David De Gea – Player Analysis

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Manchester United have been abysmal in 2021-22. You know it. I know it. Everybody knows it. But despite their team woes, a few key individuals have continued to go about their business and perform to reasonably remarkable heights. No one more than David De Gea – who has had one of his greatest seasons in a Manchester United shirt, just one year after losing his place to Dean Henderson. David De Gea has been exceptional in 2021-22, regaining his illustrious reputation as one of the best keepers in the world, and pulling off saves like it’s 2015 again. So with that, we bring you our David De Gea Player Analysis, and finally discuss both the strengths and limitations of one of the greatest goalkeepers in Premier League history.

WHERE WOULD UNITED BE WITHOUT DE GEA?

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It’s no secret that Manchester United are enduring one of their most difficult and disappointing seasons in years. As a consequence of their poor defending, lack of cohesion, and lack of style of play to personnel fit, David De Gea has been required to make more saves per 90 (3.4) than any other season he’s spent at Manchester United, apart from his first year the club (3.62). Despite those requirements, he’s boasted an impressive ‘Post-Shot-XG minus Goals Allowed’ of +7.5. This essentially means that he’s saved seven goals more than he should have done. He’s also saved three penalty kicks this season, after going five years without saving a single one. That 50% record from the spot (3/6) gives him the highest percentage of penalty kicks saved this season, level with West Ham’s Lukasz Fabianski, who has actually only saved 2/5 (the other he faced completely missed the target). In terms of both Post-Shot XG-GA and ‘Goals Prevented’ this season, De Gea ranks second in the league, behind only Wolves’ Jose Sa. But you don’t need to be a data scientist to recognize just how imperative David De Gea has been in 2021-22. The quality of his saves, when all the odds are stacked against him, has been of the highest level in the league this season. This is imperative for a Manchester United team that have been leaking shots for fun.

Across his 34 matches this season, whilst playing every minute of Premier League action, De Gea has made 116 saves. That equates to 3.4 saves per game, and an impressive saves per goal ratio of 2.27. Last season, the United legend made just 58 saves, with an abysmal saves per goal ratio of 1.81. It’s no wonder why Dean Henderson replaced him, and the Spaniard’s confidence would have been shook having lost his place. But David De Gea pulled up his goalkeeper pants, fought those mental scars inside of his head, stole back his place, and has now had one of the most memorable seasons of his career.

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He’s evidently not the perfect goalkeeper in all regards given his unique style of play, but De Gea has been vital to keeping United afloat, and (somehow) still in the fight for the top four. This season, above all others, has cemented and solidified David De Gea’s legacy as one of the greatest Premier League goalkeepers of all time, and perhaps even United’s greatest ever No.1.

THE FALL, FOLLOWED BY THE RISE

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For the last few seasons, it’s been well documented that David De Gea has been on a steady decline. At one stage in 2020-21, it even looked as though he had reached a point of no return, with his confidence hitting rock bottom. The fact that he’s turned that around so vehemently in 2021-22 showcases his mental fortitude, and how he’s actively worked on battling the voices in his head. Besides, for a goalkeeper at one of the biggest clubs in the world, where the limelight is always amplified one hundred notches and more, it can be easy for a player to lose confidence.

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David De Gea found himself a scapegoat at Old Trafford for much of their woes the past few seasons, similar in some ways to the confidence of Harry Maguire at the minute with all the media attention surrounding his defending. The fact that the Spaniard didn’t save a penalty since the start of 2016 speaks volumes to that confidence in and of itself, and I will personally never forget how shattered his confidence looked even before he hit that ball in the Europa League final – the crucial kick that handed the trophy to Villarreal. To come back from that alone is difficult, and the Spaniard undoubtedly put in work behind the scenes to regain his confidence. Now in 2021-22, De Gea looks mentally stronger than 99% of the Manchester United players. He recognizes his stardom in the side, and his capacity to single-handedly pull his team out of trouble.

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That has given De Gea the confidence to go on and post up world class saves week in and week out, even in front of a shaky defense and a high line that leaves massive gaps between himself and anyone else that could help the situation. Importantly, De Gea recognizes his strengths as opposed to his weaknesses, and never makes any attempt to be something that he is not. While United fans would love for the Spaniard to come off his line and sweep in behind the defense, De Gea knows that he’s best closer to goal, pulling up phenomenal saves in between the posts.

NOT THE PERFECT SPECIMEN!

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For all of his strengths as a player, David De Gea was by no means created in a science lab to be the perfect specimen. When it comes to sweeping in behind a back-line, De Gea is just about one of the least active goalkeepers in the world. Just a few weeks ago in our Burnley analysis, I pulled this graph out to help readers comprehend the difference between Nick Pope’s sweeping in behind a low-block structure, to De Gea’s activity in behind a much higher line, with greater necessity for sweeping.

Preferring to involve himself once the ball progresses into the eighteen rather than outside of it, David De Gea has made the second lowest number of defensive actions outside the penalty area this season of starting keepers (0.24 per 90). Lukasz Fabianski, the other shot stopping specialist who’s saved 50% of his penalty kicks this season, is the only starting keeper that ranks lower (0.18) and Alex McCarthy is the only other in the league with a lower ratio (0.20).

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Furthering this debate, only a select few goalkeepers (Fabianski included) have made their defensive contributions closer to goal this season than De Gea (averaging 13.9 yards). In other words, when the 31-year-old comes off his line to challenge opposition players 1v1, the average distance of those endeavors tends to be five yards inside of the eighteen yard box. In contrast, Nick Pope‘s average defensive actions situate outside the eighteen (18.1 yards).

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De Gea’s lack of desire to sweep is not necessarily a weakness in his game, but it is a hole worth recognizing. Stat sites like FBRef only started compiling things like sweeperhood (we’re starting that as a trend if anyone wants to jump on board) in 2016, so we can’t necessary compare this iteration of De Gea to the ghost of his younger self. What we know is that the Spaniard has consistently ranked toward the bottom of the pile in sweeping statistics since the 2016-17 season, showcasing it’s not just down to physical limitations of his age (as it might be for a player like Schmeichel or Fabianski).

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Nevertheless, the ‘lack of desire’ as we call it, potentially stems from a few key weaknesses that the Spaniard may possess within his physical make-up in comparison to other keepers. He doesn’t bear the same imposing figure or muscular strength as an Alisson, Ederson or Manuel Neuer. Similarly, the speed at which De Gea is able to get off his line is nowhere near as quick as the players mentioned above, or someone like Robert Sanchez at Brighton, who seemingly always comes to the rescue in a blink of an eye when it matters most for the Seagulls.

With these slight physical limitations, it’s possible that De Gea simply backs himself more to stay rooted to the spot, recognize his position in between the posts, and prepare for the shot closer to goal. There are examples that can be found (just like any dichotomy in life) where De Gea comes off his line to magnificent effect. There’s a recent one against Teemu Pukki in the 3-2 win over Norwich, where he wastes no time in making the decision, commanding his penalty area, and confidently stopping the shot.

His starting position is strong (in front of the six yard box), he keeps his arms low and ready to adjust to any swift moves, and he then reacts immediately with a quick swing of the entire body as Pukki pulls the trigger. It’s also worth mentioning that he correctly assesses the situation and recognizes that the nearest defender is never going to get there, and that he needs to act quickly to avoid any further retribution. Essentially, this is the David De Gea United fans would love to see more of. He makes the decision, goes for it, and it pays off not only instantly, but magnificently.

If he could back himself to come off his line and take 1v1 situations into his own hands (or feet) more often, he’d easily be right up there with the likes of Neuer, Ederson and Alisson in the discussions for best goalkeeper in the world. De Gea might arguably even be a better shot stopper than all three, but he’ll never be able to match the sweeping ability or distribution of the others, and that’s what holds him back from fully entering those discussions in the modern era.

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What’s that we say? Oh, yeah. De Gea’s distribution presents another hole in his game, and this time it’s a genuine weakness rather than a tactical decision. From passes over 30 yards, De Gea’s passing percentage rates mediocrely at 47.1%. When you study goal kicks alone, he rates slightly worse in percentage (36.9%). You could claim that these low percentage points have something to do with the aerial strength of De Gea’s teammates. It may be fair to say that Burnley’s forwards are simply more likely to win aerial duels than United’s. But that argument doesn’t really hold water when Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the greatest headed goal-scorers of all time, is your star striker.

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The average length of his passes (35.3 yards) also illustrates De Gea to be a goalkeeper slightly incapable of hitting that dream pass from deep – in a similar vein to what the likes of Jordan Pickford or Ederson Moraes can accomplish. That shows in the fact that he’s made just 1 pass into the final third this season. To bring that into context, Pope and Pickord rank among the best in the world in that regard for keepers, with 41 and 40 passes into the final third respectively. When you break that down on a per 90 basis, the two keepers are completing more passes into the final third each match (1.32 and 1.33 respectively), than De Gea has all season long. Even the man that we’ve touted as similar in style to the Spaniard in Lukasz Fabianski has completed 10 passes into the final third this season. When it comes to long passing and “distribution”, the best in the world have a seamless mix of timing and ability. David De Gea essentially has neither, and it shows in full form in the stats.

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Similarly to his sweeping endeavors, De Gea also ranks low when it comes to commanding his penalty area and claiming crosses. This may have something to do with a lack of confidence to bring that level of command to his team, or again, his self-awareness of his own physical capabilities. The problem that this presents for United is also lower than it would be for other teams, given that Maguire and Lindelof rank as one of the best partnerships in the league when it comes to winning aerial duels and commanding crosses into the box. Bet you didn’t know that one.

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But even despite the relative success of his teammates in making up for his desire to stay on the line, it must be noted just how low the United keeper ranks when it comes to making his mark and helping his team in this category. With just 3.1% of his crosses claimed this season, only Watford’s back-up keeper Daniel Bachmann ranks lower. It’s clearly not just down to willingness and desire, but confidence and ability. This feature of his game is in stark contrast to his shot stopping capabilities, which have been of the highest order this season.

THE QUINTESSENTIAL SHOT STOPPER

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Before we make this article an unintentional full-blown criticism of De Gea’s game, we must also remember what De Gea brings so magnificently to Manchester United. This feature has been a hallmark of De Gea’s game over the years at Old Trafford, pulling off some of the greatest saves I have personally ever seen in my lifetime. At the end of the day, this is the most important quality for any goalkeeper to possess. An ability to save shots is paramount for any keeper, and it’s what makes De Gea an utter anomaly in the beautiful game. A master of the foot save with cat like reflexes, De Gea’s long wingspan and far reach helps him pull off all kinds of staggering saves.

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While we knocked his muscular capacity earlier on, there’s no denying that the Spaniard possesses an uncanny ability to push fastballs wide or away from goal. His intelligence in understanding where to push or punch a shot, within milliseconds of needing to make a decision, is unrivalled in the modern era. This ability remains unchanged regardless of distance away from goal – possessing remarkably quick reflexes from up close, and adequately reading the situation to adjust his feet in dealing with shots from range. So with that, let’s all marvel at some of the goalkeeper’s standout saves over the years.

I can visibly remember getting out of my chair in awe at saves like the remarkable right-handed punch in the Manchester derby (1:45), or the way he threw himself off the ground to leap up in the air against Everton (2:35). For a stretch of time around 2013 and 2016, there was no other keeper like him in the Premier League. From watching these clips, you can see how much he loves to lead with that right hand of his, but the evident quality he still possesses in pushing chances away with his strong left (3:57). The understanding of when to use his stronger right-hand as opposed to his left is immaculate, and perfectly illustrates his intelligence as a shot stopper. While the above video is fantastic, it doesn’t even do justice to his incredible stopping ability with his feet, where he has his technique down to perfection in planting the knee and leading with a strong other foot.

Regarded as one of his greatest games, De Gea made eleven saves against Spurs in this fixture back in 2018-19. The embedded highlight reel showcases that uncanny ability to a tee. In 1v1 situations, he keeps his happy feet dancing and on the move so that he can easily adjust at the time of the shot, and then quickly throws out a leg to strongly carrell the ball away (8:18). His ‘X’ shape as a goalkeeper (a commonly used keeper technique for handling 1v1’s) is usually timed to perfection, where he makes himself big without over-spreading his arms. Keeping his arms low allows the 31-year-old the advantage of reacting to either high or low shots, and a greater ability to adjust as the attacker makes a move. Simultaneously, he makes himself big by keeping an upright position and letting his tall frame cover key areas of the goal. On longer shots, such as the Kane chance at 9:13, the Spaniard strongly plants his feet, and recognizes that the only way he can get there sufficiently and strong enough is with his big toe. This is one of the best saves on the day, standing out for not only the power behind the save, but the intelligence that it illustrates.

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When it comes to pulling off saves, particularly the extravagant ones that look destined for goal, I can’t name a single player in the world that I would back more confidently than David De Gea. This is what makes the United man a unicorn in the modern age, and why he’s held down a place as United’s number one for over a decade now. While you could certainly improve on his distribution, cross claiming, and sweeping, there’s no one better at the art of shot stopping. It’s to the point where David De Gea deserves to be right up there with the legends of the game, and realistically, should have a statue built in his honour when all is said and done at Old Trafford. This season has only cemented David De Gea’s legacy at Manchester United, as their unequivocal Player of the Season in a painfully difficult year.


So there it is! Our David De Gea Player Analysis, covering not only his strengths, but limitations as one of the greatest goalkeepers to ever grace the Premier League. Be sure to check out more on Goalkeepers, more Premier League articles, Player Analyses, and of course, don’t forget to follow on social media @mastermindsite using the links below. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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