De Gea is the perfect player for a Man United team in disarray, but he's also the most unlucky
Another night, another majestic save made to look ordinary. When David De Gea soared to deny Cristiano Ronaldo -- currently surrounded by the most serious of allegations -- a fairytale return to Old Trafford, turning the former United forward's rising drive over the crossbar, the most notable thing was how effortless it looked. There was nothing new about a dominant 1-0 win by Juventus over Manchester United in the UEFA Champions League -- in that sense, it was all very 1990s -- and similarly, there was nothing new about excellence from De Gea.
With the exception of a surprisingly unassured performance at the 2018 World Cup, he has been routinely superb for the past five seasons. There were recent reports that he was set to become the club's highest-earner; if confirmed, this news is substantially overdue. After all, there are few other goalkeepers in the world who could have coped with so many changes in personnel in their back four and still retained such extraordinary form. In fact, De Gea has been so good that he now deserves to be ranked alongside Old Trafford's other goalkeeping greats of the modern era, Peter Schmeichel and Edwin van der Sar.
When it comes to Schmeichel and van der Sar, De Gea is a fascinating blend of the Dane and the Dutchman, his abilities being a Venn diagram of their strengths. He is better with his feet than Schmeichel was, though not as good as van der Sar in that department; while he lacks the presence of Schmeichel, he compares favourably to van der Sar in that category. The one area in which he arguably exceeds them both is that of shot-stopping.
In February 2013, away at Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League, De Gea made a first-half save that saw Schmeichel, a pundit that evening, in apparent disbelief during the half-time studio show. Facing a low, violently swerving drive from Fabio Coentrao, De Gea somehow flung himself down and across to his left, turning the ball against the right-hand post with an outstretched palm. The touch was so subtle and the shot so fast that at first glance, there was little indication that De Gea had made contact with Coentrao's effort.
Schmeichel, who had himself rescued United many a time in Europe, initially seemed stunned too. Perhaps he was reflecting that even at his own peak, it was a strike that he might have struggled to reach.
Such is De Gea's brilliance, in fact, that several of his teammates owe him a considerable debt. It is unlikely that some of United's defenders would have survived quite so long at Old Trafford. Just look at some numbers from the last season alone, when United finished second in the Premier League behind Manchester City.
Despite that lofty position, according to WhoScored.com, De Gea was joint fifth out of 20 goalkeepers for total saves made, with 114. He achieved this figure having faced 144 shots, ninth-most of all goalkeepers, and his percentage of shots saved, some 79.9 percent, was the highest in the division. Almost unsurprisingly, he had the most clean sheets, with 18 in 37 league appearances.
Perhaps most worryingly for United, they allowed these figures even though they had the sixth-highest percentage of possession in the Premier League -- a statistic that suggests that they had a great deal of the ball and were prone to lose it in dangerous areas due to sudden lapses of concentration, thus relying on De Gea to bail them out.
It is certain that the club would have won nowhere near as many major trophies during De Gea's tenure. His haul at United is relatively small for a club of this stature, but it's notable all the same -- one Premier League, one FA Cup, one League Cup and one Europa League in seven full seasons and over 300 games -- and he has played a decisive role in each campaign.
It is striking, too, that De Gea is the perfect goalkeeper for the times in which the club finds itself. Just as Schmeichel, with his javelin-length throws, and van der Sar, with his passing worthy of an elite centre-back, were ideal for successive United eras of thrilling counter-attack and more contemplative building from the back, so De Gea is perfect for United's current age of chaos. At a time when his team's form fluctuates wildly not only from game to game but even from half to half, De Gea is the supreme firefighter, redeeming United on the numerous alarming occasions when they fail to close down opposing forwards or fail to coordinate their movements with each other, leaving him exposed to one-on-ones.
While De Gea is not the best goalkeeper United have had -- that accolade must probably still go to Schmeichel given the unprecedented heights the club reached while he was at his peak -- it is impressive that given the difficulty of his start at United, he is now firmly a part of that conversation. Unlike Schmeichel and van der Sar, though, there may be an enduring sense of minor tragedy to his time at Old Trafford.
Apart from an all-too-brief period a few seasons ago, De Gea has never truly been surrounded by a team commensurate with his talents. It's a damning indictment of a club so famed for its exhilarating play in attack that its outstanding player of the past five years has been its goalkeeper; supporters are therefore all the more grateful that De Gea has been there to see United through this most unglamorous of transitions away from the Sir Alex Ferguson era.
It's jarring to consider how much more severe these years could have been without him.