David de Gea: The people’s choice
Diplomatic and idiosyncratic, Anders Lindegaard has a lot to be liked for. He is popular enough amongst fans: he’ll remind you that he’s not at Manchester United to “pick his nose”, and that his career has developed in the way of a “fairytale”, that he’s got “calmfidence” and plenty of it, and that he’ll love to have even “one seat” named after him (in response to Sir Alex Ferguson’s very own stand and statue). But what’ll ultimately pull him down is that he’s not the most popular. And it’s not that he’s not good enough, it’s just that he’s not as good as …
The people want David de Gea.
Sir Alex Ferguson, September 2012: “I am happy alternating them. That’s the policy I am adopting and I am happy with that situation.”
Sir Alex Ferguson, November 2012: “I am not happy to rotate [the goalkeepers] all the time — I don’t think that creates consistency.”
People change their mind all the time. And there’s nothing wrong with it, largely. When Sir Alex first told of his desire to rotate his goalkeepers, and then went ahead and put it into practice, United fans hoped he would see the apparent danger of it all sooner. His recent decision to put this rotation on hold would have been welcomed but for one thing: he’s chosen the wrong number one. Or so the consensus believe.
What has swayed things in Lindegaard’s favour, other than De Gea’s fitness, is that, according to Ferguson, there is no “actual reason to leave Anders out in terms of form.” But it is easy to object to ‘form’. How important is form? And just how in-form is Lindegaard? The answer to the latter is not very — he’s played a handful of games, for one, and probably not near enough to either justify even his temporary security nor a starting place ahead of the superior De Gea. Additionally, the goalkeeper’s efforts in the four games he’s played since De Gea’s last (excluding the Reading visit because the manager’s comments preceded it; more of which, of course, later) are simply not noteworthy enough, except in the defeat suffered at Galatasaray, where Lindegaard showed himself to be confident and competent — a good number two, in other words. The other three looked like this: another 1-0 defeat, this time at Norwich and two comfortable wins over QPR and West Ham where Lindegaard only had to make a single save in each.
This is barely an indication of an in-form player but that’s not to act as criticism, though it might seem to some (some) that the real reason the Dane is playing is because he just happened to be the last one in goal when it was decided that there would be no more rotating. Which brings us on to the first question on the importance of (good) form; you generally play the one who is performing better, even if the other is held in higher regard. However, it isn’t one of those situations. Which then means that De Gea should start if both are available. And if we’re going by form this season, also just a handful as if happens, De Gea edges it on those he’s played.
“I am going with Anders at the moment because he has not let me down,” Ferguson would say a day before Saturday’s 4-3 win over Reading, tempting fate as if on purpose. Lindegaard looked troubled and barely touched the ball inside the first half hour — except for when he had to trudge back into the net and pick the ball up. Three times. He was not culpable for all, nor was he fully responsible for any particular goal if we were to consider what could have been contributed defensively. Still. “He’s in a position where he can collect the ball,” said a blunt Gary Neville on Monday Night Football, analysing Reading’s second and third that started from Nicky Shorey’s corners — Nicky Shorey! — and ended up in the back of the net. Neville pointed out how crucial it was for Lindegaard to “dominate the box”, mostly because it would reassure his team-mates that he had control.
There is a certain irony in Lindegaard failing at what has lazily been presented as his main selling point — that is, being able to do what his Spanish counterpart cannot. De Gea would have instead rushed out for at least one, if not both, and punched the ball to safety, shortly before being chided by a typically disgruntled co-commentator for not catching it.
Whether the rotation policy itself really affects goalkeepers could never be proved outright, but logic would suggest it doesn’t. “It keeps us both sharp,” Lindegaard told MUTV last year, on this precise subject. “It makes us both better.” Two immediate responses to that would be, well, he has to say that and, second, he would still prefer to be the indisputable number one. It also made sense to rotate back then. United had two new goalkeepers and both were settling in. Once that time had passed, a clear winner emerged. Post-Christmas, De Gea was near-flawless and had what was justifiably his.
All of this, you might suggest, is simply a fuss over nothing, and a fuss too soon. That may well be right, but this is a problem beyond what the manager might say, beyond who plays tomorrow, or next week or next month. United need to settle on one goalkeeper because, above whether rotating is a hindrance or quite the opposite, it is clear who their best goalkeeper is. And it isn’t Lindegaard; but, in his defence, and get this, the man who he’s up against is pretty damn good.