David de Gea has finally settled Manchester United goalkeeper debate
There were 20 minutes left on the clock and the wind was finally in Manchester United’s sails.
They had gone 2-0 down in the opening 45 minutes after two lapses of concentration and due to their own poor finishing, but the crowd was agitated and they were staring down the barrel of going bottom of their Champions League group at the halfway stage.
Yet early on in the second half, Marcus Rashford ran on to a superb Bruno Fernandes pass and calmly slotted the ball into the far corner. The comeback was on.
It’s a well-worn script by this point but it never gets any less thrilling and the swell of noise inside Old Trafford telegraphed the anticipation.
But this time it could have gone all wrong. At the 70-minute mark, Atalanta’s Duvan Zapata brought down a long ball and turned Victor Lindelof with ease. He was clear through with only the goalkeeper to beat. Fans held their breath. But David de Gea won the battle.
He stuck out a leg to block Zapata’s strike and then the ball fell to Ruslan Malinovskiy in the edge of the area, who let fly just seconds later but De Gea was on hand again to deflect the ball over the bar.
It was as good a double save as it was a crucial one, as United conceding a third at that moment would have been disastrous. It would have ended their inevitable comeback in its tracks and could have seen what was an incredible atmosphere become sour.
Yet De Gea was on hand to keep Atalanta at bay, then just four minutes later Harry Maguire equalised and Cristiano Ronaldo once again found the late winner. Old Trafford erupted in celebration and, regardless of how much the result may be yet another fresh layer of paint on a crumbling wall, there are no better victories to witness and revel in as a supporter.
Without De Gea it wouldn’t have happened and it just encapsulates the form that he is in.
Between 2013-16 De Gea was the only bright spot in otherwise fallow years for United, winning the club’s Player of the Year award three successive seasons and establishing himself as one of the very best goalkeepers in the world.
But a steep decline in his very high standards crept in over the years since – though there was another excellent campaign in 2017-18 – when it looked increasingly like he had lost his step. Silly mistakes were becoming more and more prominent, shots that should have been saved were squeezing in and his confidence looked low.
He lost his spot as Spain’s No.1 and it was of little surprise that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer sought to find an alternative as he began to give opportunities to Dean Henderson, who had impressed so much during two years at Sheffield United, last season.
He looked good, too, keeping clean sheets in half of his 26 games and looking like he had made the spot his own as he started 10 of the final 12 games of the campaign.
De Gea got the surprising nod in the Europa League final but that would be a low point for the Spaniard, as he failed to save a single penalty in the deciding shootout and missed the decisive kick himself to hand Villarreal the trophy.
Ahead of the current season, it looked as though Henderson would be the first choice stopper going forward but, as fate would have it, injury ruled out the England international out of Euro 2020 and then a nasty bout of Covid-19 laid him low for the start of the season and allowed De Gea to come back in unopposed.
While unfortunate for Henderson, De Gea has taken the opportunity with both hands and hasn’t yet dropped it once.
He looks like he has regained that lost confidence, is finding a more commanding nature and, crucially of all, is making big saves in big moments.
It doesn’t mean to say United are a defensive force, they are far from it and De Gea has only managed to keep one clean sheet, but that is much more down to the issues in front of him than any problem of his own. Eight games into the season so far and his save percentage is currently at 70.6 per cent, having finished last year with 67.1 per cent.
Henderson, meanwhile, just can’t get a look in. With his ambition and ability, it may not be long before he seeks a move away from the club to get regular first-team minutes because they’re looking increasingly difficult to find in Manchester.
United have a lot of selection dilemmas all over the pitch, but goalkeeper is no longer one of them. That debate appears to have finally been settled.