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From world's best to bang average: What now for De Gea at Man Utd?

00:00 SAST 2019/09/13
David de Gea Manchester United 2019-20
The Spaniard has seen his performances come under scrutiny over the past 12 months so is he really worth a new mega contract at Old Trafford?

Manchester United have a David de Gea conundrum. 

Their four-time Player of the Year and undisputed No.1 goalkeeper is yet to commit his future to the club and, with his current deal ending in 2020, there’s now the very real prospect they could lose him for nothing. 

But would it really be a disaster if the Spaniard were to leave? 

Cast your mind back to 2011 and that first unsteady season in England. De Gea became the subject of ridicule as he dropped catches left, right and centre and looked anything but a reliable presence in the United goal. Had Sir Alex Ferguson really got it that wrong? It certainly seemed that way at the time. 

A further season under the legendary Scot would, however, deliver a first league title as De Gea eventually started to settle down. Fast forward another few years and that flustered and flapping liability was quickly developing into one of the world’s finest goalkeepers. 

Indeed, United supporters will say De Gea has been the club’s best player in the years since 2013 - and rightly so. He has at times single-handedly won games for his side while others have wilted around him - who can forget that phenomenal performance in the 3-1 win over Arsenal in 2017 as the Spaniard saved an incredible 14 shots. 

But here we are, that same player who has performed miracles for United over the years appears as close to leaving on a free transfer as he is to committing his future to the club. So why the lack of urgency? 

The fact is that, while reports suggest he is finally ready to sign a new £290k-a-week contract, some at the club are undoubtedly still wondering whether he’s worth it. At 28 years of age, in what should be a goalkeeper’s peak years, are his best days already behind him? 

De Gea’s performances in the 2017-18 season were so astonishingly good that he was the main reason for United finishing second to Manchester City. Since then, however, there have been noticeable cracks and creaks in his usually polished displays with several high-profile errors costing his side. 

Did a failed move to Real Madrid have a lasting effect on his mindset and ability to perform? Has United’s general decline had an impact? It’s likely a bit of both. What's certain, however, is that it hasn’t been the same unflappably excellent De Gea as years gone by for a while now. 

When crunching the numbers, and starting with a look at the 2016-17 season, United came sixth in Jose Mourinho’s first season in charge but conceded only 29 goals - four fewer than champions Chelsea

It is in that campaign that De Gea was reasonably well protected by those in front of him - something that couldn’t be said for the years since. 

Based on Expected Goals, he saved about +5 goals based on the quality of chance he faced - roughly the same as Alisson did for Liverpool last season (+5). Six saves away at Manchester City in April was the United goalkeeper’s best individual game - a solid end to what was an impressive season for him. 

It was, however, no indication of what was to follow in 2017-18. 

"David de Gea was man of the match by a clear mile." That was Arsene Wenger’s reaction to the Spaniard’s incredible performance in United’s 3-1 win at Emirates Stadium and it wasn’t to be a one-off.  

The former Atletico Madrid man was imperious all-season long and, with almost 14 additional goals prevented (based on Opta’s xG model), it was one of the great individual campaigns in Premier League history. 

Then came the almost inevitable hangover but no one could’ve predicted it would be quite this bad.

A goalkeeper concluding a season with a Goals Prevented figure of -0.1 is pretty much as close to average as you can get and while for many players that would be a solid campaign, for De Gea that 2018-19 season was a massive disappointment.

As the map below shows, it was also campaign that revealed an increasing propensity for De Gea to be beaten low down to his right.

An 11-save masterclass away at Tottenham early in the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer era offered a timely reminder of what the Spaniard is capable of, but errors leading to goals against Manchester City and Chelsea in April ensured that the season ended on a low note for both player and club.

Even more painfully, Manchester City and Liverpool ended on 98 and 97 points respectively, both teams boasting Brazilian goalkeepers many believe are the world’s best. For all his positive attributes, De Gea is not in the same class as either Ederson or Alisson with the ball at his feet, while he isn’t able to execute a pass quite as effectively as his two rivals.

The current season may only be four games old but, worryingly for United, the mistakes that plagued De Gea in 2018-19 are creeping back in.

Based on xG, only Leicester have allowed their opponents lower-quality chances than United this season and yet De Gea is on -0.4 goals prevented already. What’s more, that right-hand side issue is as prevalent as ever, with Patrick van Aanholt’s late winner for Crystal Palace at Old Trafford in August the most conspicuous example.

If the 28-year-old does sign a new deal to remain at Old Trafford he’ll likely be the highest-paid goalkeeper in football history. It’s time for the errors to stop. It’s time for United to get the old De Gea back.