Ole Gunnar Solskjaer insisted after Manchester United’s win over Tottenham Hotspur that David de Gea belongs in the same category as Edwin van der Sar and Peter Schmeichel.
The Spaniard became the main talking point of a superb game after pulling off a total of 11 saves in the second half to preserve Man United’s one-goal advantage.
It was just the latest episode in a series of beautifully idiosyncratic, hugely important, impossibly good performance for United from De Gea, who now has 342 club appearances.
Speaking after the game, Solskjaer pointed out that the keeper deserved to be mentioned in the same breath as Schmeichel and Van der Sar.
“He had one against Arsenal last year but he should have held a few of them,” he said. “But there’s maybe one or two fantastic saves and the rest was about concentration and being in the right position.”
“We’ve had some great keepers at this club and I think he’s challenging Edwin and Peter for the number one spot historically.”
De Gea has one key difference with his two main goalkeeping ancestors at United: they both won lots of trophies, including the Champions League, and he hasn’t. It is almost six years since the Spaniard won his only Premier League title.
In a way, though, it doesn’t matter, because measuring De Gea’s quality by trophies alone misses the ultimate point: that he is a pioneer.
Before De Gea, keepers who used their feet to save shots usually found themselves criticised for not getting in the right position earlier to stop balls with their hands. The way the ball bounced off the foot of keepers before De Gea looked skittish, panicky, as if bound more by sudden circumstance than design.
De Gea, as his performance yesterday illustrated, has taken this phenomenon and moulded it into something of a personal craft, something only he really knows how to do. United fans have now grown accustomed to the sight of the Spaniard, a low shot fizzing towards his goal, somehow relaxing all his body in a way which lets him drop vertically downwards while his feet shoot out to direct the ball elsewhere. If you think about it, the whole thing is an extreme of extreme acrobatics.
Just like how Lev Yashin was the first keeper to control his whole defence and how Manuel Neuer established the role of a ‘sweeper keeper’, De Gea will, I believe, be remembered by posterity as the keeper who cultivated the idea of actively using all four limbs – rather than merely two – to stop the ball hitting his net.