David de Gea stood alone, rather confused, as Arsenal celebrated. Granit Xhaka had just made the Manchester United goalkeeper look rather foolish, much in the way a fast bowler can do with a batsman in cricket.
The reverse swing on the midfielder’s speculative 30-yard shot beat the Spaniard all ends up. He went one way, the ball went the other. It appeared a glaring mistake, one which proved costly for United who went on to lose the contest at the Emirates 2-0.
“David de Gea made a big mistake,” Gary Neville said after the match. “For that, Manchester United have lost the game.”
His Sky Sports colleague Jamie Carragher offered a rebuttal. He pointed out how the trajectory of the ball shifted late and significantly. Neville wasn’t having it, though.
And that’s fair enough. Football is a game of opinions, after all. However, Neville then went on to state De Gea’s form this season has been affected by off-field matters.
“He must have had a lot of noise in his ear,” the former Manchester United defender said in reference to the goalkeeper’s protracted contract talks. “He’s not been at his best this season.”
Was Neville too harsh? Perhaps. De Gea has produced big saves – think back to his wonderous stop against Sevilla earlier in the campaign – and match-winning performances, such as that against Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley.
There is a debate as to whether the Spain international has been at his best this term, though.
Last season – as we looked into in the video below – De Gea performed miracles on a weekly basis for Manchester United. Without him between the posts, the Red Devils would have likely missed out on the top four entirely.
Such overperformance was unsustainable, however. There would inevitably come a time when De Gea would revert to the norm. And that is what has happened.
Last season, the Manchester United No.1 was dramatically impacting United’s results. By March alone, according to Football Whispers‘ model, United had claimed 13 additional points compared to if they’d had an average Premier League goalkeeper, based on him conceding at a rate lower than the expected goals (x) value of the shots he faced would suggest, with around three goals conceded for every 4.0 xG faced.
This term, though, De Gea isn’t having the same effect. He is now merely performing in line with what would be expected of the average goalkeeper based on the xG he is facing, rather than exceeding it. He has become middle of the road. Par for the course.
And that is the problem. De Gea hit such lofty heights last season that what he has done during the current campaign is seen as substandard.
So, in a sense, Neville is right: De Gea hasn’t been at his best this season. But that doesn’t mean he has been bad or is in poor form. He is performing at the level expected, a feat many goalkeepers across the world would be delighted to achieve.