Following Manchester United’s 3-1 win over Arsenal on Saturday, social media was awash with angry Arsenal fans, bemoaning that the best team had lost.
When you consider that Jose Mourinho’s men scored three times as many goals and played with 10 men for the last 20 minutes, it’s hard to justify that Arsenal were the better side, regardless of how much possession they had when chasing the game or chances they created.
Still, a reoccurring complaint was that if not for David de Gea, United wouldn’t have won. It’s a strange argument. If not for Jesse Lingard, who scored two goals, United wouldn’t have won either.
And if my aunt had balls, she’d be my uncle. De Gea plays for United, right? He is their goalkeeper? So, he’s allowed to do his job and keep the ball out of his net so the other players on his team can put it in Arsenal’s in order to win the game.
The Spanish goalkeeper made 14 saves, the joint-most recorded since Opta began reporting on such statistics in the Premier League, and should have been named Man of the Match.
From a foot away, Alexandre Lacazette could only find De Gea’s shin with his first real chance of the game. Minutes later, he tried to take the ball around De Gea but his attempt was saved and deflected on to the crossbar.
De Gea then had a diving save to deny Hector Bellerin when he struck from outside of the box, before arguably the best save of the game, after a cross deflected off Romelu Lukaku’s thigh.
The speed at which De Gea reacted to stop the ball crossing the line was extraordinary.
If there hadn’t been enough pressure on the goalkeeper in the first half, it was ramped up in the second, with Lacazette pulling one back for Arsenal minutes after the restart. This gave the home side their first taste of blood and they continued to pour forward.
The best stop of the second half came when De Gea again denied Lacazette’s powerful shot before, somehow, getting a foot up to stop Alexis Sanchez from the floor. The recovery was remarkable.
After the game, Mourinho revealed he told De Gea that he was the best goalkeeper in the world, and it’s hard to disagree.
DAVID DE GEA! 👏👏👏 pic.twitter.com/8R13c0HXqs
— BT Sport Football (@btsportfootball) December 2, 2017
It’s mad to think about now but there was actually a time when people used to seriously debate who was the better keeper between him and Anders Lindegaard. Remarkably, David James was claiming that Sergio Romero was better than De Gea as recently as two years ago.
Yet, while football fans can be guilty of kneejerk reactions – United fans as much as anyone else – De Gea has largely been very well supported since signing for the club in 2011.
When the away end at Old Trafford used to chant “dodgy keeper!” at the Spaniard, the United fans rallied around him. They had seen enough of him to know that he had the potential to be great.
You can teach goalkeepers to deal with crosses better and you can send skinny goalkeepers down to the gym to bulk up. However, it’s much more difficult to coach them in to having lightning fast reactions, agility that allows them to get a glove to the very top corner of the goal and quick thinking to use feet or legs or any other part of the body available to make a block.
Given that De Gea had replaced a hugely popular player in Edwin Van der Sar, it spoke of the young Spaniard’s potential that the fan base were so willing to be patient with him when he flapped at crosses and was bullied by opposition strikers at corners.
Sir Alex Ferguson had been keen on bringing Manuel Neuer from Schalke to fill Van der Sar’s gloves but goalkeeping coach at the time, Eric Steele, insisted it was Atletico Madrid’s De Gea that United had to go for.
United fans chanted “one more year” at Van der Sar when he bid farewell at the end of the 2010-11 season. He holds the world record for the longest time without conceding a league goal, at 1311 minutes, and won United the Champions League when saving Nicolas Anelka’s penalty in the 2008 final.
Yet many supporters would still argue that he was eclipsed by the exploits of Peter Schmeichel. He also won the Champions League with United, as well as five league titles to Van der Sar’s four, and set the standard for world class goalkeeping.
De Gea’s ranking in comparison to these two goalkeeping legends has been debated fairly widely, but his performance against Arsenal has brought the discussion to the forefront again. Is he better than Schmeichel and Van der Sar were, or could he one day be better if he isn’t already?
The Spaniard has played between the sticks for United during their worst period in three decades.
This is his seventh season at the club and he only played for Ferguson in two of them. While David Moyes and Louis van Gaal oversaw fairly depressing campaigns, you can only imagine how much worse it could have been for United if De Gea hadn’t been their goalkeeper.
Imagine De Gea playing in United’s great teams of the 1990s and 2000s and it’s clear he wouldn’t have looked out of place. And if he had been fortunate enough to play behind a peak Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, or Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister, would it even be questioned that he was the greatest goalkeeper the club has ever had?
De Gea has just turned 27 so, for a goalkeeper, is still fairly young. Remarkably, his best years may still be ahead of him.
His current deal expires in 2019, with an option of a further year, and United may well be able to keep for even longer than that.
Reports from Spain this week suggest that De Gea has no interest in signing for Real Madrid any more, despite coming minutes from joining the Spanish giants a few years ago.
“Real Madrid? I’m the goalkeeper of Manchester United and Spain. What more could I ask for?” was the reported response from De Gea after Madrid president Florentino Perez made contact with agent Jorge Mendes.
When he does leave, whenever that may be, will he unanimously be recognised as the club’s greatest ever? Time will tell, but he’s already making a great case for that argument.