Every title-winning season review DVD features a segment congratulating the manager for rotating two keepers regularly every time one makes a mistake. Every great side down football history has been remembered for having two fantastic goalkeepers, working perfectly in tandem while only playing half the games.
Back in reality, winning sides are built around a solid spine, and the man between the posts is a vital part of that. As Ferguson tries to build another great team, getting the goalkeeper right is essential, as he discovered when he signed Peter Schmeichel.
And in David De Gea, Manchester United have someone who could become a superb no.1. But rather than showing faith in what is undoubted talent, his confidence and form has been scuppered as he sits on the bench waiting for Anders Lindegaard to make an unfortunate error so he can take his place in the starting line-up again.
I’m all for managers attempting to rip the rulebook up and trying something different. Without changing ideas we’d be sat watching a 2-3-5 formation every week. But this isn’t that radical from Sir Alex – afterall, he’s tried it before. I’ve desperately tried to forget the dark years of rotating Tim Howard and Roy Carroll in 2004 and 2005, and yet the last year has brought them all rushing back. It failed then, and there is absolutely no evidence that, seven years on, it’s suddenly morphed into a stroke of genius. In fact, all the evidence points to exactly the opposite.
We’ve got goalkeepers with rock-bottom confidence, an uncertain and confused defence, and we’ve kept one clean sheet in the Premier League this season, at home to Wigan.
The continued chopping and changing of De Gea and Lindegaard is extremely frustrating, and to be honest, difficult to fathom.
Patrice Evra recently explained that no Manchester United player feels safe from being dropped because there is currently a large squad of talented players all vying for places. As he himself said, perhaps last year there wasn’t enough of a challenge to players in some areas of the squad.
Certainly with Evra, this subject has probably been done to death. Throughout last season, I read countless articles and twitter conversations bemoaning the fact that the Frenchman had taken his eye off the ball and was only keeping his place because there was no one else. The arrival of Buttner at the start of this campaign has seen the subject revisited as fans hope that particular issue is now resolved.
Yes, if a player has a consistent loss of form, and for a run of games leaves fans uttering regular expletives, his place being taken by an exciting back up is an excellent option. Everyone needs a kick up the backside occasionally.
But goalkeepers are different. They don’t run around for 90 minutes twice a week and need a rest, and they don’t need altering to match the other team’s tactics. A keeper’s confidence, form and focus is improved through consistent starts.
Additionally, there is a big difference between three ineffectual games, and one isolated mistake which can instantly leave an important player excluded.
Torres open goal misses aside, mistakes are amplified at the back. As a general rule, if a striker misses one obvious chance, he and the team can make another, which he may well go on and score.
If a goalkeeper makes a clanger, it’s probably a goal to the opposition, and the team finds themselves behind. Suddenly the complexion of the game has changed. Ashley Young had a goal chalked off for offside at the weekend, which was much maligned. But in two weeks, will many people remember that clearly? Probably not. Yet Lindegaard’s errors against Reading remains fresh in the mind.
Given the annual defensive injury curse has started early this year, and fans had already seen Carrick deployed as a centre back before the end of August, the confidence that comes with a settled goalkeeper would have been vital. Vidic, Ferdinand, Smalling, Jones, and Evans have already had spells on the sidelines, so the back four is uncertain at best. Much has been written of the damage done to United’s title hopes last season by a constantly changing rear guard which was unavoidable then and continues to be so, but voluntarily messing about with what should be a settled face behind them smacks of folly.
When United signed De Gea in 2011 for a fee of around £17m, Ferguson said: “We identified him quite a while back as one we should go for. He’s young, very quick, good composure, presence and an outstanding replacement for Van der Sar.”
That’s a fantastic testimony, and a large fee suggests that he was prepared to put his money where his mouth was. And yet the slightest mistake and De Gea is relegated to a very expensive benchwarmer.
In that quote, Ferguson acknowledges that De Gea is young. It’s escaped no one’s notice that he was only 20 years old at the time, and United bought potential on top of an impressive start to his career at Atletico Madrid.
He’s a sensational shot stopper. Against Everton, what now looks like an unfortunate loss on paper could have been a much heavier beating without his intervention. Restored from the bench against Galatasaray, he made a late double save to keep a clean sheet and ensure the three points.
While it is fair to point out his command of his box, particularly on crosses, isn’t consistently good enough yet, that is something else that won’t improve from the bench. It also won’t improve through the occasional start in the Capital One Cup against Newcastle’s reserve strike force, until the late appearance of Cisse. Sir Alex says he wants to give both keepers experience of the Premier League, but De Gea’s experiences with added referee protection in Europe and in “lesser” cup competitions domestically just doesn’t provide the same learning curve.
With Anders Lindegaard, you are supposedly blessed with a “safer” option. Perhaps an advantage in commanding the box, but what is safe about sacrificing world class saves? Not to mention inheriting dreadful distribution. With the Dane, it seems as if every ball has to go out to the centre backs, because his accuracy isn’t good enough to try any further. Against Tottenham, we saw perfectly how much pressure this puts the defence under when forwards press high up the pitch. De Gea can pick out a winger and start a counter attack. With Lindegaard, that poor distribution can give the opposition a chance to continue the pressure that United should have just alleviated by getting the ball back!
Realistically, I’d still be unhappy if Lindegaard was chosen as Ferguson’s first choice permanently, because I think De Gea is a better long term option. But if Sir Alex thinks the Dane is a better bet, then stick with him, and give him his chance to turn into the keeper that a great United side will need.
Be bold, make a decision and stand by it through the tough times. One squad will struggle to develop two young keepers to a world class standard. And United need one.