David De Gea’s alarmingly error-filled performance for Spain in Tuesday’s shock loss to Croatia has sparked an unsurprising crisis entirely of Vicente Del Bosque’s own making, because the manager’s handling of the goalkeeping position has been shambolic for a long time.
Two summers ago, you will recall, veteran keeper Iker Casillas followed a mixed season for Real Madrid by producing a horrendous display as Spain were crushed 5-1 by the Netherlands in the opening fixture of their World Cup title defence in Brazil.
Right then, on June 13, 2014, Del Bosque should have seen enough (as the rest of the world did) to come to the realisation that Casillas was on the wane and that De Gea, who had just been named Manchester United’s player of the season, was ready for a permanent promotion.
But Del Bosque didn’t make that obvious move, rejecting the chance to build for the future – at a time when the international retirements of Xavi Hernandez, Xabi Alonso and David Villa would have made it easy – and allowing blind loyalty to force him to stick with Casillas.
Vicente del Bosque on criticism of David de Gea: “We can’t blame him for the goal. If we lose, we're all guilty." pic.twitter.com/k6gEgQNCjW— Squawka News (@SquawkaNews) June 22, 2016
Except he didn’t even really do that, either. Instead, he embarked upon a truncated period of goalkeeper rotation, with Casillas starting seven games in the European Championship qualifying campaign while De Gea was selected for the other three.
Who was first choice? Nobody knew, including – it appears – Del Bosque, who continued to play a bizarre game of goalkeeping eeny-meeny-miny-mo throughout the build-up to the Euros.
Casillas started in friendlies against Bosnia-Herzegovina and South Korea to strengthen the theory that Del Bosque was preparing to stay faithful to the old veteran; De Gea was picked for the final warm-up game against Georgia to suggest that he would get the nod, only for the water to be further muddied as the Georgians scored with their only shot on target to claim a shock win.
Throughout this period, Del Bosque’s public (and, we can only assume, private) pronouncements on the debate were as vague and ambiguous as possible, making it clear that he would never, even under torture, reveal his decision over the starter until – ludicrously – the very day of the opening Euros contest against the Czech Republic.
Why? What on earth was the point of such secrecy? Especially in a position which relies so much on confidence – the kind of confidence which has now been drained from De Gea by spending so long waiting and wondering.
On Tuesday night, De Gea looked nervous, ill at ease, and mentally unwilling to command his defence with the cool authority he has gradually become accustomed to wielding at Old Trafford.
Rather than being in charge of his back four and his own performance, two years of dithering from the manager led to a dithering performance from De Gea. That is not surprising and it is no wonder he was nervous.
Now, preparing to face Italy, he will be plain terrified, knowing that his every move will be dissected in the minutest of details – hardly the best way to boost his confidence after a shaky display. And the manager is entirely to blame.
Del Bosque’s refusal to decisively address Spain’s great goalkeeping debate could even result in his team being dumped out of the competition in the last 16 – and if that happens, it will be nobody’s fault but his own.
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