There’s something deeply strange about seeing David de Ge make a mistake these days, partially because Manchester United fans are so accustomed to the Spaniard saving his team’s collective bacon with mercurial saves on a seemingly weekly basis. De Gea may have won the club’s Sir Matt Busby Award four years out of the last five without any stiff competition, but he’s fully deserved it every time, starring as the team’s most consistent world-class operator in a team that has frequently flattered to deceive. Capable of inhuman reactions and responses, we’re so used to De Gea pulling off remarkable saves that when he messes up, it feels like our eyes are playing tricks on us.
Which was why De Gea’s gaffe against Portugal in Spain’s World Cup opener felt so strangely out of place, like it didn’t belong. Even given the source, Cristiano Ronaldo’s speculative strike from outside of the area was hardly a thunderbolt, and far from unstoppable, but squirm through, it did, bouncing off his gloves and into the net like an excitable salmon. It didn’t end up being a terminal error, and Spain ultimately had only themselves to blame for the eventual 3-3 draw after conceding a late free kick that Ronaldo eagerly walloped in, but the reaction and level of criticism to De Gea’s mistake has been surprising.
Spanish outlet AS ran a poll in the aftermath of Friday’s match, and the result was that 49% of voters wanted Kepa Arrizabalaga, Athletic Bilbao’s ‘kepper between the sticks for Wednesday night’s game with Iran. The fact that De Gea’s status as Spain’s no.1 was even under question after one error says volumes about the overly reactionary attitude in his home country, and why, after years of being pursued by Real Madrid, he might just fancy staying in Manchester for a while longer.
“I don’t see much that they support me from Spain,” De Gea said after the Portugal game. “My own criticism is bad enough. I would have liked that they defend me more in a difficult moment in my life, with an issue from outside the game. I am happy with the support from the manager and the lads.”
Of course, the Spanish public and press haven’t had the luxury of seeing De Gea pull off ridiculous saves for their team on a consistent basis, so their attitude and impatience isn’t completely without basis. It’s a different story at United; its fans and its staff trust the man implicitly. How can you not after the stops he produces? It’s impossible not to feel deeply indebted to the man when you think back to his highlights from this season past; stopping Luis Muriel’s point-blank header against Sevilla, that insane double-stop to deny Alexandre Lacazette and Alexis Sanchez at the Emirates, tipping over Sergio Aguero’s close-range effort against Manchester City…De Gea was on fire last term, and is truly worthy of the title of the world’s best goalkeeper.
Perhaps he just needs to remind his country of why people rate him so highly. Perhaps a few huge stops in Spain’s final group game with Morocco on Monday, or potentially in the knockout stages will serve as a reminder of the player’s qualities. There was little for De Gea to do against Iran, in truth; after Saeid Ezatolahi’s second-half strike was correctly ruled out for offside, the former Atletico Madrid shotstopper had one punch to make in stoppage time as Spain held on to their one-goal lead. Stiffer tests will arrive in this World Cup if Spain progress, surely, and it’s inconceivable that some sections of the Spanish public wouldn’t want this player to be between the sticks for them.
As mentioned, this impatience and lack of support might explain De Gea’s reluctance to leave Old Trafford. AS, Marca and the rest of the Madrid-based press aren’t exactly the most rational bunch (just ask Gareth Bale), and knowing the scrutiny placed under each player to perform at the Bernabeu, along with the fickle nature of Real’s fanbase, perhaps United’s no.1 simply doesn’t fancy moving. Life at United is hardly free of pressure, but after seven seasons, he’s established a deep level of trust, and, as mentioned, has been the club’s one truly consistently world-class performer in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era.
De Gea’s performances for United have created a seemingly unending line of credit with its fans, so even the occasional error will be forgiven. It might take some time for him to build that up with the Spanish national team’s following, however given their reactionary nature, and that behaviour might also be a key factor in his desire to remain firmly in Manchester.
Oh, well. Spain’s loss is most certainly our gain.