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The stats suggest David de Gea is Manchester United's main man under Louis van Gaal this season
Last Updated: 05/03/15 7:52pm
With Louis van Gaal labelling David de Gea "unbelievable" after his latest fine performance in Manchester United's win over Newcastle, Adam Bate looks at the statistics that suggest the goalkeeper has been absolutely crucial to their improved form…
Louis van Gaal's defence of his team's cautious passing early this week was revealing. "You have to give the benefit of the doubt to your player and you have to support him," said the Manchester United manager. "When you make a mistake in defence, it is more or less always a goal against us. You have to see that also, the fans have to see that."
Van Gaal was attempting to justify Jonny Evans' decision to pass the ball back amid the cacophony of calls for United to "attack, attack, attack" but David de Gea could be forgiven if his ears had pricked up. The suggestion that United's defensive errors have led to "more or less always a goal against" them this season feels somewhat incongruous given the efforts of their goalkeeper.
According to Opta, Manchester United have made 25 errors leading to shots on their goal so far this season. Only Everton have made more defensive mistakes of this kind. But while that's directly led to 14 goals against Roberto Martinez's side, United have been punished only twice. Only Chelsea have been so fortunate to concede from a lower percentage of their errors.
But fortune is not a concept to be throwing around where De Gea is concerned. There is a perception that a team has been 'bailed out' when a goalkeeper saves his side that doesn't seem to exist in quite the same way when a defender makes a tackle or a holding midfielder makes a move to cover an opposition runner breaking through the lines.
Luck or skill?
Manchester United have made 25 errors leading to shots on their goal this season but conceded from only two of them
Evidently, Van Gaal believes that De Gea’s brilliant contribution represents nothing more remarkable than a quality player doing his job well. "I think he doesn't save many points because he is my goalkeeper and his obligation is to hold balls," said the Dutchman recently. "And if you are thinking that is an exception for other goalkeepers and it is not like that, I am sorry for that."
But is it a coincidence that United have been seen to be riding their luck defensively this season? The statistics on clear chances missed reveal a similar pattern. Opta defines a clear chance as “a situation where a player should reasonably be expected to score, usually in a one-on-one scenario or from very close range” and yet when it comes to facing United, the numbers are astonishing.
Only one team has conceded fewer goals from their opponents’ clear chances. However, that is not a reflection of the defensive organisation of Van Gaal’s team. After all, only three teams have seen their opponents squander more clear opportunities against them as well. The average conversion rate of big chances in the Premier League this season is 42% but against United it’s just 28%.
De Gea factor
Identifying the myriad of possible reasons for that is tricky but it’s impossible to ignore the De Gea factor. The young goalkeeper with unquestionable agility and ever-increasing poise has been in top form all season and played a vital role in claiming the points on Wednesday thanks to his late save from Newcastle’s Papiss Cisse.
It’s not the first time that United have required him at his best to secure the points. There was an early save against Sunderland’s Connor Wickham last weekend and QPR’s Charlie Austin was denied twice in January. Most memorably, De Gea’s performance in October’s 2-1 win over Everton was something of a one-man show culminating in a wonder save to deny Bryan Oviedo.
The Spaniard boasts the second best save percentage of any regular Premier League goalkeeper and those shot-stopping credentials have been combined with a growing reliability. While the only man with a better save percentage, Sunderland’s Costel Pantilimon, also has two drops to his name and an error leading to a goal against Hull, the stats show De Gea has been blemish free.
David De Gea, this year, is unbelievable.
Louis van Gaal
As a result, despite being a Van Gaal favourite, Victor Valdes hasn’t got much of a look in on the United bench. “David De Gea, this year, is unbelievable,” said the manager on Wednesday. “In my career I have had a lot of good goalkeepers. For example, Edwin van der Sar was one of my goalkeepers and Valdes also with Barcelona, but De Gea is having a great season.”
However, it’s what happens next season that is a source of concern for United supporters. While this first year at the helm has been seen as a rebuilding job by Van Gaal, it’s been a construction reliant on the foundation which De Gea has provided. Reports linking the keeper with an imminent return to Spain would undermine the view that next season will bring inevitable progress.
Another summer spending spree should help and a full pre-season of work with Van Gaal might be expected to bring further incremental benefits. But the fact that De Gea’s current contract expires next year casts a shadow. For all the focus on the team, one man can make a difference.
When Robin van Persie fired in 26 goals in his debut season, he was widely credited with having won the title for United with much focus on the points that he’d picked up for the team. Although Van Gaal prefers not to see his goalkeeper’s work in those terms, De Gea’s eye-catching displays offer a reminder that games are won at both ends of the field.
For instance, in the 3-0 win over Liverpool in December, the contrast with Brad Jones was marked and De Gea’s significance was not lost on team-mate Juan Mata. “It's tough to find anyone better than him,” said Mata. “He's been in top form since the beginning of the season and has saved a lot of points for us. We have to keep working so we don't need so many saves from him… We have to get better in that regard.”
Nearly three months on and the rescue acts continue. Manchester United supporters might be hoping they won’t be needed in the future. But they’ll be equally anxious that David de Gea will still be in the United goal ready to make them for many years to come.