Goalkeepers are different
Edwin van der Sar couldn't believe what he was seeing. This was new and it was not necessarily better.
The venue, though, wasn't the Hawthorns last week or Wembley the previous Sunday.
Rather, it was the 18-yard box on his very first game for Juventus in 1999. In good faith, Van der Sar attempted one of his routine Ajax passes to the centre-half. He had, after all, been told in negotiations that Juventus would adapt the Dutch style in order to integrate their new goalkeeper.
However, on receiving the ball, defender Paolo Montero panicked, pummelled it away and then proceeded to berate Van der Sar. On the line, manager Carlo Ancelotti was doing the same.
The Dutchman was soon nicknamed 'Van der Gol' and routinely mocked by Italian media. As David Winner tells the story, "within a year he was consulting a therapist and telling his agent he no longer trusted himself even to catch a ball."
Given Van der Sar's unflappable image at Manchester United, the anecdote should put a different perspective on David De Gea's anxious first two games for the club. The Spaniard has, admittedly, made at least two awful errors. But, like Van der Sar back then, he's also had to get used to a new country and a new culture. One of the most striking images during United's 2-1 win over West Brom was Phil Jones - a teenage defender - physically illustrating to the keeper how he should spread his elbows when claiming an aerial ball in English football.
De Gea, of course, is only 20. At Juventus in the summer of 1999, Van der Sar was 28. But the Dutchman still had to go to the less demanding surrounds of Fulham to effectively remember how to be a goalkeeper and rebuild his confidence.
The issue raises a wider point about young goalkeepers and world-class level - either in terms of club or quality – goalkeepers. Unlike in almost every other position, the two don't coalesce that often.
Tellingly, Van der Sar's career path has been copied by a lot of talented - if not, at that point, top-class - goalkeepers. Jens Lehmann, for example, endured an equally difficult spell at AC Milan before recovering his game at Borussia Dortmund.
On initially doing enough to earn a move to a top club, many good young goalkeepers have often then had to escape them because their confidence was being eroded by the pressure.
With foreign goalkeepers such as De Gea, there are a number of external factors like the language barrier and basic acclimatisation. But, essentially, the problem is experience. At a big club where every error is exaggerated because of the importance of each result and isolation of the position, goalkeepers need an awful lot of experience to complement their existing talent.
Firstly, to block out the sound and fury long enough to make correct decisions; secondly, to draw on past experiences to make even better ones and finally, in the event that they don't, to help cope with criticism.
As Pat Jennings has explained, "the game is easy. It's when you get in front of big crowds and something's at stake... that's when the mental side comes in."
Peter Schmeichel backed this up recently, declaring that - at Manchester United - "You can look at young good players but you don't want that... that position has to be filled by someone who is of the very, very highest quality but also the right experience."
At a formative stage of their careers in a position that demands utmost concentration, young keepers are often too fragile. And not just mentally. As Alex Stepney said when talking about Ben Foster two years ago, "you have to be strong and, if necessary, take out the forward."
It was notable in the second half against West Brom that De Gea was so easily fouled when claiming a ball. His physique needs to be filled out. But then he perhaps hasn't yet stopped growing.
On that, it has been an anomaly over the last decades for goalkeepers to reach anywhere near world-class status before their late twenties. The only exceptions have arguably been Iker Casillas, Gigi Buffon, Petr Cech and - before Juventus - Van der Sar. All matched the very best in the world by the age of 22. But then all were special cases.
Cech was said to have a rare focus as a young man. "I don't do nervous", he declared at 22. His game was notable for its near-total lack of errors. And even the Czech gushed about Buffon, "he relays his confidence to his defence... his consistency level is amazing." Along the same lines, John Toshack described a teenage Casillas as "a kid with the brain of an old man".
Even then, though, both Casillas and Van der Sar were already at big clubs who had invested a lot of time in nurturing them. And Casillas was also at Real Madrid at a unique time in their history.
With the Galactico project gradually leaving the first XI increasingly unbalanced, Casillas was often "overexposed and under-protected". Many goalkeeping coaches argue, however, that this is better for a young goalkeeper as it keeps them busy without thinking while simultaneously building their confidence. Buffon certainly reckons so. He claims picking Parma first was the most important decision of his career: "I had no time to think things through so I acted on instinct."
On the other side of things, Victor Valdes is an example of a keeper who has progressively matured to world-class level.
But the deeper question in all of this, then, is why Sir Alex Ferguson opted for promise instead of proven experience? Might it yet be an unnecessary risk to United's season? While any further De Gea errors are clearly forgivable in that context, Ferguson's in actually buying him wouldn't quite be the same.
But the reason he has is because all at Old Trafford are convinced that the recent slips have been no more than aberrations. De Gea is considered to be another Casillas, to have both the talent and mentality to overcome any shortfall in experience. And many of the most learned voices in Spain echo this.
One of De Gea's formative influences, former Atletico Madrid goalkeeper Abel Resino, certainly did to The Guardian recently: "David has always been so self-assured - so confident in his own ability."
There was one caveat though: "If nothing odd happens, he will succeed. He is only 20; he will reach his peak at 30. There is loads of time."
Except when it comes to the exaggerated expectations of a very top club, time is rarely afforded.
Miguel Delaney is freelance journalist and owner of The Football Pantheon. He can be followed on Twitter on @MDelaneyST.