David ‘Van’ De Gea – the nickname given to United’s number one by his former colleagues at Atletico Madrid. It seemed quite apt, given both his willowy appearance and occasionally spectacular saves. However, several months into his United career, he was beginning to look more like David ‘De James’.
Some calamitous displays characterised by a number of high profile errors, most notably at Basel and Anfield which contributed to United’s elimination from both the Champions League and the FA Cup.
This season has certainly been the proverbial baptism of fire for De Gea, not only in terms of the unenviable task of replacing Van Der Sar, but also bedding in behind an unsettled defence beset by injury.
There have been glimpses of the brilliance that first brought the young Spaniard to SAF’s attention but they were always going to be overshadowed by the slapstick moments that the media and fans sought to pounce upon.
These gaffs were held up as evidence that here was yet another goalkeeping misjudgement to be added to the list occupied by the likes of Taibi, Bosnich and Carroll. Another player not yet ready to cope with the fearsome spotlight placed on keepers at the club, another keeper destined to be cast aside or sent out on loan. This was then compounded by the talk of De Gea needing a corrective operation for his eyesight at the end of the season – the way the ball was failing to stick at one stage it seemed that the end of the season couldn’t arrive quickly enough.
How encouraging then that in the last couple of months as the business end of the season approaches we’ve seen a resurgent De Gea rise to the challenge and put in some stellar performances leading to him winning the United fan’s player of the month award for February.
This is something that seemed almost unimaginable following that 6-1 drubbing yet SAF’s continued faith in the player no longer seems folly, with De Gea time and again bringing out spectacular saves at crucial periods during matches.
The save from Mata’s exquisitely placed free-kick preserving the 3-3 fightback at Stamford Bridge is undoubtedly one of the more extraordinary stops you’re likely to see in this or any other season. It was also notable that during the footballing lesson handed out by Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao at the San Mame, De Gea stood tall whilst all around him appeared to crumble and proved to be a stubborn dam stemming the waves of attacks from the Basque marauders, thereby preventing what looked like an inevitable thrashing and a humiliating scoreline.
So just what has happened that has brought about this apparent reversal in fortunes?
Firstly it’s worth keeping in mind that whilst the media and opposition fans (and even some impatient United fans) were calling for his head, Sir Alex did what you’d expect of Sir Alex – he pulled up the drawbridge and vigorously defended the player and heaped praise upon him whilst simultaneously rotating him with Lindegard – although rotation and ‘dropping’ are sometimes difficult to distinguish between, it seems Sir Alex managed to avoid further damaging De Gea’s confidence.
De Gea has visibly grown in recent months and whilst he isn’t yet the domineering, vocal presence United fans expect of their keepers he’s certainly gained the respect of his teammates, particularly Michael Carrick:
“He’s made some huge saves at crucial times and that’s what great goalkeepers do. They make the big saves when they’re needed and that’s what David has done. He’s stepped up and has been terrific”.
It’s also heartening to hear De Gea describe his ambitions to stay at the club for a “long time” and also citing Peter Schmeichel as one of his footballing heroes – not a bad example to follow. Making light of that £18.5 million price tag was never going to be easy, but with squeaky bum time now upon us and games coming thick and fast between now and May, it really is perfect timing for ‘Van De Gea’ to make his mark at the club.