Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The balancing act - competing for a title while also giving young players experience

Most coaches, managers or buisness leaders offer the first level of experience in an orientation or apprenticeship by observing. Sitting on the sideline while watching a more experienced mentor often offers an initial level of insight on 'how to do things around here'.

As important as observation (sitting and watching) or theoretical experience (lectures or reading), there is no experience more valuable than practical experience - getting your hands dirty and learning from trial and error.

What comes part and parcel with enabling one of your people with that practical experience is having the confidence in them that they will either drive over some speed bumps along the way under your careful watch to assist with offering a road map of success, or that they will sail smoothly when given that opportunity.

Another key component in this process is having a level of self-confidence in yourself as a leader to relenquish some of that responsibility to someone with less experience, knowing that there will be some bumps and bruises along the way to success. It was once written that, sometimes, you need to learn how not to lose before you learn how to win.

Sir Alex Ferguson of Manchester United has been magnified in the media recently about his decision to entrust the goalkeeping responsibilities at one of the biggest clubs in the world to 21-year old Spaniard Davd de Gea.

Daniel Taylor of the Irish Times writes of the balancing act of competing for a title while also trying to develop a young and inexperienced goalkeeper.

The overwhelming sense when debating Manchester United’s goalkeeping issue, and specifically weighing up the long-term benefits but short-term losses of entrusting a talented but still raw 21-year-old, has to be one of deja vu. We have been here already this season, after all, and the arguments became so blurred at the time all that can be said for certain is the champions were entitled to hope we would not have to revisit the subject so quickly.

It is whether they should continue with David de Gea in goal when it is almost inevitable, at this point in a career of otherwise great promise, there will be further mistakes along the way, or whether they bow to the theory that a team going for the title, when every goal and every point might be vital, is not the place for a goalkeeper to be learning on the spot.

The last time this issue was raised Ferguson decided against taking the Spaniard out of the team in favour of Anders Lindegaard and most of autumn passed amid the sense that United’s manager had negotiated a difficult situation with impeccable judgment.

Opposition players began to realise that peppering De Gea with hopeful, long-distance shots was now a futile exercise.

The man Jamie Redknapp said needed “to grow into his kit”, after a particularly harrowing league debut at West Bromwich Albion, went to the Britannia Stadium in Stoke and played as though affronted by the suggestion he was a boy among men.

A few weeks later, he turned in a performance at Anfield with all the calmness of a bomb-disposal expert, as if nobody had bothered educating him about what it meant to be beneath the Kop as a Manchester United player.

Afterwards the Liverpool manager, Kenny Dalglish, shook his head ruefully and exclaimed: “I thought the press said the boy was struggling.”

The ability to make reflex saves, distribute the ball quickly and accurately and understand the angles of the penalty box is clearly in place, so we should proceed cautiously against the knee-jerk reaction in light of his recent mistakes.

Yet the De Gea or Lindegaard issue has resurfaced for legitimate reasons going into tonight’s match at Newcastle United and this is not, as Ferguson put it in September, the agenda of a media “desperate for the boy to fail”.

Nobody in the press box invented the mistakes against Benfica and Basel that played a part in United’s Champions League elimination. It wasn’t a careless sub-editor who flapped at the cross for Blackburn’s decisive goal at Old Trafford on New Year’s Eve.

The harsh reality is De Gea has let in six goals where the blame, or a significant proportion of it, could be attached to him. At least three more have arrived when the culpability is less obvious but his involvement could still be questioned.

That’s nine from 19 appearances, and even if mitigating circumstances can be presented in some cases it is still clearly too many when there are five months of the season still to play.

De Gea’s occasional vulnerabilities are, of course, probably only inevitable for a goalkeeper who was 20 when he signed in June and, to give him his due, he has probably not been helped by the absence of a consistent back four.

Lindegaard has started five league games and not conceded a goal. The Dane is seven years older than De Gea and has a greater penalty-box presence. It has been evident he is determined to establish himself more prominently in Ferguson’s thinking.

It is a curiosity, given Ferguson, in the days of Edwin van der Sar, would regularly speak of his belief that the key factor for a successful goalkeeper was experience. De Gea’s potential is clear but his education does not come without risk.

I can appreciate the dilemma that Ferguson faces - after all, our team at the University of Evansville played this past 2011 college season with a nucleus of 7 freshmen and 2 sophomores in our lineup. Although there were a number of bumps and bruises along the way, fast-forward a year later and we now have 9 starters returning with the experience of playing against some of the top collegiate teams in the nation.

Sometimes you do have to learn 'how not to lose' before you can learn to win, and if Manchester United fans can be patient and show trust in their manager and young goalkeeper, great things are on the horizon.

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