Massimo Taibi. It’s fair to say that if you asked a cross section of Manchester United fans to name their top three keepers, he would not feature. Instead he will be remembered for his ill-fated tenure, culminating in conceding a goal through his legs at Anfield during his own one man horror show.
Why mention this you may ask? He is highlighted as an example of a goalkeeper that we bought to replace the legendary Great Dane Peter Schmeichel. After Schmeichel left in 1999 we tried a few. There was the eccentric chain smoking Fabian Barthez, the takeaway eating Mark Bosnich, the afore mentioned Taibi and of course Roy Carroll who is best remembered for Pedro Mendes goal-that-was-never-given, when the ball was practically in the East Stand it was so far over the line.
None of the goalkeepers came anywhere near to emulating the ability of big Peter. And how could they? He will go down as one of the bargain signings of all time. After initially struggling with the physicality of the English game (Wimbledon, in particular, giving him early problems) he developed into one of the best keepers the world has ever seen.
It was only on signing Edwin van der Sar that United found a consistent keeper who was part of a brilliant back four and was the last line of defence during a trophy laden period for United and part of one of Ferguson’s best ever United teams. Sceptics may argue that Van der Sar was never under real pressure as he had Ferdinand and Vidic at their peak and, more importantly, a pairing that were rarely injured. Rafael/Brown and Evra also being at his peak meant that there were certain games where he did very little. However, when called upon he had the concentration levels to react accordingly. Fergie later admitted that he should have signed him much earlier when he left Juventus and prior to him signing for Fulham.
Replacing a brilliant keeper in his late 30s with an inexperienced 20-year-old was a surprise to many and when we signed David De Gea– or “Spanish Dave” as he is affectionately known amongst United fans (paying a relatively large fee in the process), there were more than a few eyebrows raised.
However, those La Liga experts amongst us knew the potential of the young Spaniard. Having watched him provide a proverbial brick wall in a game against Barcelona and preventing an absolute hammering rather than a loss by the odd goal, it was clear that his shot stopping abilities were outstanding.
Arriving in a new country not speaking the language and playing in a new league would pose problems for the most experienced hardened veteran, let alone a 20-year-old boy. Homesickness was a real problem, which he has admitted to in later interviews, and it’s testament to the coaching of Eric Steele that he started to settle in. Small factors like Steele learning Spanish even just to count from one to ten in Spanish with him, made the shy young boy feel more at home.
His early days were a struggle. He was criticised for his performance against West Brom in his first League game and the media were quick to highlight numerous examples of him “flapping” when dealing with crosses. He was dropped for Anders Lindegaard after an awful performance at home to Blackburn and there were some United fans that privately started to doubt his durability to play in the English game.
However the boy very quickly grew into a man. Hard work in the gym and English lessons resulted in a much more confident, physically imposing athlete. His career defining save probably came in the 3-3 draw with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge when he acrobatically clawed away a postage stamp perfect free kick from his great friend and now colleague Juan Mata. This save in particular has been credited as a big turning point in his United career. From this he has gone from strength to strength and was one of the few players if indeed the only player to emerge from Moyes’s horror season with any credit.
To credit Chris Woods, De Gea probably developed even further under his coaching and now under Frans Hoek, it is fair to say that this development has continued. Considering he is on his third goalkeeping coach in three years and consistently plays behind a different back four every week, then his performances have been that much more impressive.
Saves against Everton, Arsenal, Southampton and many others have seen us come away with three points rather than one or indeed suffering a loss. Indeed even Gary Neville has changed his opinion on him. His brilliant analysis on Sky charting De Gea’s development over the last three years was superbly articulated.
So what of his future? Where does this leave us now? He has 18 months left on his contract and despite United and Woodward telling the media that he is “relaxed” about the situation, he is yet to sign a new deal. His agent Jorge Mendes is now a friend of the club and has formed an unlikely close friendship with Ed Woodward by all accounts but he will certainly not let business get in the way of sentiment.
He will, quite naturally, demand top dollar for his client and when you consider that only Neuer and Courtois are currently discussed in the same breath as our Spanish stopper, you can understand why. Many United fans are of the “give him whatever he wants” persuasion and De Gea certainly holds all the cards here. If he lets his contract run down then this summer represents our last chance to cash in on him. A possibility is that he may be used as bait to buy Gareth Bale but there are many United fans out there that would much prefer to keep De Gea and save the money.
De Gea has, on more than one occasions, stated he is happy at United and we are now in a unique situation where there are almost more Spanish speakers in the dressing room than English. He is close to Herrera and Mata and lives a relatively stress free life away from the glare that playing for Real Madrid would bring. His English is good and he appears to enjoy life at United. However, still the contract remains unsigned…..
And now we have Victor Valdes. The hugely decorated World Cup/European Championship, three-time European Cup winning Spanish goalkeeper. Valdes goes back a long way with Van Gaal after being given his chance at 20 by the Dutchman at Barcelona. Having trained at Carrington and impressing Van Gaal and his staff with his attitude and performances, he has now joined in an 18-month deal.
Has Valdes come to sit on the bench or is he being signed as cover in the full knowledge that De Gea is off to Real Madrid who have made no secret of their desire to sign the future Spanish No.1? Only a few people at United know but the longer De Gea’s contract remains unsigned, the more the speculation will continue. Could the lure of his homeland prove too much?
Valdes is only 32, a young age for such a highly experienced keeper. He would be first-choice at most teams, so his imminent signing is certainly posing more questions than answers. If De Gea does sign a new deal, then United are in an enviable position of having two superb keepers.
One criticism of the current set-up is that De Gea has not really been pushed. He can perform poorly safe in the knowledge that he is unlikely to be dropped for Lindegaard who Van Gaal clearly doesn’t rate. Having Valdes as a No.2 will push De Gea even more. We are on track to qualify for the Champions League next year and if this is achieved, then there will be many more games to give De Gea a rest, not to mention a hopefully longer run in the Capital Cup and FA Cup games.
There will be many United fans out there who sincerely hope Valdes has been signed as a back-up and nothing more whilst there will no doubt be others out there who would prefer a cash plus players deal with Real Madrid.
Having regained some popularity with United fans pre-season with his spectacular signings, Ed Woodward now has the challenge of ensuring that we tie Spanish Dave down to a long term deal.
He may well go back to Spain at some point but for the foreseeable future and during this period of transition, we need to have the very best as our last line of defence. In De Gea, we have that, but for how much longer?