No one is safe at Manchester United.
Not even their 2021-22 Player of the Year; the same man described by Ralf Rangnick as “one of the best goalkeepers in the world – if not the better”.
It’s fair to say that David de Gea and the United defense were busy last season. He faced the league’s third-most shots (181) – only Leeds United’s Illan Meslier (223) and Leicester’s Kasper Schmeichel (184) made more – but De Gea did a good job of keeping his opponents from a distance. Looking at the shot save data, only three goalkeepers have prevented more goals than him.
But the Spaniard has a challenge awaiting him when pre-season training begins on June 27. Among the many changes expected under new manager Erik ten Hag – not to mention upcoming signings – the focus will be on a possession-focused philosophy of possession. Soccer.
This is why the Dutchman was appointed to Old Trafford, and there will be demand for players to join. The starting goalie, of course, has to be first on this list.
Speaking to several players who worked under Ten Hag at former club Ajax, all point to his obsession with accurate passing, and that will become clear to the United squad as soon as they start training for the new season. When first-team training ended at Ajax, Ten Hag would often stay on the pitch to oversee the academy teams and senior players could hear him giving the same instructions and encouragement he came from their give to younger groups.
The long-standing philosophy of football at Ajax demands that players take exquisite care of the ball – and Ten Hag is no different in this regard.
He will expect a United goalkeeper to be comfortable in possession and able to start passing sequences from behind.
The ultimate goal is to create patterns with the ball and provide more tools for his team to start any movement on the front foot. At the same time, Ten Hag remains open to players who are creative and take a less obvious path, such as driving the ball downfield to break lines or playing a long pass to disrupt the opposition’s defensive setup.
Goalkeeper Andre Onana and defenders Matthijs de Ligt, Jurrien Timber and Lisandro Martinez are among the players who have excelled under Ten Hag due to the ease with which they fit into his system, and their ability on the ball and play key roles. in building Ajax.
De Gea has many areas of his game in which he excels, but distribution and his role in United’s build-up game is not one of them.
Whatever doubts there might be about this aspect of the 31-year-old’s game, inside the dressing room at Old Trafford the goalkeeping hierarchy is clear.
Dean Henderson was his assistant last term and the Englishman’s chances of becoming United’s No.1 are considered very slim, although his natural game suits Ten Hag’s preferred style better. Henderson likes to get out of his zone to intercept passes and communicates loudly with his defense.
United realize that keeping the 25-year-old as a No.2 for a second season would not be ideal and that he wants to play regularly, so club officials are ready to listen to offers for him. But so far clubs have shown some reluctance to buy a goalkeeper who hasn’t played regularly since the final weeks of the 2020-21 season and they prefer to wait before committing to another loan. with just two allowed between Premier League teams. .
Promoted Nottingham Forest are one of the teams interested, with the future of their first choice Brice Samba uncertain, and one possibility is that Henderson will move there on loan, with the winners of last season’s play-off final having the option of a move. to buy next summer. . Newcastle have also been credited with an interest, but sources close to the club suggest any discussion is on the back burner.
United signed former England international Tom Heaton last summer as a free agent and the 36-year-old could become De Gea’s No.2 should Henderson leave in this window.
De Gea was in fine form last season, as the Players’ Player of the Year award suggests, and those who know him well point to the positive impact becoming a father to daughter Yanay in March 2021 has had on him. .
However, there is also the feeling that he was never pushed to expand his skills as a goalkeeper.
De Gea has no wrong touching with his feet, with Spain team-mates often impressed in training when he shows up during free-kick drills. Being a proactive goalkeeper, however, involves a lot of other things: being aware outside the box, leading the back line and preparing your body form for any potential scenario.
Even after nearly 500 United appearances and 45 caps for Spain, De Gea still has room to improve.
That’s why Luis Enrique kicked him out of the last two national teams, in favor of Brentford’s David Raya, who is five years younger and more adept with the ball at his feet.
De Gea hasn’t played for his country since October 2020, a 1-0 Nations League loss to Ukraine. He found himself in the spotlight that night after being caught out of position on the counter-attack which led to Viktor Tsygankov scoring a late winner.
He is not happy to have lost his place in Spain, and his disappointment is not limited to the composition of the national team. De Gea has been put off by some of the goalkeeping training at United in the past, particularly when top coaches arrived and had little impact in helping him take his game to the next level.
Coaches in Spain’s youth ranks who worked with De Gea when he was much younger also noticed a lack of development in technical areas, which could have been improved with specific training.
A disappointing season for United overall in 2021-22 will not have helped, as the club parted ways with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in November but saw little improvement under caretaker manager Rangnick in the second half of the campaign.
Those close to De Gea are sure he will be ready to learn and adapt to Ten Hag’s style. He’s a real team player and someone his teammates can count on, as he showed on and off the pitch last season.
Although he still doesn’t like speaking English in public despite more than a decade in Manchester, De Gea felt he had to move on and take on media duties at some of the lowest points of the season. from United.
“It was a shame on our part. They (Everton) wanted to play more and that’s not acceptable,” he said after a bad 1-0 defeat at Goodison Park in April.
De Gea has not escaped criticism. Few people at United do. But now it’s time for him to take on the challenge of a new manager and a new style.
Ten Hag will expect De Gea to play a bigger role in building United than he has in the past.
It is up to him to show that he is up to it.
(Photos: Getty Images; design: Sam Richardson)