Imagine what life must be like for goalkeepers. Over the years their lives have been fraught with obstacles even when they thought it was safe to relax. Simple gathering of the ball? Career-ending dog-headbutt. Feeling healthy and fancy a salad? Broken toe. Can’t be bothered to get up to retrieve a remote control? Strained back. Their lives are at such constant risk it’s as if they’re starring in their own low-budget horror film. If it was me I’d be a constant bag of nerves, glancing behind my shoulder every five seconds.
David De Gea, whose superb performance against Liverpool on Sunday masked what are still serious problems in our side, knows what it’s like to feel scared. When he arrived at United as a fluffy-haired, wafer-thin 21-year-old in 2011, he played Judy to the Premier League’s Punch as burly strikers lined up to welcome him to the Premier League in the only way they knew how.
Not any more. Fresh from sending Raheem Sterling and Mario Balotelli home in tears, De Gea has well and truly completed his transformation from a boy whose safety was something for us all to worry about into a man who now makes us feel safe. By the end of the game, his saves from Balotelli were almost pitying towards the Italian, as if the Spaniard was irritated he wasn’t being tested more sternly: ‘I grow tired of this, Mario,’ the last save seemed to say in particular. ‘Away with you.’
For those old enough to remember days of Peter Schmeichel, De Gea’s performance offered some moments that might have reminded them of the great Dane. Schmeichel’s presence was always his strength and, despite his much smaller frame, De Gea replicated it on Sunday. Against both Balotelli and Sterling, when faced with a one-on-one battle, De Gea refused to blink and stayed on his feet, staying as large as possible and forcing the both players to make the first the move.
In each case the finishes were poor but the Spaniard’s steely nerve was in stark contrast to the his opposite number Brad Jones, who was so jumpy that on two occasions he made the curious decision to dive before the ball was even struck by Wayne Rooney. The Liverpool goalkeeper had failed to rise to the occasion, something which De Gea is beginning to make a reassuring habit.
“Though we owe much to Atletico Madrid for his initial development, De Gea has the feel of an Old Trafford youngster who has grown from a boy under Sir Alex Ferguson’s faith and protection to one of the very few established starters to emerge from the David Moyes era with any distinction.”
At a time when our club has chosen a quick-fix, big-spend route to mend our depleted squad – something which has of course been absolutely necessary – it has been a pleasure to witness the end result of De Gea’s three intense years of development at the club. Though we owe much to Atletico Madrid for his initial development, De Gea has the feel of an Old Trafford youngster who has grown from a boy under Sir Alex Ferguson’s faith and protection to one of the very few established starters to emerge from the David Moyes era with any distinction.
He is now, surely, a leading contender alongside Courtois, Hart and Neuer to be considered the world’s finest goalkeeper. His performances, don’t forget, have come from behind a defence stitched together with old toilet rolls and duck tape. On Sunday he had to be on full alert from brainless back-passes from Evans and Young. He has, quite simply, carried our defence in the last six games and been the only constant in a back line ravaged by injury and poor form.
De Gea’s value now, for United, is as immeasurable as that of Edwin van der Sar’s tenure had on the club from 2005 until his retirement in 2011. The Dutchman’s authority was absolute, his athleticism astonishing, his presence reassuring and he was playing behind Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic at the peak of their powers. De Gea has been far less fortunate with what has been in front of him this season.
The future is uncertain, but De Gea’s critical importance to United is without question. Along with Robin van Persie, Rooney and Michael Carrick, he has been a leader of men for our club and his best may be yet to come. All we ask is that he stays away from dogs, salad and remote controls.