David De Gea didn’t do much last Saturday versus Hull. He circulated the ball from deep, as was the modus operandi of a United side containing preeminent triangle manufacturers, Messrs Carrick, Herrera and Mata. He knocked long balls towards the bobbing and tottering afro of Marouane Fellaini and late on, he saved an apologetic header from Nikica Jelavic at his near post; very simply, catching the ball and securing it to his chest. There was a moment in the second half though, when Jelavic challenged Rojo for another header and the ball floated harmlessly over our crossbar, where De Gea’s continued excellence in the United goal was put into what was for me, a previously unconsidered context.
The incident was one of those where the fallible perspective of the television cameras can fool you into thinking that the ball is on course to drop at a tauntingly slow rate into the net. Of course it didn’t but it seemed like De Gea too, had thought that it might and it was clear that he didn’t like the idea. He skipped across his line like the ball’s concerned chaperone, turning towards the East Stand as he watched it drift out of play. But the instant it did so, his complexion changed. He wheeled around and, advancing a couple of steps towards his defenders, bollocked them. Watching this was a quasi-religious experience. Before me was no longer David De Gea but the Holy Trinity of United Goalkeepers. All at once – Schmeichel, van der Sar and De Gea.
It started me thinking about his place in the canon.
When De Gea arrived at Old Trafford in the summer of 2011 he was in some ways an alien species to United fans. While Sir Alex would always promote youthful outfield players to the first team a young goalkeeper had never been our number one. De Gea’s introduction at just twenty years of age and at a record price for a Premier League goalkeeper (£17.8 million) bucked that trend in spectacular fashion. Fergie had bought goalkeepers of comparable ages before; Luke Steele was 18 when he signed and Ben Foster, 22, but both were brought in as understudies. The club was given the opportunity to work with them and they, that opportunity to develop. The hope was that they might one day be our first choice. De Gea’s position was far more awkward. Starting football matches for a club like Manchester United and in a team that the previous season had won the Premier League by 9 points and contested the Champions League final with Barcelona, demanded that he be the finished article while reason suggested he would be a work in progress.
He felt familiar in other ways though. His talent was undoubtable but it was his style that made us nostalgic for keepers past. I can remember a Van Persie shot during the 8-2 which seemed too low and too close to De Gea’s feet to be saved by traditional means. I could just imagine it sneaking through the young Spaniard and the Arse would have been back in the game at 2-1. David though, collapsed his knees into some yogic contortion and whether it was off his right calf, his right heel or his plummeting right buttock, he somehow managed to deflect the ball away. It was clear from those early moments that De Gea played with the kind of unorthodoxy that allows special players to surpass their more puritanical colleagues. It was the same brilliant unorthodoxy with which Peter Schmeichel kept the United goal throughout the nineties. Compare if you will Schmeichel’s starfish save to deny Inter’s Zamorano at the back-post in ’99 with De Gea’s stop against Fabio Coentrao in the Bernabeu. No, I’m not talking about the first half dive to his right, which in itself was proof of De Gea’s startling ability and potential. I’m talking about the Khedira cross which Coentrao attacked at the far post. The effort was somewhat stubbed back into the turf and so bounced up steeply towards the roof of the net, seeming to quicken as it rose. It’s hard to imagine anyone in the stadium that night or anyone who watched the game on television that could have been unsurprised and unimpressed by the sight of De Gea’s extendo right boot, appearing as if from nowhere to clear the danger. The ability to produce those kind of saves, ones which surprise all who witness them, was integral to Schmeichel’s legend. They gave us the belief that our keeper could rescue balls that seem beyond the point of no return. De Gea has that same ability and gives us that same belief.
I don’t remember Edwin van der Sar making quite the same calibre of saves. Somewhat surprisingly I was never privy to discussions inside the sports science dept. at Carrington but I suspect that he just lacked slightly in terms of athleticism. At his advanced age, his muscles were less plyometric than those of the other two and his reflexes, less sharp. What made his Manchester United legend was serenity. That may seem an odd adjective to use but I’ll try to convince you of it. Re-watch almost any United game from between 2005 and 2011 and you’ll see Edwin at work. Like an old carpenter who has cut and whittled while perched on the same high stool in the same dusty workshop for ever and a day, by the time Edwin came to Old Trafford, he was a master of his craft. A veteran of European glories with Ajax and Juventus and Premier League football with Fulham (when they were a solid club!); he had learned the tricky geometry of the penalty box and the habitual tendencies of attackers before arriving at United. When we watched him we saw the fruits of that labour. A serenity based on a deep and essential understanding of his position. It is so exciting to watch David De Gea develop that serenity. Michael Owen said this of van der Sar in 2010: “He’s so suited to Manchester United […] for example, the way he never panics when he is kicking. You might not notice it but you can’t underestimate how much that helps the team. […] He’ll play the ball out to his full-back and get it back and there might be no pass on with somebody charging him down. But he won’t panic. Some goalkeepers are so scared of making a mistake they will just whack it, but not Edwin. Edwin sets off everything for us.” Every week we see De Gea performing the same role for the team. His familiar first time switch of flank comes from a similar unwillingness to kick aimlessly and just like it did for van der Sar, reflects his growing understanding of the goalkeeper’s position at Manchester United.
On Sky Sports in 2013 Gary Neville told us that De Gea needed a title. He felt that the young keeper required the validation of calling himself a champion and to allow that label to inflate his ego; make him feel big-time enough to play at Manchester United. That title came the same year but its De Gea’s only major honour to date. It’s regrettable but true that irrespective of his skill he will not be remembered in the canon of United goalkeeping legends unless his trophy haul stacks up. The fact that last season De Gea was the first keeper in the club’s history to be named Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year is illustrative of this position and strikes me as being so sad! De Gea is a great goalkeeper playing in a team without enough collective greatness to propel him to legend status. Now, the imminent trip to Southampton on Monday night represents an opportunity to move into the top three for the first time since Fergie’s retirement. I’m not alone in thinking that under Louis van Gaal, genuine success might not be too far away. Therein lies De Gea’s opportunity to join Schmeichel and van der Sar in that select band. At least we know that he actively chases the possibility. On signing, The Guardian quoted him: “I would love if one day the fans speak of me in the same way they speak of Edwin and Peter Schmeichel. That would mean all the hard work has paid off.”