The FA Cup semifinals produced two great games (and one unlikely finalist), while La Liga ended its season with a new mark for Lionel Messi and a league title for Real Madrid. It’s Monday, so Gab Marcotti reacts to the weekend’s biggest moments.
Man United’s De Gea problem
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s lineup when Manchester United faced Chelsea told you all you need to know about his priorities. When you take the field without Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood — all of whom have been key performers in recent games — it’s pretty evident that you’re getting them rest so they can be ready for the final two games of the season and the ascent to the Champions League.
And that’s fine. I have no problem with it. Silverware is important, of course, and United won three major trophies a few years ago (FA Cup, League Cup and Europa League) and it did their managers no favors. The benchmark is league progression, and given how they’d been playing, it’s only right that Solskjaer prioritizes that.
In the end, Solskjaer’s selections were overshadowed by David de Gea’s performance between the sticks. Chelsea outplayed United and might have won anyway, but the Spaniard played a part in each of the Blues’ three goals. Some pinpoint the start of the slide at the 2018 World Cup, others before that, but either way it’s not hard to see that he’s been on a descending arc for some time.
The tough question is what to do. He’s obviously not what he was and he’s clearly not living up to his salary, which makes him the highest-paid keeper in the world. The call to make is whether to let him play his way out of the funk or whether to drop him, give Sergio Romero or (from next season) Dean Henderson space and see if that jolts him to life. It’s not an easy decision and, like many involving goalkeepers, probably isn’t even one for Solskjaer as much as it is his coaching staff. You have to know the individual and know how he’s going to respond, as well as being able to judge each of his errors technically.
While they assess De Gea, they might also wish to assess how they got into this position, because this was a case of United painting themselves into a corner some 12 months ago when they gave him a new mega deal that runs through 2023, with the option of another season. United gave him this extension in September 2019, following arguably his worst campaign at the club. The logic was that it was difficult to sell De Gea, because only top European clubs could afford his wages and most were happy with their goalkeeping situation. And given that a top keeper like, say, Jan Oblak, was going to cost north of €70 million ($75m) anyway, it was better to simply extend De Gea rather than having leave on a free transfer this summer.
I don’t fault the logic, but what’s questionable is the questionable is the terms. De Gea got himself a huge raise, owing to the fact that he was less than a year away from free agency. Hindsight is 20/20 of course, but I suspect it would have made a lot more sense to hard-ball him and stick to a more manageable wage, effectively daring him to find himself another club without taking a pay cut. It’s true that you would have run the risk of losing him on a free transfer, but given he wasn’t performing like the wages on his old contract — let alone the new — you would have had a nice fat salary with which to lure another keeper. The best-case scenario is that you would have locked him up long term at a more reasonable price, thereby making him easier to shift.
If De Gea’s problems run deeper than just simple errors, a lucrative long-term contract rarely motivates a player going through tough times to suddenly live up to his paycheck. If they’re technical, it’s not going to make a jot of difference.
Inter only have themselves to blame
Inter’s 2-2 draw with Roma this weekend in all likelihood means the Serie A title race is over. Even if Juventus lose to an injury-ravaged Lazio side Monday night, the gap will still be five points with four games left, and that is a hill too far.
Inter can point to the supposed foul in the build-up to Leonardo Spinazzola’s equaliser — VAR called for an on-field review, the referee stuck to his guns — but, really, who are we kidding? The fact is they took the lead, let it slip (that’s now 22 points they’ve lost from leading positions this season) and only equalised due to a gargantuan screw-up by Spinazzola himself in conceding a late penalty.
And, more importantly, they did not play well.
Manager Antonio Conte, who had been on his best behaviour for most of the season, blew his top after the game. “Our fixture list is crazy; it seems it has been drawn up with the intent of hurting us. We always face teams who have had an extra day’s rest, we’re always playing in the late game … whenever somebody needs to be get slapped down, it’s always us,” he fumed.
Playing the conspiracy card is an old favorite in Italian football and, of course, Conte knows it all too well from all those years he was at Juventus as a player and a manager. (Of course, back then, from his perspective, it was just whinging and whining.) Inter are a part of Serie A and, as such, helped draw up this congested calendar before the restart. If the club, or Conte, felt they were being “slapped around” and penalised, they’ve had weeks to voice their concerns. Waiting now smacks of being uber-sore losers.
Let’s make this a little easier, shall we? Since the restart, Inter conceded an 89th minute equaliser to Sassuolo, missed a penalty, squandered a lead and lost the game against 10-man Bologna, and gave up an 86th minute equalizer against Verona. Instead of nine points against those mid-table sides with nothing to play for, they managed just two. Even with the Roma draw, they’d be top of the table right now.
Inter have progressed this season and Conte has helped to change the culture, but they’re not yet where he wants them to be. Some of that is down to injuries, some of that is down to poor decisions, some of that is simply down to not yet being a finished product. Blaming the calendar is simply a craven attempt to deflect from all that.