There are only two events that draw Richard Hartis into the technical area during a game: when he raises the electronic board to signal a substitution and when Manchester United have a set-piece to defend.
Hartis’s advice is so unremarkable and basic it renders his instructions redundant, although just about every utterance from a coach in crowdless stadiums is like differentiating between bird calls. The trouble is United never look alive from dead-ball situations.
Conceding from a corner is as much of an affront to a footballer as back-chatting is to parish councillor Jackie Weaver. Southampton, Paris Saint-Germain (twice), West Ham, Sheffield United, Leeds and City have breached United from corners. Everton and City succeeded from set-pieces and Spurs and Villa did so from quickly-taken free-kicks.
Going off matchday appearances, Hartis is accountable for the defensive shape and the absence of authority from David de Gea. Peter Schmeichel once smothered the ball so violently from Les Ferdinand a catapult would not have fired Ferdinand further away.
Gary Neville, berated by Schmeichel later that night in March 1996, said on Saturday ‘you want the goalkeeper to come and eat the striker’. De Gea was more pussycat than lion when Dominic Calvert-Lewin latched onto the loose ball in the 95th minute.
We have seen that from De Gea before this season in Leipzig. His timidity was also apparent at Southampton, where he did not seem sore enough to cry off at half-time and, though Billy Sharp shoved him, it did not legislate for De Gea’s tentativeness at the corner the Sheffield United defender Kean Bryan connected with.
The sequence that finished with Everton’s equaliser was actually started by De Gea in the same minute United conceded. Edinson Cavani cannily earned a free-kick 25 yards from his own goal that De Gea laruped too close to the centre, Ben Godfrey won the aerial duel, Fred lost the challenge to Gylfi Sigurdsson, Richarlison released Joshua King and Axel Tuanzebe clumsily fouled him.
Lucas Digne must have still been 40 yards out on the far side when he sent the ball into the mixer, Aaron Wan-Bissaka mistimed his leap, Harry Maguire was so deep Filippo Inzaghi would have been onside and De Gea was, once again, too attached to his goal line.
“Every player has to earn the right to earn his place, of course,” Ole Gunnar Solskjaer replied when asked how he could justify sticking with the 30-year-old De Gea. “We’re a squad with competition and that applies to absolutely every single one in the team – and that is the same for every single one of us.”
De Gea’s form this season has not merited 21 Premier League starts out of 23, particularly when United have a potential upgrade kicking his heels on the bench.
“Being sat on the bench is not something I want to do all the time,” Dean Henderson confessed last month. “So that’s been the hardest bit for me.” Henderson, expected to start against West Ham on Tuesday night, is said to be ‘fed up’ at being constantly overlooked.
Hartis is particularly protective over the precious De Gea. When the MEN reported Henderson had reported for pre-season training before De Gea in August, Hartis is believed to have fretted about having to explain to De Gea why Henderson was already back at Carrington.
Certain suits at United have questioned De Gea’s status as the club’s highest earner on a reputed £300,000-a-week, while some of the players felt in December Henderson, 23, was deserving of a regular run in the side. Solskjaer is understood to have alluded to a start for Henderson in conversations with the goalkeeper only to then stick with De Gea.
Henderson has been between the sticks for some of United’s loose set-piece defending, proof their tactical set-up is more of a coaching failing than a goalkeeping one. The introduction of Axel Tuanzebe, drained of confidence by racist trolls, invited pressure from Everton and if Solskjaer was insistent on a defensive change then Nemanja Matic, more experienced than Tuanzebe and with a clearer head, would have been a more suitable shield.
De Gea is louder during games, even if his advice is limited to ‘switch on’, ‘come on’, and ‘hey’. He was the scariest Spanish speaker since Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men when Southampton appeared to have pulled one back last week, resorting to his mother tongue to lambast Fred’s amateurish defending.
That – and the confronting of referee Craig Pawson at Anfield last year – are the only instances where De Gea has ‘Hulked out’. His equanimity helped him stay at his peak for four years and De Gea reached Everest heights. In the last two years, it has been a slippery slope back down the mountain.
Henderson has been heading in the opposite direction. His careless error against Sheffield United in December was more egregious than any of De Gea’s this season but his reaction – chin up, chest out, voice loud – was admirable and his vociferousness has more conviction than De Gea’s. Henderson denied David McGoldrick an added time leveller at Bramall Lane.
In both league starts, Henderson produced sprawling saves where he had an appetite to eat the striker. De Gea, approaching a decade at United, might have lost his hunger.