Goalkeepers are different
Edwin van der Sar couldn't believe what he was seeing. This was new and it was not necessarily better.
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.
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.
Miguel Delaney is freelance journalist and owner of The Football Pantheon. He can be followed on Twitter on @MDelaneyST.