April 2012: Manchester City’s Joe Hart was named in the Premier League team of the year, while Manchester United’s David De Gea faced a summer of seemingly endless debate about his future as the club’s number one keeper. There were plenty of suggestions that the Spaniard could be replaced permanently, either by Anders Lindegaard, or by a new number acquisition.
Fast forward 12 months and few United supporters were surprised to see the 22-year old named in the PFA Premier League Team of the Year after a series of terrific performances that underpinned the club’s march towards a 20th league title.
De Gea has been an ever-present in the team in 2013, starting all but one fixture – United’s FA Cup replay versus West Ham United – since Lindegaard’s calamitous performance in the 4-3 win against Reading in December. In the period De Gea amassed an unbroken sequence of 678 minutes without conceding a Premier League goal until James Milner beat the Spaniard with a deflected shot in the recent Manchester derby.
It hasn’t always been rosy though. Early criticism of de Gea’s lack of physical presence and the youngster’s weakness in dealing with crosses seemed warranted as he struggled to acclimatise to the physical rigours of the Premier League, as a 20-year old in his first season at United. The improvement has been tremendous, with the Spaniard benefiting from a customised strength-building programme, which has aided his confidence in dealing with crosses and some of the more robust aspects of the English game
Still, it has not been an easy season for de Gea in the media. In January, there was a universally brutal press assessment after the ‘keeper’s weak punch led to a late Tottenham Hotspur equaliser at White Hart Lane. That many commentators failed to mention de Gea’s heroics throughout the match smacked of a pre-meditated agenda to savage the young ‘keeper.
More surprising, perhaps, was ex-Red Gary Neville’s assessment, who used his platform as a Sky pundit to lambast de Gea for his gaffe against Spurs.
The lone voice of support, it seemed, was ex-United goalkeeping great Peter Schmeichel, who offered a robust defence of a stopper who has dealt with a constantly changing back-four this season. While the finger of blame was squarely pointed at the player, many commentators draw parallels between de Gea’s acquisition and Sir Alex Ferguson’s “disastrous” attempt to replace Schmeichel with Massimo Taibi and Mark Bosnich, among others.
Indeed, though Ferguson stood firm in his support for de Gea during a difficult period, many pundits had already begun writing the obituary on the younger ‘keeper’s time at United.
“Sir Alex Ferguson has become exasperated by De Gea’s inability to iron out the flaws in his game,” said The Telegraph’s Mark Ogden in January.
“Senior players at the club are understood to have lost faith in the 22-year-old even before his costly injury-time mistake against Tottenham on Sunday which led to the home side claiming a 1-1 draw at White Hart Lane.”
Meanwhile, Alan Nixon in the Mirror claimed that “United chief has asked supremo David Gill and the club’s American owners to fund a buy for a genuine number one.”
The Daily Mail, widely recognised for a hyperbolic approach to reporting on United, preposterously suggested that United could move for Liverpool’s Pepe Reina or Barcelona stopper Victor Valdes, ignoring the very real truth that the two ‘keepers’ position in the Spanish squad were in fact under threat from de Gea. When Real Madrid number one Iker Casillas suffered injury recently, it was de Gea that received the call-up for World Cup qualifiers against Finland and France.
In contradiction to the reporting in England, it is widely accepted in Spain that it is now a matter of time before de Gea replaces the aforementioned trio to become Spain’s numero uno.
In the meantime, de Gea has continued to improve. Confident performances against physical teams such as Stoke City and West Ham in recent weeks seemingly underscored the benefits of a stringent gym routine. And while accusations of physical frailty are common, few can now doubt de Gea’s mental strength after coming through a sustained media witch-hunt. Perhaps the player’s apparent poor command of English helped.
de Gea should remain at the club for the long-term too, with the 22-year-old refuting suggestions that he is homesick. Re-affirmation of the player’s commitment to remain at Old Trafford was welcome in the face of the player’s stunning performance against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu earlier this season. De Gea made a number of crucial saves – one shot tipped on to the post with his finger-tips and another saved brilliantly with the right foot.
Credit for the player’s performances is seemingly shared between Sir Alex and United’s goalkeeping coach Eric Steele, who remained undeterred in a conviction that the player’s is potential world-class. Ferguson has since then credited de Gea for United’s significant defensive improvement during the second half of the season.
“David de Gea has developed and matured as the season has gone on,” said Ferguson. “We’ve seen a very progressive and developing young goalkeeper and next season he’ll be even better.”
With an inaugural Premier League title secure, and a consistent season under his belt, de Gea’s campaign has culminated in the Spaniard being chosen ahead of City’s much-lauded Hart as the PFA’s choice for the Premier League goalkeeper of the season.
Replacing one of the game’s great, Edwin van der Sar, was never an easy task, especially at a club of United’s stature. The job isn’t complete, tet de Gea has shown the mental fortitude at a young age to withstand the pressure directed at him. It is surely good preparation for a long United career.
David de Gea’s Season
Premier League Games: 27
Goals Against: 25
Goals Allowed Average: 0.93
Shots faced: 300
Shots on Goal faced: 112
Saves Percentage: 78.3%
Clean Sheets: 11
Yellow Cards: 0