David De Gea Ballon d'Or nomination a reminder of world class status
The nominations for the Ballon d'Or served as a healthy reminder that David De Gea is still at Manchester United.
Well, perhaps that's a ridiculous exaggeration -- it's just that a casual observer, looking at the regularity with which United are running up 4-0 scorelines, might think that being their goalkeeper is not the most challenging of jobs. To some extent, they might have a point -- De Gea's workload is significantly less than that of, say, Everton's Jordan Pickford. But it's notable that De Gea is the club's only nominee for the award, which shows how high he kept his standards during Jose Mourinho's first season.
That season, some might point out, was one where he found himself under particular pressure, and so he had more opportunities than most to prove his worth. Yet in a season where Mourinho and United just about emerged with credit, his contribution was vital. This was a campaign, after all, where his forward line again struggled for pace and goals, and his defence struggled for consistency -- so much so that Marcos Rojo eventually ended up as a crucial member. Though Rojo's efforts in central defence were superb, his prominence was a sign of how makeshift United's backline had become.
And behind them all was De Gea. Even though Sergio Romero did very well under Mourinho, even keeping goal in the Europa League final win over Ajax, De Gea again played almost 50 matches. During that time, he turned an immeasurable number of moments of panic into safety, and helped his goal-shy team to salvage draws. It is possibly easy, as he begins his seventh season for United, to understate his importance to Mourinho's team, to become complacent about it. If so, that is because De Gea has become so good in his position that he is no longer someone United have to worry about.
There was a time when this might have been unthinkable -- when he first arrived at Old Trafford, say, and looked less than comfortable under high balls. But then he grew, in both muscle mass and self-confidence, and was soon seen getting the best of some of English football's most physical forwards in their aerial duels. Now, he is routinely regarded as one of the top five goalkeepers in the world, and may one day go on to be viewed as one of the game's greatest.
The fact that he still only has 26 caps for Spain is due to the brilliance of his predecessor, Iker Casillas, more than anything else; the good news for him is that he looks set to wear that shirt for years to come. At United, too, it looks like he once again has the elite team that his talents deserve, and which he was -- recently and perhaps understandably -- looking to join at Real Madrid.
This season, De Gea is not so often under a barrage of shots from the opposition, but he continues to make exceptional saves at key moments. Of course, there is far more to him than keeping the ball out, but it remains his key strength. We can see this by comparing his performance every 90 minutes with that of the goalkeepers from some of United's closest rivals in the Premier League -- Manchester City's Ederson, Chelsea's Thibaut Courtois and Tottenham's Hugo Lloris. At first glance, he seems most confident in coming to claim high balls. Ederson punches the ball 0.62 times per 90 minutes, followed by Lloris (0.43), then De Gea and Courtois (both 0.14). By comparison, De Gea catches the ball the most (2.86 times per 90 minutes), compared with Ederson (2.15), Courtois (1.71) and Lloris (1.14).
In terms of passing statistics, Ederson stands out, which you would expect from a coach with Pep Guardiola's attacking philosophy. Ederson has so far completed 85 percent of his passes, some way ahead of Lloris (77 percent), Courtois (69 percent) and De Gea (64 percent). In De Gea's defence, it could be argued this is because he is expected to pass over greater distances -- Mourinho being a greater fan of the pragmatism of the long ball. Whatever the case, De Gea and Courtois both have an average pass length of 42 metres, with 32 metres for Ederson and 29 metres for Lloris.
Where De Gea distinguishes himself, though -- and where you can see the clearest evidence of the form that saw him nominated for the Ballon d'Or -- is in the category of shots saved per goal conceded. Here, per 90 minutes, Lloris makes 1.4 saves for every goal he concedes; Courtois, 2.8; Ederson, 4.5 and De Gea, 7.5. This is a statistic which suggests United's large margins of victory are not as convincing as they look. It also suggests that De Gea is remarkably good at remaining a high level of concentration even though he is not occupied for long periods. This recalls the old anecdote about Peter Shilton, who was so focused during one particular game that when he left the field, though not having made a single save, he was drenched in sweat.
Though De Gea may not be catching the eye as much as he was last year, he is still a crucial foundation of any success that United promise to enjoy. It is his consistently outstanding play that has helped Mourinho to rebuild his squad's confidence so quickly -- and, should he ever be pursued by Real Madrid or Paris Saint-Germain, they would most likely have to offer a fee more commonly associated with an elite centre forward.
Musa Okwonga is one of ESPN FC's Manchester United bloggers. Follow on Twitter: @Okwonga.