It is not often, mused former Manchester United defender Gary Neville, that a goalkeeper is awarded man-of-the-match in a 3-0 victory, especially when it is the victors’ stopper. Indeed, David de Gea’s nine-save performance against Liverpool at Old Trafford merited every award coming on Sunday. It proved to be yet one more in a string of increasingly inspired performances from the 24-year-old Spaniard this season. One that also begs the question, with De Gea out of contract in June 2016, and Real Madrid frequently rumoured to be interested in acquiring the Madrileño, just why it is that United has not yet tied the ‘keeper down to a new deal?
The Reds paid almost £18 million for the teenage Atlético Madrid ‘keeper in 2011; signing the 19-year-old on a five year £75,000-per-week deal after he had appeared in just 84 matches for Atleti. That inexperience and a steep Premier League learning curve told, however, as De Gea faced a barraged of negative media opinion in his first few months at Old Trafford.
“OMG,” extolled BBC pundit Mark Bright in August 2011, “Man Utd cannot win the Premier League with De Gea.” Meanwhile, in the Guardian, the typically circumspect Daniel Taylor noted that “there has to be a case for Anders Lindegaard to take over,” arguing that the “Dane is seven years older than De Gea, has a greater penalty-box presence and… the trust of his team-mates.”
The assessment bordered on personal in The Times, where critic-in-chief Patrick Barclay described United’s new net-minder as “Heurelho Gomes with less shot-stopping skills,” arguing that the “goalkeeper is like a jelly. I can’t see what he’s got. How on earth Ferguson and all his millions of coaches could have watched this boy week-in-week out and then signed him for the first team I just don’t know.”
It was a theme continued in plethora tabloids, broadsheets, podcasts, blogs and phone-ins across the country. Except on Rant, of course, where there was never any doubt. Yet, the flood of criticism cut the player deep, with De Gea recently admitting that he considered moving back to Spain after those torrid opening months in England.
“It was difficult when you get a lot of criticism like I did,” said Spanish international. “I felt bad, even though Alex Ferguson always backed me. I tried to be positive. What helped me is that I loved the daily work on the training ground, and used that to get better. But at first it was not easy to cope with all the criticism.”
The critique bleeds no longer. In 2013 De Gea was voted into the Premier League PFA Team of the Year, while the Spaniard picked up the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year and Manchester United Players’ Player of the Year last season. Even the wake of De Gea’s muted start to the campaign, where the Spaniard’s confidence appeared to wane with each new defensive system, supporters held little genuine concern that De Gea would not return to his outstanding best.
Indeed, against Liverpool on Sunday, as in United’s fixtures against Arsenal, Southampton and Everton this season, the Spaniard was the difference between victory and defeat. So pivotal was De Gea in that quartet of matches that United might well be some distance short of Champions League qualification was it not for the former Atlético player.
On Sunday, though United’s victory was ultimately comfortable, the result may well have been very different had Raheem Sterling beaten De Gea with the game’s first chance inside 10 minutes. Liverpool started brightly, with United once again guilty of being wasteful in possession during the opening 20 minutes – and the Merseysiders’ confidence might have taken a different turn but for De Gea’s early intervention.
Even better was to come in the second half where the Spaniard pulled off two outstanding stops to deny Sterling once again and then Mario Balotelli. The latter’s shot on the turn was pushed against the crossbar to seal United’s path to victory.
Yet, Van Gaal has not always been forthcoming with praise for United’s ‘keeper this season, although the Dutchman described De Gea’s performance against Liverpool as “a big influence.” Still, there remains a body of evidence that United’s coach is either seeking more from the young stopper or remains the tough-love practitioner of folklore. In typical fashion, Van Gaal brushed aside praise of De Gea’s match-winning performance at Southampton last week, arguing that the ‘keeper had “stopped three balls, three in total,” adding the pithy rejoinder: “Is that normal or not. Is that exceptional?”
Such are De Gea’s performances of late that it remains curious that the club has not yet been able to tie the player to a new long-term deal, despite any reservations Van Gaal may hold. It is, presumably, not a matter of money after United spent heavily during the summer in the wake of David Moyes’ dismissal last April. Nor is De Gea likely to be seeking wages out of step with his peers. After all, the ‘keeper is within the third tier of earners at Old Trafford, alongside new acquisitions Daley Blind, Ander Herrera and Marco Rojo, but at least £50,000 per-week short of second tier earners such as Ashley Young, Juan Mata and Angel di Maria.
More intrigue still comes with Victor Valdes, the former Barcelona goalkeeper whose proposed move to AS Monaco fell through after the 32-year-old suffered a cruciate knee injury last season. Valdes has been training with the club, on a non-contract basis, since 23 October. And yet it takes very little foresight to understand that the Spanish international could replace his younger countryman should De Gea move to the Bernabeu next summer. While De Gea has dismissed talk of a move back to the Spanish capital as “speculation” he has, pointedly, not ruled out a transfer either.
There is, of course, still 18 months before De Gea’s contract runs its course, although the player’s value will presumably depreciate the closer to June 2016 it is allowed to run. In the meantime speculation abounds: both of a transfer away from Old Trafford and a bumper new deal. Then again, supporters have been there before – rumours of a new contract surfaced in summer 2013 as well to no eventual effect.
For the moment, however, the Spaniard remains a pivotal figure at United – pushing the Reds back towards the Champions League with each outstanding performance. Not bad for kid once lampooned throughout the fourth estate.