Time for Spain to drop out-of-form De Gea?

Following another high-profile error in Spain’s 3-2 loss to Croatia, we take a look at whether calls to exclude the Manchester United man from their starting line-up hold credence. 

The Spanish armada thought they had it done and dusted. They had every right to, coming back twice from a goal down to make it two goals apiece as the match went into extra-time. There seemed little to fear before Brekalo’s shot, seemingly easy enough to have held on to, was instead parried by David De Gea straight to Jedvaj’s feet – who duly obliged by scoring the winner for Croatia. A win would’ve ensured qualification for the Nations League Finals event as group winners, instead Spain are now sat biting their nails as England and Croatia battle it out at Wembley.

The debacle in Zagreb has thus put the focus back onto De Gea and his form for the national team.

With many international friendlies deemed dead rubbers even before they start, it is only fair to judge De Gea in competitive games – starting from the World Cup. His statistics in Russia don’t paint a very rosy picture as De Gea kept only one clean sheet in 4 games. Delving deeper, his stats were indeed as bad as they get, conceding 6 goals from 7 shots on target, making only a single save in the entire tournament. It’s an indication of how bad his tournament was that the only lasting memory he left on fans is his miscue from Cristiano Ronaldo’s shot in the opening match that gifted Portugal a way back in.

Even counting all the friendlies throughout the year, Spain and De Gea have only kept a total of 3 clean sheets from 13 matches in 2018. Although it’s not necessarily a problem given that World Cup winners France have kept only 6 clean sheets in 16 this year, what’s telling is the fact that France have kept clean sheets against top notch opposition – shutting out Belgium, Uruguay and Germany, the first two of which were en route to the World Cup finals. On the other hand, out of the three Spain have shut out, Croatia are the only team of note – Tunisia and Iran being the other two. While clean sheets are admittedly a collective responsibility, given that keepers are awarded the clean sheets – it’s only fair that they be judged on the basis of the same measure.

For his club too, De Gea’s form has been indifferent this season, keeping only a single clean sheet. He has let in 21 goals in 12 games and only two keepers have conceded more – Burnley’s Joe Hart and Cardiff’s Neil Etheridge, both belonging to teams in the bottom 5 of the league. While United’s defence is certainly leaky, De Gea hasn’t been been the bail-out hero of previous years this season. Even putting the stats aside, the very manner in which Sergio Aguero’s shot flew into the net up and over De Gea’s fingers in the Manchester Derby is indication that he is clearly not at his best. The three goals he let in against Croatia mean he has now let in 6 goals in his last 2, three with Lindelof and Smalling stationed in front of him – and three with Pique and Ramos.

What also calls for his exclusion from Spain’s starting eleven is the form of second choice Kepa Arrizabalaga, who moved to Chelsea for a world record fees in the summer. In stark contrast to De Gea’s who has conceded 6 in his previous two, Kepa has instead only conceded 8 goals all season. Even more interesting is the ease with which Kepa has transitioned to English football, again in contrast with De Gea who admittedly had a rough start to life in the Premier League. The Chelsea keeper is also clearly more suited to Spain’s possession – based style, with Maurizio Sarri implementing similar emphasis on ball retention at Chelsea. It is no coincidence that he makes more passes per game and less long balls than De Gea at United, who is by no means a bad passer himself. His ball-playing coupled with his easy adaptation to life in England definitely show he has the skills to fit into De Gea’s shoes along with the right temperament to keep his head in difficult situations.

All things considered, while De Gea’s poor stats this season are not entirely down to him alone, he certainly takes the lion’s share of the blame. It’s also interesting to note that he has notably been poorer for the national team than he has for United, having made no direct errors leading to goals for the Red Devils, despite the number of goals conceded. Thus, his bad record in spite of a relatively better defence in front of him certainly call his culpability in Spain’s disastrous year into question. Moreover, while United cannot afford to drop him, the Spaniards have a ready-made replacement already waiting in the wings.

With the pressure cranking up on him, ‘Dave’ has no choice but to buck up, and buck up fast.