relano who decried comparisons between the United number one and Spanish legend Iker Casillas.
The tone there is quite pointed given that Casillas was for so long the captain and leader of Real Madrid, the club De Gea very nearly joined in 2015 and to whom he has been linked constantly over the three years since.
With each inexplicable error that has occurred since then there have come the questions as to whether it is a mental issue, with his head being filled with the Madrid talk rather than the fundamentals of his job. Yet he has turned in season after season of exemplary work for United in that time, and it is in that environment that you would expect his concentration to be most affected if that were truly an issue.
In the national team setup there ought to be no such issue, but it is here where he has come unstuck. Some in Spain have spoken of De Gea’s hyperopia – farsightedness – as being a contributory factor in his dip in form, but again that doesn’t explain why it would affect him at a far more frequent rate when playing for Spain than with United.
The theory that he just doesn’t feel quite as comfortable playing in front of Spanish audiences might just be the most compelling. De Gea spoke of a distaste for the way the press in his homeland treats him after his error against Portugal.
“I don’t feel much support from Spain,” he told reporters. “My own criticism is bad enough. I would have liked them to defend me more in a difficult moment in my life, with an issue from outside the game.”
The lack of support on home turf surrounding the 2016 case in which he was accused of sexual assault may well have left a mental scar, one which has created a feeling of unease whenever he dons the Spanish jersey. It would certainly explain why there has been a very different David de Gea keeping goal for his country from the one wowing the world with his club.
Whatever the truth of it, United are not about to let De Gea’s difficulties with Spain cloud their judgement of him.
“It’s a mistake he doesn’t make with us… Player of the Season, fantastic performances,” United manager Jose Mourinho told RT after Friday’s game. “But that happens to the best. The good thing with the best is that in the next match he will be there, not afraid, confident to go and ready to help the team.”
And that is what Hierro and Spain are banking on. The hope is that against Iran and in potentially five more games to come, it will be the David de Gea of Manchester United between the sticks rather than the pale imitation they have had in goal of late.