Can Goalkeeper Rotation Work?
Sir Alex Ferguson’s policy of rotating his goalkeepers has led not so much to controversy but consensus in the goalkeeping world. Friends and colleagues of mine – professional goalkeepers and goalkeeper coaches – all seem to feel it’s a mistake, that the only way to go is pick one keeper and stick with him (De Gea is the overwhelming favourite among this group, though Lindegaard does have his supporters).
I shared this opinion through the early stages of the season, and felt De Gea was being harshly punished for a single mistake against Fulham which could be argued was a foul. I worried, as did others, that De Gea’s confidence could be badly affected by being dropped.
But because Sir Alex has tended to know what he’s doing over the years, I’ve re-thought this in recent weeks, and can see the possible benefits of rotation – at least short-term.
Some Spanish journalists and coaches seem to feel that De Gea, far from being mentally fragile, tends to become comfortable and casual a bit too readily, taking unnecessary risks in games and losing focus. While dropping him for one mistake is indeed harsh, if nothing else it will have demonstrated to him that playing for United is Very Serious Business.
By the same token, it has rewarded Lindegaard for hard work in training (according to Eric Steele) and good performances in the reserves. This kind of competitive dynamic in training can only be a good thing. Any goalkeeper coach would love his charges to be competing furiously for the number one shirt. It makes for committed, spirited training sessions, which both De Gea (young) and Lindegaard (not many games for his age) need.
The other potential benefit of rotation is a simple lessening of pressure that comes from fewer games. A full season’s huge fixture list can be mentally daunting, even for keepers who protest that they want to play every game. Playing for United means every point matters. For a pair of keepers still finding their footing in the Premier League, rotation means every game is an opportunity to impress, rather than just another in a long slog of a season.
Now, having said all that….I’m still a skeptic. My worry is something that manifested in De Gea’s last league appearance, away to Newcastle. Clearly aware that the main concern about him is his ability to deal with crosses, he was far too eager to impress, and came charging off his line for several balls he had no business dealing with. This is the downside to a goalkeeper being forced to audition for his job every game. It is a reactive, rather than proactive, position, and a United keeper, especially, has to be content to stay in the background when not called upon. This basic job requirement is in direct conflict with a keeper too eager to make his mark.
It may simply be that Sir Alex is waiting for one of the two to play so well that he has no choice but to put an end to rotation. But then, it’s hard to play exceptionally well while being rotated. My money is still on De Gea long-term – his issues with crosses can be sorted out with better decision-making – but we may not have a clear resolution for quite some time.
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