There’s not a more stressful task in sports than standing between the sticks during a penalty shootout. On a normal occasion, penalty takers convert about 75 percent of spot kicks, leaving goalkeepers at a massive disadvantage. The pressure of a shootout probably eats away at some of the taker’s advantage, but not enough to totally even the odds. In spite of that fact, the losing goalie will almost always take the brunt of the blame if his team loses a shootout, even though the outfield players had 120-plus minutes to avoid leaving the result to soccer’s roulette wheel. That’s just how human nature works. It’s unfair, really.
All that being said, what the hell was this, David de Gea?
Statistically, it’s hard to be worse than de Gea was during Wednesday’s shootout to decide the Europa League final. Facing a flurry of Villarreal penalty kicks of wildly varying degrees of quality, de Gea saved exactly none, pushing his own personal streak of failed penalty saves to 40 in a row across club and country. That would be bad enough of its own, though at least his counterpart, Gerónimo Rulli, failed to save the first ten penalties he saw, which meant things went down to the goalies kicking against each other. Not a stellar showing by either, even though some of the penalties they faced were unstoppable.
De Gea had the harder set to contend with. Manchester United’s penalties were very good—you usually don’t score ten in a row without some bangers, and both Fred and Victor Lindelof had unsavable beauties—but a few of Villarreal’s spot kicks were as good as you will see in any shootout. Former Arsenal midfielder Francis Coquelin’s shot (4:12 in the video above) was a rocket, 20-year-old center back Pau Torres stepped up 10th and casually side footed the ball into the top corner (5:08), and even Rulli, stepping up in a position goalies never want to be in, blasted his kick too hard for de Gea’s outstretched arm to do anything about it (5:25). You can usually gauge the quality of a penalty shootout by the quality of the kicks, and both teams hit some great ones.
But! De Gea—and Rulli, for that matter—had chances to end the penalty shootout before it got to their respective slots in the order. Both goalies seemed content to dive early and hope that their hand strength would bat balls away, on the occasions that they guessed the right side and elevation. De Gea got his hand on two penalties in the shootout, but as former England goalie Rob Green pointed out on the broadcast, it would have been better to dive later and try to block the kicks with the body’s center mass. Had de Gea done that, one of his six correct guesses might have been a save. These were two goalies who are traditionally not great spot kick stoppers, put on the biggest stage of the season, against penalty takers who brought their best kicks to the party, and both goalies failed pretty resoundingly.
The reason Villarreal hoisted its first major trophy ever, though, is that de Gea was the first kicker to fail. His penalty attempt, the 22nd on the night, was weak and easy for Rulli to read and save.
You can’t fault de Gea too much for the miss. After all, shooting the ball is the opposite of what he gets paid to do. But it was a perfect ending to a brutal shootout for the Spaniard. A goalkeeper failing to save 11 penalties and then missing his own kick to seal the L is the absolute worst shootout performance possible. The ending was the perfect example of how cruel penalty kicks are as a way to break a two hour-long deadlock, and putting de Gea in a situation where he had to be perfect at something he hasn’t devoted his life to should inspire more sympathy than ire.
Then again, what the hell was that?