Manchester United's world-class goalkeeper has waited for six years, but may finally be about to get a team befitting of his quality - writes Alex Netherton.
David de Gea celebrated his 250th game for Manchester United by doing what he has grown accustomed to – saving a hapless Manchester United defence, pulling off an excellent save from a long shot, and keeping another clean sheet.
Against Middlesbrough, he stood up to Michael Antonio in a one-on-one, and also clawed a long-range effort from Manuel Lanzini away from the top corner.
Nobbody is surprised by his excellence and consistency now. It has not always been this easy, and he has not been faultless, but in an age of irritants, he carries himself with more dignity and professionalism than most of his peers.
De Gea is remarkable, in part, because he is perhaps the only world class player to have finished the Alex Ferguson era and endured the next three years to come out the other side intact. Wayne Rooney is no longer world class, and he agitated for a move to Chelsea when David Moyes arrived. Robin van Persie fell apart when Ferguson announced his departure. Only De Gea remained at the club and maintained his standards. He has played more games for the side than anyone but Rooney, Antonio Valencia and Michael Carrick, but joined later than each of them.
While all these players dropped off – and even came close to disappearing at times in their United careers and especially post-Ferguson – De Gea has only ever improved. He has the advantage of youth, but when senior players should have dragged their team-mates with them in the struggle, it was only the Spaniard who consistently excelled.
Juan Mata and David De Gea of Manchester United
Image credit: Reuters
De Gea is not the last Ferguson signing to have endured… but he is the last Ferguson signing who deserves to have endured.
Phil Jones, Ashley Young, Chris Smalling and others from that era are still at Old Trafford, but they should not be. In some regards, De Gea is an outlier – a throwback to an old kind of Ferguson signing: young, exceptionally talented, and psychologically equipped to be at the side.
It has taken Jose Mourinho’s arrival to fix that flaw in the squad by bringing Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba to United. But, in truth, it is bizarre that De Gea has had to wait so long for some proper players to join him.
He might, clearly, have left had things turned out differently. Ed Woodward has demonstrated a bottomless appetite for incompetence since replacing David Gill, but sending a fax a fraction too late to complete the De Gea transfer to Real Madrid was joyous – deliberate or not.
Manchester United executive vice chairman Ed Woodward before the match
Image credit: Reuters
There are two ways to look at the fallout from that paperwork faux-pas. On the one hand, De Gea’s stoicism in being denied a move back to his home city, to be with his girlfriend, is admirable. On the other, he probably should be criticised for not having the gumption to put in a transfer request and make the move happen in good time for Real, his partner, and United themselves. But if that is the worst thing that can be said about his temperament then it would be pretty good going for any human being.
But there are other examples which are a credit to how he approaches the game.
Louis van Gaal had pointlessly isolated De Gea from the squad when the transfer was rumoured, claiming that De Gea was not in the frame of mind to perform. But that is at odds with how he played before the transfer window and proved almost certainly incorrect after it. De Gea returned after the failure of the deal and went back to being the best player in the squad without missing a beat.
Van Gaal and De Gea
Image credit: Imago
And, let’s not forget how hard it was for him when he first joined. He came after a summer when Edwin van der Sar stuttered to a decision on his retirement. Van der Sar was the only goalkeeper that had kept the side calm since the departure of Peter Schmeichel, and in some ways the Dutchman was the perfect ‘keeper for that United side: he had experienced the demands of a huge club, Juventus; he had years at Fulham to adjust to the Premier League; and he had the calmness and self-confidence required to organise a defence and be ready for a rare moment of action.
De Gea had to learn all of this on the job.
Not only that, he had to do it while being targeted by players like Andy Carroll and his fist, and to do so in a United side that was running on fumes.
For the disgraceful crime of being Spanish, he had to battle against the unfair assumption that he was inherently dodgy. And, justly, had to wade through heavy criticism from pundits like Gary Neville, from whom he might have expected to have more support.
Sitting out games in the stands while Anders Lindegaard took his place must have been galling at best. He stuck it out, didn’t complain (looking at you, Loris Karius) and dealt with criticism with the only effective method: getting better.
Despite the continuous improvement, there are still some running repairs to be carried out:
Of course the game has changed, but it would be nice to see him put Smalling and Jones in a headlock the next time they make a bird-brained error.
His kicking has a touch of the Bosnichs about it, too.
And it would be handy if he could clear the halfway line with a throw.
You don’t have to be the second coming of Lothar Matthaus to play as 'keeper, whatever people who draw diagrams say, but he could offer more to the attacking side of United. These, obviously, are minor criticisms of a brilliant goalkeeper.
With 250 more games at United looking a distinct possibility, now would be as good a time as any to glance back at his best performances and saves (and you wouldn’t have to look far on social media if you wanted to do that).