Manchester United dropped out of the FA Cup this week, an Old Trafford defeat by Arsenal leaving them destined for a second consecutive trophy-less season. Louis van Gaal’s team, very much in a period of transition, struggled for inspiration on an occasion that Manchester United teams of old, title-winning teams, would’ve dragged themselves through by sheer force of will.
There were a several isolated good performers. One being Wayne Rooney, who scored a fine captain’s goal to equalise, playing as the loan striker in a 4-5-1. The other was goalkeeper David de Gea, who made two outstanding saves in the second half to keep his team in it, having been sold short by Luis Valencia for Danny Welbeck’s goal, which turned out to be the winner for Arsenal.
De Gea had a slow start to his Manchester United career, initially struggling to adapt to the differences in style of English football – looking suspect under the high ball in particular. A first choice keeper and Europa League winner with Athletico Madrid, his credentials were strong, and as such, he was under intense scrutiny. He’s established himself as the clear first choice at Old Trafford, and has collected well over 100 appearances in a little under four years with the club.
He’s filling big shoes. Another Manchester United goalkeeper was at Old Trafford on Monday night, Peter Schmeichel was there with the BBC as pundit and official ball drawer. Schmeichel saved a Bergkamp penalty in that FA Cup semi final replay against Arsenal in 1999, with the team on the way to a treble. Schmeichel will be forever associated with that successful United team of the late 1990s. An imposing figure, who at times looked bigger than the goal, steely and determined, his trademark starfish jump, arms and legs wide, shutting off every angle.
Peter had ‘it’ that year (as did much of the rest of the team), but the bigger story is in the numbers, eight years, 300-odd appearances, and 113 Premier League clean sheets. That’s stability, dependability.
The best keepers carry that aura, that seemingly supernatural ability to perform the impossible, to bail out a team with save after save, before springing back to your feet and scream in the ear of the centre back who dared let an opposing player turn him and forced you to clean up his mess.
Manchester United have had that on and off for the last twenty years. Schmeichel’s departure at the end of that treble-winning season saw several pretenders arrive and depart, including a World Cup winner in Fabian Barthez. The weight of the Stretford End (and the heat of Sir Alex’s hairdryer) is difficult to handle.
Edwin van der Sar was the eventual successor, but by the time he joined in 2005 he was already well into his 30s – if not a fading light, then one that was already burning its brightest. Van der Sar gave United five good years – longer than could’ve been envisaged when he joined – but what he did not offer was that long term stability and dependability. To put it into context, the season before a young goalkeeper, barely 22-years-old, had joined Chelsea – Petr Cech has only this season been replaced as first choice at Stamford Bridge.
In de Gea, United found a talented successor to van der Sar – and a young, raw talent at that – at 24 he is settled, he has done has adapting to life in England; in the keeping parlance ‘he knows where his posts are’. If all goes well, he should be between those posts for another ten years.
United’s wider transition will take some time – three more years of rebuilding, former captain Roy Keane said on Monday night – but with de Gea in place they can look up the field.
The trouble will come with trying to keep him. He is often linked to a return to Spain, and Monday night’s performance reignited talk of a move to Real Madrid, where Iker Casillas is showing signs of decline.
That’s the problem with stability and dependability, once that stable, dependable individual has gone, what do you do? Succession is key and good goalkeepers are in short supply. Chelsea’s transition from Cech to Thibaut Courtois was executed as flawlessly as could be expected, with the elder man remaining as a well-qualified understudy. Another important role. If Manchester United were to lose de Gea, they would have to begin the search for a long term option again. But in the meantime, they’ve always got Victor Valdes.