David De Gea probably doesn’t look back on his maiden two seasons at Manchester United with all that much fondness. But there will be a couple of moments he might reflect on as vital, perhaps even career-defining.
One epoch in-particular he might cherish is the night of April 17, 2013. A brisk spring evening in east London in which the young Spaniard learned an even harsher lesson.
An ugly first-half collision with gargantuan West Ham striker Andy Carroll had manager Sir Alex Ferguson fuming, flummoxed that no red card was forthcoming for an attempted header that instead saw Carroll “poleaxe” the spindly 22-year-old Spaniard. Replays were not pretty.
De Gea, though dizzy and dazed, did not seem fazed. United fought from behind twice to draw 2-2 and their young custodian too seemed, at that very moment, to choose to fight for his Old Trafford future.
His initial two seasons had been littered with as many errors as it had promise. A costly blunder on New Year’s Eve in his inaugural campaign granted Grant Hanley a goal and Blackburn a 3-2 win at Old Trafford, which led to him being dropped for Anders Lindegaard.
De Gea returned in a scintillating 3-3 draw at Stamford Bridge in early February. Chelsea had been 3-0 up, United got back to 3-3 and De Gea described a stunning last-minute save from Juan Mata’s free-kick as the turning point in his season.
Twelve months later and still in the firing line of critics, De Gea was praised by Ferguson for several saves that helped United earn a 1-1 draw against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu in the first leg of their last 16 Champions League clash.
The Scot said De Gea had “come of age”. His apprenticeship in harsh new environs was seemingly completed by his collision with Carroll – his reward a Premier League winners’ medal (his only one) and a place in the PFA Premier League Team of the Year.
De Gea, the boy, ran the gauntlet with the giant Geordie and came out a man. David took on Goliath and triumphed. From there began his own journey towards becoming a giant among the world’s very best goalkeepers.
This collection of coming-of-age moments may well have been revisited by De Gea en route to what is reportedly the signing of a lucrative new £375,000 a week six-year deal at United this summer which will make him the world’s highest-paid goalkeeper.
In the last year, De Gea may well have allowed his mind to frequently drift back to that cold April night at Upton Park as his world has been turned upside down.
He may have felt a sense of déjà vu as hammerings from critics, experts, journalists and fans – even his own – returned. Although this was fresh targeting, De Gea will be the first to admit he suffered a thoroughly below par 2018/19.
It began at the World Cup last summer. De Gea, on his tournament debut, failed to hold an innocuous Cristiano Ronaldo shot that led to Portugal taking a 2-1 lead in an epic 3-3 draw.
It was an incident revisited several times over the course of the 2018/19 season. De Gea remained largely immaculate – a clean sheet against Liverpool on February 24 was his 100th for United in the Premier League, making him only the seventh keeper in the competition’s history to reach that milestone.
But his form dipped worryingly during the second half of the campaign. Unimaginable aberrations occurred home and away against Arsenal in the league, first in December and then March. In back-to-back home games against Manchester City and Chelsea in April, and of course the most high-profile, in the Champions League quarter-final second leg at the Camp Nou.
It led to De Gea and United conceding an alarming amount of goals in an all-round tumultuous campaign – 54 in total in the league, compared to just 28, 29, 35 and 37 in the previous four.
Not all of the blame can be laid at his door of course. He has been the super glue that has held a fragile United defence together since the cumulative departures of Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra, all at the conclusion of 2013/14.
Despite a porous defence in front of him he rose to become the world’s best keeper, a title maintained for multiple years before last term’s wobble.
A calamitous campaign means United will be bereft of Champions League football for the third of De Gea’s nine seasons. But just think how much worse it could have been without a pivotal figure who won the club’s player of the year accolade in four of the last six seasons. More times than anyone else – including Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Roy Keane and Eric Cantona.
To the layman, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – bar the brief uplift in fortunes and mood he ushered in during his interim three months in charge – is out of his depth at United, with critics predicting his demise before the end of the upcoming season.
But he is seen as a key figure in persuading De Gea his future lies at Old Trafford. Amid the 28-year-old’s nosedive in form, support in house from the Norwegian and his staff is believed to have made De Gea think long and hard about his future.
Sticking by him in the final throes of 2018/19, an excellent relationship with goalkeeping coach Emilio Alvarez – plus making him the second highest paid player behind Alexis Sanchez – has had a significant bearing on his decision.
As painful as 2018/19 was for United and their fans, however, moves in the transfer market this summer at least hint of a brighter future.
You have to believe that an element of De Gea signing hinged on improvements being promised immediately ahead of him. Right-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka has looked supremely sharp in pre-season, while much is hoped for Axel Tuanzebe, who played a key role as Aston Villa earned a Premier League return last year.
If Harry Maguire is acquired from Leicester, suddenly United possess a near brand-new defence which looks unquestionably stronger. And the road ahead looks less rocky.
It is a journey that, once again, De Gea, by signing his new deal, seems to be facing head on. United fans will hope both he and the club are on a mutual path towards becoming giants once again.
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