In a disappointing campaign, there are few shining lights. Should United win the FA Cup it will bring joy to a club in dire need of a celebration three years after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. Yet, there have been too few players who emerge from the season with credit and reputation intact. It left Manchester United’s goalkeeper, David de Gea, as the club’s Player of the Season for the third campaign running. But was De Gea really the most worthy winner?
De Gea’s Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award was much deserved – not many will begrudge the Spaniard a unique honour. Indeed, it is a scary thought to ponder just where the Reds might lie had De Gea joined Real Madrid last summer.
There are certainly others who made a claim on the award this season. Following Anthony Martial’s stunning winner against Everton in the FA Cup at Wembley, and the Frenchman’s strike against Leicester City, the youngster’s popularity has never been higher.
Martial’s incredibly cool goal against Liverpool at Old Trafford kicked off what has become a very impressive début campaign in Manchester. Versatility has seen the 20-year-old deployed across the front line, and his performances on the left-wing and leading the line have won new admirers across England and Europe.
Initially described by Louis van Gaal as one “for the next manager,” Martial has made 46 appearances across all competitions, registering 15 goals and seven assists. Surprisingly, he has scored just three in 18 appearances when starting as a striker.
It seems counterfactual to many observers, but when starting on the left, Martial has scored seven and laid on two assists in 17 appearances, with a string of increasingly impressive performances. This observation lends credence to Marcus Rashford’s emergence as the front man in United’s system – and, potentially, leaves room for United to bring in another forward this summer.
Strike partner Wayne Rooney is on course for his first season with fewer than 10 Premier League goals since he was at Everton. The England captain is now a shadow of the player some still believe him to be and was never a serious contender for the Sir Matt Busby Award. Rooney’s future at the club might be in doubt if not for his status with fans and marketing value to the club.
Daley Blind and Chris Smalling formed a strong connection in the centre of defence – one of the more unlikely partnerships this season. Smalling continued his fine form from last year, and despite some spotty performances in the Spring, he enjoyed his best season at the club.
For years Phil Jones and Smalling were rivals: comparable by nationality, position and love of the treatment room. Smalling has separated himself from Jones now, and enjoys the prospect of a bright future at the club, potentially as a leader. Jones is more likely to be spending next season away from Old Trafford if a buyer can be found.
The former Fulham man has become England’s best centre back heading into Euro 2016, but didn’t quite match the heights of the other contenders for the award. Meanwhile, Blind had his coming out party at Old Trafford, and despite some not offering the Dutchman credit, he has enjoyed a terrific campaign.
Indeed, heading into Monday night’s awards Blind was a dark horse; not quite held in the esteem of Martial or De Gea, but a key player nonetheless. The Dutchman handled opponents that many observers believed would be dominant. He proved doubters wrong. Blind was superb against Romelu Lukaku and other strikers faster and stronger than him, using a rare intelligence to out think more physically gifted opponents.
Blind is a natural defensive midfielder, this campaign being his first spent entirely in defence. It’ll leave United’s new manager, assuming Van Gaal goes this summer, with an interesting dilemma.
Yet, none of these players is De Gea. None single-handedly won United points quite like the Spaniard has. Despite the summer-long controversy over a mooted transfer to Madrid, all the tabloid talk, and fax machine banter, De Gea’s performance never waned. He has been almost perfect from start to finish of a difficult campaign.
The saves were varied and many. De Gea’s penalty save from Lukaku in the FA Cup semi-final tipped the game back in United’s favour, while his stop against the same team in the league from Brian Oviedo’s volley was top class. De Gea has made so many saves that he has become a weekly Vine in waiting, with performances so solid that he has enabled the Smalling-Blind partnerships to not only settle, but to thrive.
Yet, De Gea’s win also leaves an uneasy feeling. No United goalkeeper should be winning the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year Award three years in a row. It is a sign of the times that De Gea was not only the winner, but clearly so.
He really is that good of course. The best signing the club could have made last summer.