How David De Gea has become one of the Premier League's best goalkeepers
Hopefully, David De Gea's right leg will still be slightly sore following the save he made from Mario Balotelli towards the end of Manchester United's 3-0 victory over Liverpool on Sunday. For one of De Gea's predecessors in the Manchester United goal, that pain represented one of the best feelings as a goalkeeper.
Peter Schmeichel remains the man every Manchester United goalkeeper is compared to, and he was famed for spreading his body, using every part of his anatomy to deny opposition strikers in one-on-one situations -- a trick he learnt from his teenage years playing handball. One save, against the same opposition De Gea thwarted on Sunday, is one of his favourites.
"Stan Collymore was put through on the right, just inside the corner of the area," Schmeichel recalls in his autobiography. "He knew where the goal was, but he didn't know where I was because I came rushing out towards him. Just as he was about to volley, he saw me. He struck the ball perfectly, and I threw myself straight at his shot. The ball hit me right on the thigh.
"Naturally it hurt a bit. I swear I had a bloodshot impression of the ball on my thigh for the next two months, caused by the violent impact ... that sharp burst of pain is welcome because it tells you your efforts have been successful ... it's a great feeling to feel the ball hit you in the leg."
For Collymore, read Balotelli -- that comparison could be an article in itself -- and for Schmeichel, read De Gea. It wasn't such a forceful shot, it wasn't De Gea's best save of the game, it wasn't even his best save from Balotelli, but it represented De Gea's improvement most accurately. The Spaniard has always been capable of full-length, acrobatic saves -- one, from his compatriot and future teammate Juan Mata against Chelsea was probably the turning point of his United career -- but he always seemed too timid in certain situations. Now, for a variety of reasons, he's considerably more commanding.
Football skills can be divided into four categories: physical, technical, psychological and tactical. Over the past three seasons, De Gea has improved in all four respects.
The biggest improvement has been his physical development. De Gea arrived in English football as an incredibly slight, rather timid goalkeeper. He was agile rather than athletic, and weighed only 70 kilograms. He needed to change his lifestyle: his diet needed improvement, and more importantly he started lifting weights for the first time. It's helped when dealing with crosses, but it's improved his success rate in one-on-one situations, too, and perhaps it's partly the reason so many strikers have fired straight at him in recent weeks. As Schmeichel says, a goalkeeper "needs a certain level of robustness in order to make the opposition respect him ... it's of huge importance to me that my opponents are intimidated by my presence between the posts."
Technically, De Gea is also much better. As Gary Neville highlighted excellently on this week's Monday Night Football, there's been a marked improvement in De Gea's stance, especially in one-on-one situations. The best goalkeepers stay on their feet for as long as possible; weaker goalkeepers go to ground quicker, giving the striker more of the goal to aim at, and longer to make their decision about where to shoot. In fact, you didn't even need clips of 2011-era De Gea to see the importance of this concept. The performance of Brad Jones, who went to ground early for two United goals at the opposite end on Sunday, told the story.
In a psychological sense, De Gea seems more comfortable now, too. He's an interesting character and had a difficult transition to life in England. In addition to the usual problems settling in England, he was unsettled by tabloid press intrusion into his private life, had to cope with his girlfriend remaining in Spain, and instead lived in England with his parents. His father, in particular, seems an important character to De Gea. He's a former goalkeeper himself, and used to accompany De Gea to training sessions with Atletico and gave him feedback after sessions, but this wasn't possible at United. De Gea appears to need a certain type of environment off the pitch.
On it, too, he's simply more confident; it shines through, particularly when dealing with crosses. The most fascinating stat from Neville's in-depth analysis was that De Gea's catch-to-punch ratio is 92 percent this season, up from 56, 69, and 92 percent in previous campaigns. Even this was something Schmeichel struggled with, and this relates to tactical improvement, too.
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"I was used to the idea that high crosses delivered from the wings were my balls. I thought I could transfer to English conditions without any problems," said Schmeichel. "But I realised that it was quite normal for strikers to make physical challenges in the air, and I wasn't used to that. I slowly began to accept that I would have to adjust my style of play."
That adjustment to English football has been vital. It's worth remembering that De Gea already looked outstanding at Atletico Madrid, where his only apparent weakness was a vulnerability to long-range shots. English football requires different challenges, and as someone who knew relatively little about the Premier League upon his arrival -- he had no idea about Stoke's long throws, for example -- it took around a year to adjust his approach.
In England, fans, pundits and players relish the fact foreigners find the style of play difficult, and there's a peculiar fetish for newcomers struggling with the physicality. Cristiano Ronaldo, another who progressed incredibly over the course of six seasons at United, is another obvious example. However, if this seems cynical and occasionally jingoistic, there's also huge respect for the players who manage to adapt. Ronaldo was initially mocked for his flimsiness, but later was recognised as the Premier League's best player.
Arsenal's Robert Pires was left on the bench for his first Premier League game, away at Sunderland, because Arsene Wenger "needed him to understand how matches are played over here."
Pires was taken aback. "After 25 minutes I was at a loss. I'd never seen such thunderous tackling, all studs up with arms flailing; how was I going to make my mark in this type of football?" By the end of his second season, he too had been recognised as the best footballer in England. More recently, the likes of Luka Modric, David Silva and Theo Walcott were also questioned for their lack of physicality, but became highly respected once they toughened up.
It's unusual for a goalkeeper to face this situation, but De Gea has experienced a similar development: he was a weak link in his early Manchester United days, but is now tougher mentally, tougher physically too and has been one of the Premier League's best performers so far this season. United still have plenty of problems under Louis van Gaal, but with developing youngsters in the back line and others gradually adapting to English football from more technical leagues, De Gea is an obvious role model.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.