When you think of Manchester United, it is natural to conjure up thoughts of great attacking players dazzling fans with sublime skill and glorious goals.
The never-ending conveyor belt of talent at Old Trafford has seen the likes of George Best, Denis Law, Eric Cantona, Ryan Giggs, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo all wow audiences with scintillating performances that have fired the club to trophy after trophy over the years.
Even now, at a point where the Red Devils are at a low, the likes of Robin van Persie, Angel di Maria and Radamel Falcao are some of the world’s top attacking talent. Exciting football is engrained into the DNA of Manchester United.
However, those glory years were also spearheaded by world-class goalkeepers. Whether it was Peter Schmeichel or Edwin van der Sar, the best Manchester United sides always possessed a No.1 capable of producing match-winning displays at the most important times.
In David de Gea, they have another phenomenal goalkeeper who could be pivotal to the club’s search to find a return to trophy winning ways. Here is why we think, for all of Manchester United’s attacking prowess, we think the Spanish shot-stopper is the club’s most integral player:
Reliability Taking Some Pressure Off Vulnerable Defence
At a time when the whole club as an entity is enduring its hardest period in over 25 years, it is imperative that they can rely on their goalkeeper. Fortunately, the No.1 jersey is one area in which Van Gaal has no worries.
Make no mistake; Manchester United’s defence is poor. When taking into account that the Red Devils want to be challenging both Manchester City and Chelsea for the title, there is absolutely no comparison when looking at the three back fours.
Both Chelsea and Manchester City boast fantastic talent in defence, both individually and as a unit. Unfortunately, United can’t claim to have either. What they do possess, though, is a goalkeeper worthy of being heralded on the same platform as Joe Hart and Thiabaut Courtois.
The Red Devils have kept two clean sheets this season and those came against struggling duo Burnley and QPR. However, that is not any sort of blemish on De Gea’s ability and it has often been the Spaniard who has saved his team from further problems. His brilliant showing against Everton was just one example of his inspired early season form and, at a time when Van Gaal has no option but to experiment with his defence, this is crucial for the side.
Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra were all ageing stars but their departures were inevitably always going to be damaging as it confirmed the end of an era. The remaining players, and new additions, will face some difficult times in the coming months and major changes will be needed. The fact De Gea has himself battled through some truly gruelling times at Old Trafford will stand him in great stead as he bids to help Van Gaal form a defensive unit capable of challenging at the top.
It is an old cliché that attackers win games and defenders win titles so this ongoing problem must be addressed. De Gea hasn’t always had it easy at Old Trafford and faced a lot of undeserved negativity at the start of his Manchester United career but he is now universally accepted as one of the Premier League’s best No.1s and having a custodian capable of minding the net for another decade is a huge relief for everyone associated with the club.
Potentially, he could provide the backbone as United look to kickstart another trophy-laden era.
There has never been any doubt regarding De Gea’s goalkeeping ability and followers of Spanish football will testify that he was exceptional during his time at Atletico Madrid. However, what had been scrutinised during his early months at Old Trafford was his physicality. Those questions now seem little more than a distant memory for the ever improving custodian.
Despite making some phenomenal saves, his maiden campaign in England was largely maligned by a number of notable mistakes. Blunders were far too regular for a goalkeeper hoping to keep the gloves on a long-term basis at Old Trafford and his inability to command the area was worrying to say the least.
It is easy to forget that the Spaniard was just 20 when he joined the club. Furthermore, not only did he have to contend with a new culture and language, he was also expected to fill the boots of the retired Edwin van der Sar. A record transfer fee for a goalkeeper also weighed him down during those early months but his recovery has highlighted a mental strength needed to succeed at Manchester United.
De Gea’s physical presence was obviously highlighted by the United coaching staff and he has clearly spent a lot of time working on the training pitch and in the gym. The 23-year-old now cuts a far more commanding figure and this has been key to his success.
Big Game Player
De Gea’s breakthrough moment at Manchester United was undoubtedly his save from future teammate Juan Mata in a 3-3 draw against Chelsea in February 2012.
Having previously lost his place in the team to Anders Lindeagard, the Spaniard was only reinstated because of an injury to his Danish competition. However, De Gea grabbed that opportunity with both hands and was able to keep eight clean sheets during the second half of 2011/12.
A year later, he emerged as a real hero with a sublime individual performance at the Bernabeu as the Red Devils held Real Madrid to a 1-1 draw in the Champions League. Whilst United would go on to lose the return fixture, this standout display proved that the Spaniard was ready to step up to the mark in huge matches.
De Gea has since grown into an extremely reliable shot-stopper and his experience is key to an otherwise new-look United defence. Youngsters like Luke Shaw, Tyler Blackett and Paddy McNair need commanding figure behind them and the No.1 certainly provides a safe guard.
A 2-1 home win over an out-of-form Everton may not sound like a crucial Manchester United victory but the circumstances make it a huge result and there is no doubt that their goalkeeper was central to that success.
The timing of his penalty save from Leighton Baines cannot be overlooked and the late stop from Leon Osman was arguably even more important as it ensured the Red Devils clinched a return to the top four after spending over a year outside of those Champions League qualification places.
Big saves at big moments have become a growing feature of De Gea’s game; his contributions could be key to helping United find a return to the cream of English football.