As always, during the transfer window, there is a great deal of speculation and conjecture which surrounds the possible movements of players into and out of our club. As I write this, we have just sold Memphis Depay to Lyon and, earlier in the window, allowed Morgan Schneiderlin to leave for Everton. Both players’ sales have fuelled debate as fans argue whether their sales were justified, or whether they could have carved niches into the Manchester United team, as starters or within the supporting squad cast.
Furthermore, there has been ceaseless debate about how to replace Michael Carrick, who approaching 36, is coming to the end of his illustrious career at Manchester United. Even Old Father Time, whom Carrick has somehow eluded thus far, appears to be catching up with him and the theories on how to replace him have abounded.
As I ruminated over these issues during the last week, I began to formulate a hypothesis that there could be an “irreplaceable” player. As I perused the most prime candidates for this accolade, I considered the merits in particular of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba but then realised who, ultimately, in my opinion, is in a league of his own.
The man for whom an infamous fax machine malfunction prevented him moving to Real Madrid, the only man who every single rival fan admits is truly world class in our ranks and the man who has the complete trust of his fellow players. The answer, of course, is David De Gea. To analyse whether he truly is irreplaceable we must consider his Manchester United career:
When De Gea arrived at the club in 2011, it was for a British record fee for a goalkeeper of roughly 17.8 million. I firmly believe that no fan of our club would say that since then we have been short-changed in the slightest and we have received more than a commensurate level of vital saves and performances which have cemented him as a firm favourite. Although he struggled in his first season and was criticised roundly, De Gea showed the mental character and resolve necessary to stick around and prove his mettle and his worth. Peter Schmeichel commented regarding the early period of De Gea’s United tenure:
“I admire David De Gea. I cannot remember anyone coming into Manchester United and being criticised the way he was. He was the subject of every debate in the media. You haven’t seen De Gea defend himself in the media or shifting the blame elsewhere. He just gets on with it.”
As I read through other comments about De Gea, it is striking how many reflect or allude to his incredible calmness and composure, a fantastic attribute to have when you are a goalkeeper with all the pressures and scrutiny that the role provides. In the 2012-13 Season, at the tender age of just 22, De Gea was voted into the PFA Premier League Team of the Year as we won the Premier League keeping 11 clean sheets in 28 appearances.
Additionally, he also won the 1st of his Sir Matt Busby awards, which showed the high esteem he had become held in, during only his second season in the Premier League. De Gea also showcased that when it came to incredible stops he was already among the best at this young age, a particularly incredible save from a Torres header a highlight.
In the 2013-14 Season David De Gea won the Save of the Season for an incredible save from that year’s form player, the unstoppable Luis Suarez, who left Phil Jones eating dirt but whose rifled shot from point blank range was somehow parried by De Gea. It was an example yet again, over the past few years, where De Gea had provided a resolute wall, in the face of some pretty abject defending from his United team mates. This year he was named as both the Fans’ Player of the Year and the club’s Players’ Player of the Year.
By 2014-15 David De Gea had already established himself as our most valuable player in his compatriots’ eyes and went on to demonstrate further heroics in this season. On the 5th October 2014, De Gea became the first goalkeeper to save a penalty from Leighton Baines, who had converted all of his prior 14 Premier League penalties. Again, De Gea was named in the PFA Team of the Year for the second time, reclaiming the title that Petr Cech had won the previous year. A save against Everton again earned him the Premier League Save of the Season.
By this point De Gea had attracted great desire from Real Madrid, and in the summer of 2015, an agreement was reached for roughly 29 million, which included Keylor Navas being offered in part exchange. Fortuitously, the deal collapsed due to the paperwork not being submitted before the transfer window closed in Spain. On the 11th September, De Gea signed a new four year deal for the Red Devils to allay any further concerns about losing him for the immediate future. He put aside any personal feelings of disappointment and set about proving himself. Most notably with another quite astonishing save against Watford which won him the Save of the Season for the third consecutive time.
The club itself showed no ill feeling and he became the first player ever to win Manchester United’s Player of the Year for three consecutive seasons. This is perhaps the most remarkable achievement, even amongst so many detailed above, given the illustrious and supremely talented players we have had at Manchester United over the years.
This season (2016-17), there has been a feeling among some supporters that De Gea’s level has dipped when compared with previous seasons. Indeed there is a call that, as rumours again surface about Real Madrid’s possible renewed interest, he could be replaced easily. This complacency and laissez-faire attitude is not borne out by the achievements I have laid out above nor reflective of De Gea’s vast importance to the team.
Some younger readers may not remember the goalkeepers which we had between Schmeichel and Van Der Sar. I struggle, even as I write the names, to block the hideous memories coming back to me. Raimond Van Der Gouw, Mark Bosnich whom Sir Alex Ferguson dubbed a “terrible professional” in his autobiography, Massimo Taibi (the worst of the bunch, in my opinion, who allowed a grass cutter to roll through his legs, in ignominious fashion against Southampton), Fabian Barthez (who famously asked Di Canio whether he could go to the toilet with his hand up in an FA Cup Match, claiming offside as the Italian swept the ball past him for the winner), Roy Carroll ( who will forever be remembered for allowing Pedro Mendes’ shot to creep over the line in the goal that never was) and Tim Howard among the most notable incumbents during this period. Having to revisit these painful memories is justified in this case because it shows us that it can take years to find a worthwhile goalkeeper in particular.
Rival fans always try to insinuate that their keeper is better than De Gea but the facts do not bear these assertions to be true. Two goalkeepers who are often mentioned as better than De Gea this season are Thibaut Courtois of Chelsea and Hugo Lloris of Tottenham Hotspur.
As I looked through the annals of the Sky Sports website, I came across a veritable diamond of an article, which demonstrates unequivocally why David De Gea is a better goalkeeper than not just these two, but all other top goalkeepers in the Premier League also. The global agency World In Motion’s head of research and analytics Sam Jackson studied each of the top goalkeeper’s shot stopping in greater depth. His model consists of two factors-how well a keeper responds to a shot on target and the difficulty of each shot he faced.
De Gea, on both these scales, came second out of the keepers from all six top clubs. Lloris, who came first in response to shots on target, crucially also, had the easiest level of shots to face. Courtois, similarly although first in terms of dealing with the most difficult shots, ranks 5th out of the 7 keepers studied for response. On the final graph which shows the evidence combined, De Gea is comfortably ahead of any other keeper. Jackson summated “De Gea appears an elite shot stopper” and went on to say that “Lloris, meanwhile, has been heralded by many for keeping so many clean sheets for Spurs this year, yet he has faced the easiest shots of any of the ‘keepers at the top six clubs.”
The article, which I have included a link to below, indicates in a rational, scientific and unbiased way what I, and many United fans surmised, that De Gea is simply the best keeper in the Premier League. This, in what some United fans have called his worst season for the club, demands that we consider whether De Gea is not our most valuable asset.
How do you replace someone who is arguably not just the best goalkeeper in the Premier League but the entire world? Someone who has shown time and time again, that he can make saves that no other goalkeeper would, on a regular basis. The saves he has already made this season at key moments, of such effulgent beauty to take away my breath, like that against James McArthur of Crystal Palace and Philippe Coutinho of Liverpool. In my view, any goalkeeper you would bring in would be a downgrade on De Gea, who has proven himself on innumerable occasions to be truly invaluable in goal.
As Vladimir Nabokov remarked:
“The goalkeeper is the lone eagle, the man of mystery, the last defender”.
There is artistry to goalkeeping that is often underappreciated as they perform the job that no one else wants, they are alone and the last bastion of the defensive line. They are the keystone in the unit that provide the support that fortifies the rest of the team. Bearing this in mind, should we allow our keystone to move to Real Madrid? Is it really that easy to replace someone of De Gea’s class? In my book, allowing our most invaluable player to move to Real Madrid is not a situation we should allow as we did when Ronaldo left in 2009. Not if we want to seriously challenge for the Premier League and the Champions League and have ambitions of cementing ourselves as the world’s best club once more. There are some players whose value transcends any monetary value offered and David De Gea, most certainly, is one of those who fall firmly in this irreplaceable category.
Sky Sports Article Regarding Goalkeeping Study: http://www.skysports.com/football/news/11095/10731973/chelsea-tottenham-liverpool-man-city-man-utd-arsenal-39keepers-ranked