The concept of a “starting XI” is growing increasingly thin in modern football, as competitions take their toll and managers opt to rotate their players in a bid to have them fresh when it matters the most. Ask any fan of any club around the country and most will struggle to name more than six or seven players that are consistently in the starting line-up.
On the other hand, the large majority of people will name a goalkeeper before any other players. A luxury that Manchester United fans can’t afford, as Sir Alex Ferguson continues to rotate David De Gea and Anders Lindegaard, game after game.
Perhaps not surprisingly, United have already conceded 21 goals in the Premier League after 15 games. While injuries have blighted Vidic, Smalling, Ferdinand and Jones, the lack of a well-oiled routine that derives from having a settled defensive unit has been evident.
De Gea was widely criticised last season in the early months of his United career for a perceived lack of physicality and was dropped after a 1-1 draw at Stoke, before resuming his duties against Liverpool only to be dropped again after a 1-0 win at Everton. After missing three games on the back of a 3-2 defeat at home against Blackburn, the Spaniard looked to have made the goalkeeping position his own, only to be benched again this season.
A harsh decision perhaps, but what about Lindegaard who conceded only four times in the eight league games he started last season? Those numbers would be enough to guarantee him a starting spot at pretty much any other Premier League club.
De Gea and Lindegaard are a rarity in world football, for most teams – particularly clubs the size of United – have an established number 1, who’s guaranteed a spot in the starting XI bar injuries or suspensions. Take Chelsea or Manchester City, for example. Peter Cech has started 23 games so far this season, while Joe Hart has appeared 20 times. In comparison, De Gea was the first choice goalkeeper in only 12 games, while Lindegaard was given the nod on 10 occasions.
When compared with the statistics of two of the greatest United keepers of the last fifty years, these numbers paint an even clearer picture. In his eight seasons at Old Trafford, Peter Schmeichel averaged 49.75 games per season – an extraordinary number of games, even bearing in mind that for his first three seasons the league was spread over 42 matches – while Edwin Van der Sar clocked up 44.3 games per season.
Van der Sar’s numbers are even more intriguing, for he joined the club when the rotation policy had already been applied to keepers, with the Dutchman between the posts in league and European games, while Ben Foster and Tomasz Kusczack deputised for him in domestic cups.
United undoubtedly possess two high-calibre goalkeepers, something that can’t be said for their Premier League rivals or, in fact, for most European clubs. The problem is that while in other areas of the pitch a rotation policy generates competition,directly influencing the players’ performances, in the goalkeeping department it can only generate confusion, not to mention that it could force one of the two players to seek fortune with another club.
Enough of the twisting, Fergie. Time for a real number one now.