Resisting, somehow, the tides that dragged most of Manchester United’s players down last season, David de Gea was a shining light, continuing his steady progress and confirming his reputation as one of the Premier League’s best goalkeepers. Under David Moyes in 2013/14, every United player, bar de Gea, regressed, playing well below their base talent. So with a team in front of him floundering, and the mood at the club the worst it’s been in a quarter of a century, de Gea still managed to excel, in his own leggy, lanky unorthodox way. After arriving in Manchester in 2011, for a British record fee for a goalkeeper, he was thrown immediately into the maelstrom of the Premier League, and, young and nervous, was questioned brutally for his less-than-confident command of the area. High balls and lofted crosses exposed his often wiry limpness, and the league’s selection of Golem-like centre backs and centre forwards were lining up to challenge the young Spaniard. He was found wanting that first season, and considered leaving England because of the torrent of, what looks like now, very harsh criticism.
But de Gea’s mental fortitude saw him through that baptism of fire, and the next season he got better, stronger and more confident. His shot-stopping abilities, never questioned initially, soon became a hallmark of his fine play, even if the bizarre methods he’d often utilise drew some funny looks. In Ferguson’s final season, de Gea was supreme on the biggest stage, in a Champions League match against Real Madrid, where he made an incredible series of saves. Despite his eccentric ways, his reactions and instincts in goal were the reason United were able to secure a point at the Bernabeu.
So, turning to this season, de Gea hasn’t showed any signs of slowing. This week he was a virtual match-winner again for his team against Everton, saving a penalty and making three jaw-dropping stops in the final quarter of the match, with United leading by a single goal. Leon Osman and Bryan Oviedo were left wondering exactly how neither of them managed to score an equaliser on Sunday, because against any other keeper they probably would have. Really, as de Gea denied them once, twice, thrice, with each save more astonishing than the last, all they could do was applaud begrudgingly.
Louis van Gaal wasted no time heaping praise on his keeper after the win over Everton. “Well, when you hold a penalty, and in the dying seconds you hold three magnificent saves, when you do that, you are great because you win the game because of that” the Dutchman said post-match. How thankful he must be to have a young goalkeeper of de Gea’s quality, particularly when his defence has been so unsettled this season.
De Gea left Atletico Madrid to come to United in 2011, and one month later Atleti signed a replacement goalkeeper and handed the new man de Gea’s old number 13 shirt. That young, statuesque keeper was Thibaut Coutois, who enjoyed three fantastic seasons in Madrid. He won the Copa del Rey and the La Liga title with Atleti, and was their best player while he was on loan there. In hindsight, the decision to replace de Gea with a largely unknown 19 year old Belgian loanee was a risk for Atleti. Courtois had only just signed for Chelsea a few weeks before his loan move was completed, and prior to that had only played first grade football for Genk in the Belgian league. But, thanks to de Gea’s departure, Courtois was given, and eagerly grasped, the opportunity to become, by the end of his time with Atleti, one of the best keepers in Spain. His size, strength and speed across the line made him an imposing obstacle for every striker he was pitted against.
Courtois endured a much less satisfying day this weekend. He received a heavy blow in a collision with Alexis Sanchez, with the Chilean’s hip crashing into his head. It was concerning in the extreme to see the Chelsea keeper fall immediately, motionless, to the ground, apparently knocked out. Even more alarming, Courtois played on for a further 10 or so minutes. Cech replaced him eventually, and Chelsea have come under fire for not substituting Courtois as soon as the collision occurred. The club have offered an update on Courtois saying that all head injury tests have come back clear, though they weren’t to know that this would be the case when he was let back on the field on Saturday. You would have thought that, with Cech required to wear head protection ever since his horrendous head injury in 2006, that Chelsea and Mourinho would have acted less recklessly. Nevertheless, this unfortunate incident aside, Courtois has been excellent for Chelsea, and his regal presence in a team sitting in first position on the table seems very comfortable indeed. He owes, indirectly, a debt of gratitude to de Gea for vacating the Atleti keeper’s position in 2011; it’s unlikely he would have usurped Cech by now had he not had the chance to play so impressively in Spain.
Though they took very different paths, de Gea and Courtois now stand together as perhaps the two best keepers in the league. At 23 and 22 respectively, each have a more than a decade at the very top of the sport, and are established at two of England’s biggest clubs. As Sir Alex Ferguson said about Peter Schmeichel in his prime, having a world class keeper was “worth ten extra points a season”. With Courtois and de Gea growing together, Chelsea and Manchester United have their goalkeeping responsibilities cradled in safe hands.