How David de Gea Can Echo Schmeichel's Influence at Man United


We traditionally build footballers up to knock them down. David De Gea, rather ingeniously you might suggest, appears to have bucked that trend - doing things in reverse by taking his battering first, and his buttering up later. 

Cast your minds back to early 2012 and De Gea's credentials were being widely questioned after a howler against Blackburn Rovers at Old Trafford gave the visitors a 3-2 win. Anders Lindegaard was a safer, more reliable option, argued many, citing De Gea's inconsistency, his indecision and his inability to cut out basic errors.

Still just 21, De Gea remained boyish in more than just his appearance. There was a hesitancy in his goalkeeping and an apparent reluctance to grasp the huge opportunity past his way. United hadn't paid Atletico Madrid £18 million to have De Gea send over crosses in the warm-up. He was bought as Edwin van der Sar's direct replacement and, with the Dutchman gone, he started the 2012-13 season as Sir Alex Ferguson's man in possession.

Ferguson knew only too well how important Van der Sar's succession would be. Signing Peter Schmeichel in 1991 laid the foundation for a dynasty to follow, but when the Great Dane left in 1999 - after winning the Treble - Ferguson struggled to find man worthy of wearing his gloves.

"We had a bad period trying to replace Peter Schmeichel,’’ Ferguson said in 2013. ‘’It’s maybe not my strong point. It wasn’t until we brought in Edwin that we got back to the level we had with Peter."

Signing Schmeichel was the second big goalkeeping decision of Ferguson's reign at United. In the 1990 FA Cup final replay against Crystal Palace, Ferguson made the highly controversial call to drop his regular keeper, and good friend, Jim Leighton. Les Sealey took his place and Leighton, having started 45 times that season, was left to watch on as United ran out 1-0 winners.

Ferguson's ruthlessness had been brutally exposed. You might also argue it was the moment he truly realised how important the man between the posts was for his team's success to follow. That man, from 1991 to 1999, would be Schmeichel.

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It's hard to undersell the influence Schmeichel had on Ferguson bringing the good times back at United. He was more than just a shot-stopper with frightening reaction speed; more than the upright bear who would make the goal seem tiny to onrushing forwards; and more than the commanding presence who plucked balls out of the sky and thundered through anybody who dared get in his way.

Schmeichel set the tone. His constant berating of defenders and bellowing of instructions was the rhythm to which United maintained their defensive discipline. You'll have read in the last few days that Roy Keane headbutted Schmeichel once (you might call that a badge of honour), but he also "respected" him. And he respected the fact that Schmeichel covered up that incident for the good of the team.

"Defenders also had to get used to the verbal volleying he would give them from time to time, but he only did that because his heart was in it and he was always an absolute winner," Ferguson said.

But for all Schmeichel's heroics between the sticks - that save at Newcastle; a sprawling dive to his left at Liverpool; the penalty stop against Dennis Bergkamp that kept the Treble dream alive in 1999 - Schmeichel had his early De Gea moments too. There were high-profile mistakes, and his penchant for sprinting off his line at every opportunity gave the suggestion he was too reckless to be reliable.

Even Schmeichel had his critics, but he never had anything short than an unflinching belief in his abilities. It was fitting that his United career should end in glory - and just minutes after he had come up for a corner, as his team desperately sought an equaliser against Bayern Munich in the Champions League final.

The big question now is whether De Gea might echo Schmeichel's influence, by underpinning an era of success under Louis van Gaal and serving as the constant to set his own, very different, tone for United.

In some ways De Gea and Schmeichel are a different species of goalkeeper. The Spaniard is meeker, unquestionably, and not nearly as imposing as Schmeichel - either verbally or physically. And yet they share remarkable reflexes, and a natural flair for making saves they have no right to make.

More importantly, based on reports of De Gea's commitment to extra training and a special diet, they also appear to share a drive to be the best they can be. 

Both Schmeichel and Van der Sar made mistakes at United, as all goalkeepers inevitably do. Both have also made a point of defending De Gea and suggesting the real measure of a young keeper is not what they get wrong, it's how they put that right. 

De Gea has proved himself rather adept at that. As one writer pointed out recently, it's perhaps no longer a question of whether De Gea can make a career at United. It's more about whether United can convince him to stay.

De Gea is 2.80 to keep a clean sheet in his next game at West Brom

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