Undoubtedly two of the finest prospects of their generations and even at the tender age of 23 years old, both Manchester United’s David De Gea and Arsenal’s Wojceich Szczesny are already well on track to become the best goalkeepers in the world.
Goalkeeping is a specialism in football unlike any other position on the pitch – it takes a special and often strange set of characteristics for a young man to devote his life to having footballs kicked directly at him day in day out at high-speed, point-blank range and in front of millions of people around the world.
Both Manchester United’s De Gea and Arsenal’s Szczesny are already fine athletes and top professionals and both still have the peak of their careers and the prime of their powers to come as they mature and develop with experience but, at the present moment in the Premier League, which has the edge?
Polish international Szczesny has a slight advantage over his Spanish counterpart – the Gunners’ stopper has been playing in the Premier League for three seasons as we head into the halfway point of his fourth with the North Londoners currently sitting top of the league, despite their recent defeat at Old Trafford to the reigning champions United.
De Gea is just moving into his third season this term after arriving in England from the Spanish capital in 2011 – the physical intensity of the Premier League is much higher and more demanding than La Liga predominantly. Szczesny has been training and developing in England with the Gunners at youth level since 2006 when he arrived from Legia Warsaw’s academy at the age of 16.
Meanwhile, Szczesny also has the advantage of being first-choice keeper at international level with Poland with his Arsenal colleague Lukasz Fabianski his only real competition for his place. De Gea has no such luxury with the likes of Iker Casillas, Victor Valdes, and Pepe Reina all ahead of him in the pecking order for Spain.
Szczesny certainly seems to have more confidence than his United equivalent and that’s understandable given his superior experience in England and at international level but De Gea has grown into his role at United, especially last term in the league and in the Champions League, following a tough and challenging first season with the Red Devils.
Last season Szczesny conceded 24 goals in 25 appearances in the league with Arsenal and kept 10 clean sheets. De Gea conceded 26 goals in 28 league appearances and kept 11 clean sheets. Of course the quality and consistency of the two defences are not necessarily always matched. This season De Gea has already conceded 13 goals in 11 appearances and kept just 3 clean sheets. Szczesny has conceded 10 goals in 11 games and also kept just 3 clean sheets.
Overall, goalkeeping is an unforgiving position despite the fact a great save can have as much affect on a game or a season as a great goal. Oftentimes, however, goalkeeping is much less about pulling out great stops to deny goals and more about decision-making and I believe this is the area where Szczesny currently has the upper hand over De Gea – mostly due to his experience in England and in international tournaments.
The pressure that goes with the top tournaments refines players – it’s either sink or swim in most cases – but if De Gea can continue to play the way he did at the Bernabeu against Real Madrid last term, I see no reason he can not match or exceed Szczesny’s capability. The Pole has his own plaudits too this year – a clean sheet away from home against last term’s Champions League finalists Borussia Dortmund and he can look forward to the World Cup next summer.
Overall, I wonder whether the lack of opportunity for De Gea even across the next five years with Spain will hamper him or, perhaps, who knows even help him – perhaps that will motivate him and challenge him to exceed expectations. At present the expectation is that in the next decade David De Gea will be the Spanish national team’s number one.
image: © Ronnie Macdonald