David De Gea's form and focus make error vs. Portugal inexplicable
KRASNODAR, Russia -- Anyone who tries to say "It's like this and there's no other explanation" about a goalkeeper who can make a brilliant save on a header that travels at 57 miles per hour across five yards in 0.18 seconds but then let's a weak Cristiano Ronaldo shot dribble past him at tortoise speed is lying.
Whether or not you had David De Gea ranked No. 1 in the world before that error against Portugal, his second in three games for Spain, the absolute truth lies neither in that utterly sensational display for Manchester United at Sevilla in this season's Champions League nor in his practically inexplicable error that turned a match that Spain were dominating with panache into one in which they had to overturn a 2-1 deficit.
But I'll give you some forensic truths about this normally world-class keeper.
For example, if you set aside his rather friendly spooning of the ball into the path of Switzerland's Ricardo Rodriguez at the Madrigal in Spain's penultimate pre-World Cup friendly, there had been no clues he was going to gift Ronaldo a goal.
I've been able to watch most of De Gea's training here in Krasnodar, and he's been in notably good, happy and focused form.
While he, Pepe Reina and Kepa all fight to establish their agility, their sharpness and their intensity under the training regime of Spain's keeper coach Jose Manuel Ochotorena, the vibes have been good. No blunders, the kind of jokey banter that flows from camaraderie, rather than hostile competition, and a clear sense of belonging from the United's Golden Gloves Premier League superstar.
When De Gea participates in the infamous passing drill they call "El Rondo" -- where one or two unfortunates in the middle must chase possession while the circle of eight, nine or ten play "keep ball" -- he's as deft at receiving or deploying the ball to his left, right or centre as any of La Roja's outfield players. Betraying the fact that, as a kid, he was a striker.
If he'd decided to take Ronaldo's trundling shot on the outstep of his right boot, flick it up, head it, chest control it and then volley it away off his left then the chances of an error would have been lower.
More truths now. I interviewed De Gea about 48 hours before that 3-3 draw with Portugal that, errors aside, will be recalled as a modern World Cup classic. Albeit one that means there is firm pressure on the 2010 world champions to either beat Iran in Kazan on Wednesday or fret over a second consecutive premature exit from this great tournament.
During that chat, it was perfectly clear that he was focused on not just excelling personally but trying to help his country win this trophy again. Did the sacking of one of his mentors, Julen Lopetegui, disappoint or distract him? I'd bet yes to the second but plead "impossible to say" to the first.
What was clear from De Gea's demeanour, words and a little chat when the camera was off, was that he feels that this is Spain's second golden generation in the space of a very short time span. Okay Xavi, David Villa, Xabi Alonso, Carles Puyol, Carlos Marchena and Marcos Senna are no longer available. But De Gea fits with Thiago, Isco, Koke, Nacho, Dani Carvajal, Rodrigo (and the absent Alvaro Morata) as guys who've already won trophies at club and junior international level.
He's not sated, not concentrated on the transfer market, not overrated. So, what the hell happened?
First, he'd already made it very clear, long before it might be viewed as an excuse, that he's not a great fan of the current ball.
Not only did he find it hard to read the movement in that moment when Switzerland equalised in Villarreal a couple of weeks ago, he told Spanish journalist Javier Matallanes: "Really, I don't want to talk about the tournament ball very much except to say that each time the new design seems to make it harder for us goalies. But it's the same for everyone, we need to get used to them in our training and then just get one with things."
A grown-up point of view. A grown-up reaction, too, when De Gea immediately faced up to the Spanish media on Friday as they shadow boxed with him about whether he had his mind on matters with the new Spanish prime minister, who De Gea thinks should apologise publicly to him for things said to the media two years ago.
They prodded away at De Gea about whether he thought he might be dropped, they fretted about why he considered, as he does, that he's far more appreciated and understood in England than in Spain. But the United man just kept batting things away with confidence, calm and articulacy. There are, sadly, some who seem to want him to have a tough time.
De Gea's parents were among the relatively few family members who'd flown down to Sochi to watch the game. A painful night, a painful thought for him as the match went awry for him. It's no wonder he thanked Fernando Hierro for his words on the pitch to a TV reporter that Spain are a family and they won't leave one of their own for others to take potshots at. Subsequently any number of his teammates, starting with Koke and Nacho and reaching an apogee with Sergio Ramos's very bullish tweet that success only stems from having to learn to cope with errors, stepped forward to vigorously defend him.
And perhaps there are some logical things to conclude here, whether or not they are directly relatable to his error against Portugal.
At United he is forced to make saves much more regularly than for Spain. Involvement and the demand for focus seems to suit him. He's not just a participant, he's a main protagonist.
At United he knows, evidently, that not only is Jose Mourinho willing to leave him out from time to time but also that Sergio Romero is terrifically competitive when he starts. The school of hard knocks at Old Trafford, compared to the fact that De Gea is far and away the No. 1 choice for Spain, may be something that stimulates and suits him better.
For now, that situation is both unavailable and irrelevant. Iran await, and the stimulus must be that another costly error would leave both him, and his national team, with much more significant wounds.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.