Manchester United goalkeeper David De Gea knew he had to act this summer with Dean Henderson breathing down his neck. And the under-pressure Spain star made a crucial phone call that may have helped him hold on to the No1 spot for the Premier League giants.
During the summer there was much speculation about the battle to be first-choice keeper at Old Trafford.
De Gea had been making headlines for some high-profile errors – with United legend Roy Keane claiming he “wouldn’t have let him on the bus home” after a mistake at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in June.
Henderson, meanwhile, was coming off the back of two impressive seasons on loan at Sheffield United, having kept 13 clean sheets last term as the Blades mounted a push for European qualification.
De Gea also kept 13 clean sheets, but his position appeared to be coming under threat from his 23-year-old rival, who has made no secret of his desire to be No1 for both club and country – although he has yet to play for England.
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There was speculation about whether Henderson would go out on loan again or leave in search of first-team football – or whether he would stay at Old Trafford, and who would be Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first choice if he did remain.
Solskjaer has kept faith in De Gea for United’s Premier League games, while Henderson has been given a chance to impress in two Carabao Cup matches.
But over the summer De Gea knew he would have to up his game – and turned to his former Spain youth-team coach Miguel Angel Espana for help, according to The Athletic.
“David called Miguel Angel to ask to train some days together, and they talked about some personal things, some technical things that he knew he had to improve,” a source close to De Gea told the publication.
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“He knew he had to do something. David has been around a long time but is still just 29. He can still learn and improve and look for new motivations and challenges.”
The source said De Gea knew his reported loss of form was being exaggerated in some cases – he had kept seven clean sheets in 10 Premier League games either side of football’s enforced break due to coronavirus.
But he was also aware he needed to make improvements – including how to position himself better to come off his line more authoritatively and help his defence, and in terms of playing the ball with his feet more.
Espana had worked with De Gea at six international tournaments, including with the teams that won the Under-17 Euros in 2007, and the U21 Euros in 2011 and 2013.
And the former La Liga keeper was able to help De Dea work on his game, with improvements evident in his recent displays for Spain.
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The United man has been preferred to Kepa Arrizabalaga since Luis Enrique returned to the Spain hotseat last year, which has given De Gea increased confidence.
Enrique’s side play a high defensive line, and the head coach applauded De Gea during their 1-0 defeat against Ukraine on Tuesday when he raced off his line on two occasions to clear the ball from no-man’s land.
The Spain boss also encourages De Gea to play with his feet – something he hasn’t worked on much at United since Louis van Gaal’s time in charge between 2014 and 2016.
De Gea’s work with Espana has helped him enhance these aspects of his game for his country, and it is hoped United will reap the benefits too – with Solskjaer’s defence having been criticised after their recent 6-1 thrashing by Tottenham.
But the competition from Henderson has also helped, with the source close to the Spaniard saying: “David has a lot of talent, and needs somebody to stay on top of him, to keep improving.
“Competition is a positive, an incentive to play to improve and play better. This summer he has realised that, which is why he went to Miguel Angel. He knew he had to pull his socks up.”
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