David de Gea’s mistake for the first goal was wretched, an aberration. But it was the role that he played in Brentford’s second goal in this 4-0 thrashing that should worry Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag more.
With the centre-backs offering options left and right, Christian Eriksen showed for the ball in the centre. De Gea made the wrong choice. his slow pass towards the Dane was seized upon by Mathias Jensen and raised further doubts about the goalkeeper’s distribution.
De Gea recognised his error when fronting up afterwards.
“Maybe I have to read the game better and kick it long,” he told Sky Sports.
“I tried to play when I should not play it to Christian. But, of course, we always try to play, we always try to have the ball. But sometimes like today they press one against one over the whole pitch. I should read it better.”
The problem for De Gea is that he is 31 years old and has played almost 500 games for Manchester United over the past decade. His game has long since been established and it has been a successful one too. It has just never included an emphasis on his passing.
Contrast his passing accuracy with that of the goalkeepers at the two best teams in the Premier League. The Brazilian duo of Ederson and Alisson have completed 85 per cent and 84 per cent of their attempted Premier League passes, respectively.
De Gea’s figure is just 62 per cent.
That is not because he is so dramatically inferior when it comes to completing simple passes. The disparity can largely be explained by the fact that for much of his career he has not even attempted those passes, looking long much more frequently.
Ironically, Ten Hag wanted him to go long at Brentford – but only after dragging the opposition up the pitch. “We said, ‘Invite them in and play long.’ We attracted them. The space was high and we had to choose that option. That is what we could not do.”
Ten Hag added: “They followed my instructions but they made bad decisions.”
With De Gea, whether the pass is short or long, that decision-making, every bit as much as the technical demands of the role, will be the challenge for him this season.
The concern will be that he will not adapt well to this style of play.
De Gea has been encouraged to change his game before.
Louis van gaal, the previous Dutch coach in charge at Old Trafford, wanted him to be more comfortable in possession. His goalkeeper coach Frans Hoek overhauled the training methods at the club, integrating the goalkeepers much more than before.
Hoek reckoned that it was normal for goalkeepers to do around 50 per cent of their training away from the outfield players. He sought to change that, upping the integrated training as high as 90 per cent. Speaking to Hoek about this, he suggested that De Gea resisted.
“If you are used to doing things a certain way all through your career and that way has made you become the goalkeeper of Manchester United and I bring you out of that then you are going to wonder what I am doing and why I am doing that,” he told Sky Sports.
“I can tell you that the goalkeepers did not like that.
“It was completely different to what they were used to. I was very stubborn because for me there was only one thing that counted – progression in the game. The problem was that the isolated practice was not always improving them. In fact, it was even making them worse.”
De Gea’s passing game has evolved over time. In his first season as a Manchester United player he completed 56 per cent of his passes. Under Van Gaal, that rose to 64 per cent. Ten Hag will want that to be higher and there have been signs of it in the last two games.
But there have also been mistakes. De Gea’s reaction to them will be important.
Against Brighton, his passing accuracy was over 80 per cent – not that far off Ederson levels – and he began at Brentford in similar style. That pass to Eriksen in the 18th minute was his fourth short pass of the match. His pass completion rate was up at 80 per cent again.
But after that error, De Gea reverted to type. He attempted only one more short pass in the next 40 minutes, preferring to hit the ball long and minimise the risk. Only one of his long passes found a Manchester United team-mate. His success rate dipped to 56 per cent.
“You can have a plan, but we put the plan in the bin,” said Ten Hag.
When Pep Guardiola took over at Manchester City, his first major decision was to change his goalkeeper. He believed that Joe Hart was not suited to the style of build-up play that he wanted to see from his team. It was a controversial move and not an instant success.
“The demands of the game change what we want from a goalkeeper,” said Hoek.
Will the Manchester United goalkeeper be able to match those demands?
“It is the beginning,” said De Gea. “We have a lot to learn.”
That is an understatement.