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As a season finishes, whilst Alex Ferguson is already looking ahead, planning and scheming for the next season, everyone else seems to obsess with what’s just happened. Players and moments are dissected, discussed and argued over to no end point. In an unprecedented move, I’m going to combine the two and explain just why David de Gea is the league’s best goalkeeper and point to the moment few realised that was the case.
It’s strange that despite scoring an abundance of goals and being an all-round hero this campaign, van Persie may not necessarily be the man a lot of Reds would choose as their player of the season. Unquestionably he’s one of the main factors in the title success but four other players come to mind when you consider the stand-out performers. Carrick and Ferdinand have both been rocks – consistent leaders whose error count must surely be limited to single figures. At the other end of the spectrum, Rafael’s asserted his position as arguably the best young right back in the game off the back of an immense season of courage, bravery, maturity and attacking threat.
The other man is the fluffy haired, dodgy bearded Spaniard in between the sticks. Much to the disappointment of my curiosity and guesswork, Fergie’s tombola has jarred and there is a clear first choice goalkeeper at the club now. Rightly so, too.
It was always going to take a while for him to adjust to life in England. As has been well documented, he came from quite a different goalkeeping culture and at 20, he’d have to learn. Some of his qualities became obvious in his first season – the full stretch saves, the speed off his line, the reflexes and the ability to pass a ball over distance with Scholesesqe accuracy. Growing up, physically and mentally would happen this season and then having done that he’d need to find some consistency in his performances.
Colours had been firmly nailed to various masts by certain members of the press. Some had written him off quite early in his United career and others had the decency to wait until his second season before doing so. He couldn’t win though. Goalkeeping experts started to blame him for goals that weren’t his fault – suggesting he should be coming for crosses when he’d probably made wise decisions to stay on his line. His case wasn’t helped by Lindegaard’s sporadic runs in the team… on the bench = transfer stories. United had allegedly lost patience with a young member of the playing staff; not something you’d ever really associate with the club (young Ravel being a rare exception).
Then, early into the new year, there was a two week spell that for me will not only be looked back on as the crucial point in de Gea’s United career, but can be pinpointed as the moment United entered into ‘ruthless champions’ mode.
Spurs away on the 20th January and Dempsey scores late on after a weak de Gea punch presents a chance for Lennon to get the ball back into the box. I say “weak punch” but with Vidic deciding to clatter into his goalkeeper, de Gea’s chances of turning a weak punch into anything other than a weak punch were slim. Post-match analysis descended into chaos as Gary Neville laid into de Gea and the papers followed suit. Neville, a former club captain and fan, has left his allegiances on the pitch when it comes to punditry and no one should expect him to never be critical of United but it felt like he’d gone too far on this one.
Fergie kept faith and rather than bowing to the media pressure and picking Lindegaard, he stuck with de Gea, refusing to agree with the numerous pundits and writers who’d now said he’d never adjust to football in England. The real problem with the reaction to Spurs was that the really negative words were being written by people who openly admitted to not watching him every week. The flappy punch was being made out to be a regular occurrence when in fact he’d not made an error for a good few months. It was being assumed he was an error-a-week goalkeeper, which, as we know, was far from the truth.
Jumping to the near present and West Ham away, six days ago, has been cited by many as the game de Gea arrived because he got clattered by Andy Carroll whilst in the process of making a good punch. That it took such an event for people to take note of de Gea’s transformation only adds to the theory that the criticism post-Spurs came loudest from those who’d watched him the least.
Maybe not to the same degree of force but de Gea had been clattered a fair few times in 2013 and few United fans would have suggested before last Wednesday that his coming for crosses was still an issue. His starting position, judgement of the ball, confidence to come through players and general authority (notably vocally) had all been at a satisfactory level for a good few months.
In fact if you were to pinpoint the game he really marked his territory at the club, it was probably no less than two weeks after that Spurs game and coincidentally, was probably the game that many would have started to believe that this was to be our season.
The first game of February came three days after a very unconvincing midweek win over Southampton. Despite a very complete performance at Fulham last season, it is a tricky place to go to and as such, Fergie had brought back into the team Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans, Cleverley, Valencia and Nani after they were rested a few days earlier. Not helped by a power failure, it had taken United until the 79th minute to conjure up a winner but the stats show that de Gea was the busier of the two keepers on the night.
The thing with being a United goalkeeper is that whatever you do, the chances are everyone will be talking about goals scored at the other end. And hence on this occasion Rooney’s winner and the power failure were topics of conversation more so than de Gea’s wondrous save from Bryan Ruiz. If Ruiz scores, which he probably would have done had the majority of other goalkeepers in the league been in goal, the complexion of the game changes and a United win could easily have been a United draw.
Moments of goalkeeping brilliance from de Gea aren’t limited to just the Fulham game but it stands out more than any other because of what followed. United had only kept back to back league clean sheets once before Fulham but it triggered a run of six in a row that started an unstoppable and inevitable march towards last night’s joyous scenes.
Sure, the last couple of months have been painful to watch at times but the relentless grinding out of results built upon a solid defensive foundation has characterised a period in many a title win. Whether the defence have instilled confidence in de Gea or his performances and growing stature has aided them is unclear but both scenarios are probably applicable.
It may not go down as the most memorable period of games in the season, nor will any of the games themselves be recollected for anything more than Kagawa’s hat-trick or Rafael’s rocket; but it was a classic spell for a United goalkeeper – clean sheets, top saves and minimal fuss – just how Fergie likes it. Even with the defeat at home to City, United haven’t looked back since that day at Craven Cottage and yet it could have all been so different. David de Gea has truly made his mark as the league’s outstanding goalkeeper and at 22, he’s only just getting started.