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Out of time: David De Gea and the unforgiving game

No. 1 for 11 seasons, once irreplaceable, now another player seemingly passed by as the game goes forward...

Arsenal v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

“This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.”

It’s one of the most chilling lines from the acclaimed television show Mad Men. It’s an unsettling reminder of our capacity for detachment; wrestling with this realization alters every prospective action where detachment is a possible outcome.

For seven seasons, viewers of Mad Men got a peek into the social and cultural change ensuing in ’60s America and the inner lives of the staff at an advertising agency in Madison Avenue, New York – an institution that played its part in affecting this change. Where there’s change, detachment is always an outcome.

David De Gea is the latest casualty of European club football’s changing landscape. After 12 years of service, the Spaniard’s time at Manchester United has come to an unceremonious end. It has been coming; many would claim it has come too late. He leaves Manchester United with 545 appearances (the most of any goalkeeper in the club’s history), four Player of the Year awards, two Golden Glove Awards, and eight team honors.

I recently revisited the highlights of De Gea’s remarkable performance against Spurs in early 2019 when Ole Gunnar Solskajer was in charge of the club as interim manager. At the time, the Spaniard was reeling from an underwhelming campaign that included some high-profile howlers at the previous summer’s World Cup, but this performance promised a resurgence.

The game was a sliding doors moment in the club’s recent history — one which positioned Solskjaer as a candidate for the full-time job: a job he went on to occupy. This revisit wasn’t motivated by anything specific. I have a relatively sharp memory regarding most things Manchester United and don’t believe you can manufacture nostalgia – never mind for a recent event.

However, I didn’t recall Ashley Young bear-hugging De Gea, Ander Herrera expressing brotherly love and admiration for his compatriot, and Juan Mata’s frank bewilderment at what his great friend had accomplished during the post-match celebrations. Nor did I recall De Gea’s sincere unawareness of what he had managed in his post-match interview. I didn’t come to any new conclusion about De Gea’s incredible performance, but it made me see some of De Gea’s personality traits in a different light.

There was an oblivious charm to his demeanor in the post-match interview that was considered a virtue by most of us at the time, and his teammates’ reactions helped me tap into the feeling that was frequent for around five years. Many considered this unawareness a vice in his latter years at the club, and the admiration from teammates and staff also made handling his exit a delicate situation once it became clear that he had to be replaced.

Of course, none of this made replacing him as tricky as the contract that made him the highest-paid goalkeeper later that year, but reports suggest that his professionalism was appreciated by everyone at the club and was valued until the end of his departure, making the decision to move him on a difficult one.

With the proliferation of tactical principles and data analysis in the football media space post the renewal of De Gea’s contract, his shortcomings became more glaring and representative of United’s many issues in the post-Ferguson years. Mild irritation can quickly turn to resentment, taking the form of nasty trolling and an unending barrage of abuse in the age of digital change. De Gea isn’t the only one to have faced this, but it doesn’t make this development – on the ground or online – any less distasteful.

This is especially distasteful when a player attempts to add attributes to his game but isn’t cut out for it, as we learned last season. If these additions to his game were enforced earlier in his career, he might’ve been a better overall contributor, but I doubt it would’ve turned us from pretenders to contenders. I suppose we could’ve won more cup competitions, but De Gea’s errors in some of those cup games were of a more ordinary kind.

His most scathing critics will claim his lack of command in the box was too easily excused in his better years – that it was an oversight from those who claimed he was the best keeper in the world for periods of his time at Manchester United. His greatest advocates will argue that the tactical demands in those years didn’t necessitate some of the attributes demanded of keepers – that this is a revisionist take. Well, most historians will tell you that all history is revisionist, so make of that what you will.

The history books credit Hungary’s Gyula Grosics with the emergence of the sweeper keeper: a member of Magical Magyars of the ’50s. You could argue that the demands on De Gea were prerequisites for any top keeper of any era.

Still, even after Johan Cruyff’s proselytizing in the ’70s, Edwin van der Saar’s arrival in the ’90s, and the emergence of the ‘El Loco’ variety (Jorge Campos, Jose Luis Chilavert, and Rene Higuita), it wasn’t until 2020 that this hybrid between the ‘El Loco’ type and the traditional sweeper keeper of the Van der Saar variety felt like an essential profile for the top European clubs. More significantly, the incredible shot-stopping De Gea had built his reputation on had become a crutch, but even that was failing him lately.

David De Gea’s got his share of interests that endear him to me, like his love of nu-metal bands from the noughties and the popular Shonen anime Naruto, as few top-level footballers share a passion for the same. I should’ve known then that we were dealing with someone who isn’t the most receptive to changing times.

Goalkeepers are a strange bunch.

I doubt I’ll ever see anything like his 2017-18 season. Maybe with time, there’ll be a twinge in my heart when a goalkeeper makes improbable reflex saves with their feet and saves shots that are headed for the top corner at full stretch. But for now, David De Gea’s an ambivalent presence in my memory. Considering the direction the club’s heading in, I fear he might not be the only one.