MUFC Class of 2013 End of Term Report: Goalkeepers and defenders.
In England it is the time of year when teachers begin to reflect on the performance of individual students since last summer; have they met their targets? What went well? What could they do better? In a blatant act of procrastination I’ve put my own reports on hold and instead turned my attention to reflecting on the last nine months of Manchester United’s first team squad; starting with the back five.
I have evaluated every player who made a minimum of ten appearances over the season. For each I have followed a standard school report format: identified what I considered a realistic objective for the start of the season (OBJ), identified what went well (WWW) and even better if (EBI). Each player has also been graded. The judgments are based on performance against expectations and in no way should be considered a hierarchy of ability.
Sir Alex’s Goalkeeper Rotation is Based On Numbers, Not Names
The times when Old Trafford an automatic first choice keeper are currently a thing of the past. Recently, Peter Schmeichel (1991-1999, 398 appearances) and Edwin van der Sar (2005-2011, 266 appearances) made the spot their own and were outstanding amongst the sticks, amassing a wealthy collection of silverware in the process. ‘The Great Dane’ and ‘The Quiet Dutchman’ were true-leaders on and off the pitch even though they had completely different characters. Whereas Schmeichel imposed his physique over his rivals in the box and had a penchant for making ‘impossible’ saves, Van de Sar commanded the back-four by using his experience and intelligence, ‘Mr. Reliable’ was always at the right place and almost never made a mistake.
In addition, both legends enjoyed the tranquility of decent cover behind them when they missed the odd game. Raimond van der Gouw was Schmeichel’s understudy for several seasons, while Tomasz Kuszczak and Ben Foster played second fiddle to Van der Sar over a number of years. However, neither were ever deemed good enough by Sir Alex Ferguson to inherit such a pivotal position in the squad and ultimately were either sold or release. On the other hand, between 1999 and 2005 a breed of goalkeeper tried to consolidate themselves as United’s #1 but none of them possessed the attributes to do so. Mark Bosnich, Fabien Barthez, Tim Howard, Roy Carroll and bizarre signings such as Massimo Taibi and Ricardo López all failed to make an impact.
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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2-5-6-3. Back line Brilliance from United.
Last week, our back four was seriously at fault as Spurs cut through our defence like a hot knife through butter. This week, they turned it around and delivered a clean sheet which brought with it our first victory at St James Park since March 2009.
Amazingly, they did not just reply with a clean sheet but they also produced goals from Jonny Evans and Patrice Evra as the Red Devils took advantage of the Toon’s disorganisation at set pieces. Overall, it was an exciting display from the team as a whole who pleased Sir Alex with their play.
The Man Who Sir Alex Searched The Whole World For
Following a slightly hysterical baptism-by-tabloid, David de Gea has removed all doubt about his ability and potential. He is still only twenty, of course, and has lessons to learn, but after each performance, hacks like James Ducker of the Times and Patrick Barclay will increasingly wish they hadn’t gone for the easy joke at the young Spaniard’s expense.
So one game down and another engaging 37 to go as we seek a record 20th league title.