David de Gea‘s succession of Edwin Van der Sar took time and to suggest it was plain sailing would paper over one too many cracks but three years since his arrival, it’s quite wonderful to be able to say that whilst United certainly have problems in other areas of the pitch, there’s little to worry about in goal.
De Gea wasn’t a name that instantly sprung to mind when the topic of Van der Sar’s replacement arose at the beginning of 2011. The Dutchman is rightly spoken about in the same breath as Peter Schmeichel as the club’s greatest shot stopper thanks to a British record of 1,311 minutes and 14 games without conceding a goal and appearances in three Champions League finals during his six-year spell.
So, when news broke that summer that his successor would be Atletico Madrid’s 20-year old stopper for a fee reported to be over £17m, eyebrows were understandably raised. Having burned his way through Messrs Bosnich, Taibi, Barthez, Howard and Carroll in the search for Schmeichel’s successor after he left United in 1999, Sir Alex Ferguson proudly spoke of how hard the club had worked to make the transfer happen, seemingly in an effort to avoid another botched succession.
He was happy to point out the Spaniard’s composure and organisational ability along with his presence, which was somewhat at odds with this vision of a scrawny, tall lad fresh out of his teens. Simply put, De Gea didn’t necessarily scream presence on first inspection.
Patience was offered, given who De Gea was replacing, but he made an inauspicious start to life at United. His competitive debut, a Community Shield tie with Manchester City, characterised his early struggles at the club; he was caught in two minds after failing to cut out Joleon Lescott’s first-half header from a set piece and allowed Edin Dzeko’s low long-range drive to squirm beneath his body. Set pieces were his kryptonite – De Gea was frequently indecisive, feeble and found himself easily blocked from reaching the ball even by some of the Premier League’s less physical sides.
Predictably, as these instances became more frequent, the press had a field day by regularly and ritually criticising his indecisiveness and slow adaptation to English football. United fans were (mostly) more understanding in the face of the errors on show, predominantly because of the sheer size of the task on his hands.
That was tested to breaking point on New Year’s Eve when another unsuccessful flap saw Grant Hanley fire Blackburn Rovers, then at the bottom of the league, to a 3-2 victory at Old Trafford. De Gea didn’t play in goal for another month with Ferguson giving Anders Lindegaard an extended run in the side to allow his No.1 a break.
What happened next was described by the man himself as a huge turning point in his season where the Dane injured and unable to play against Chelsea in early February. De Gea produced a stunning save from his future team-mate Juan Mata’s long-range effort with the score locked at 3-3 and never looked back, claiming eight clean sheets out of the remaining 19 games on offer that season.
We all know how his debut season ended but by the time United collapsed with the league title in their hands, their keeper had moved himself out of the firing line.
Since then, De Gea has taken on the role of United’s first choice keeper with aplomb. Extensive gym work has seen him bulk up significantly and his sheer athleticism has been something to behold over the last two years.
The Spaniard’s reach, jump and stretch are a sight to behold and his reading of the game has improved beyond all measure. Just rewatch United’s Champions League tussle with Real Madrid in the Bernabeu for the perfect example; you’ll see several sure-fire goals stopped by a combination of seemingly hyper-extended fingertips and lightning-fast reactions.
That night, with the world watching, De Gea made a statement and announced himself to his homeland as loudly as he possibly could in front of Spain’s biggest club.
His second season brought a Premier League winners medal after weathering an extended defensive stumble that saw United record eight victories from losing positions before closing out the term with an eleven point advantage and a watertight back-line.
More recently, whilst things haven’t been as rosy for the club, De Gea has continued to enhance his reputation. He was one of few shining lights under David Moyes’ stewardship and rightly won both the Fans’ and Player’s Player of the Year awards in May.
The tables had turned quite dramatically from his early days in 2011. He was saving games single-handedly, literally in some cases, and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that some of last season’s less impressive would have been far worse had it not been for the Spaniard. There’s an aura of confidence surrounding De Gea these days. No keeper is immune to mistakes but they have been predominantly eradicated from his game and he has a far greater command of his penalty area than early naysayers must have thought he was capable of.
The world has already taken note of De Gea’s progress at United and with Iker Casillas looking like jelly in goal against in Brazil during this summer’s World Cup, De Gea is primed to stake a claim for another of the world’s most high-profile No.1 jerseys.
In the long-term, the smart money is probably on an eventual return to his homeland but on the basis of his affections for United and his rise on the world stage, that appears to be some years away at least.
As it stands, United fans should just enjoy every moment Dave saves.