Man United fans’ collective sigh of relief as the ref blew his whistle last night was louder than El Hadji Diouf’s dress sense, such has been the level of anxiety around the club’s results as of late. Sensible fans have always recognised the complexities of the task at hand – namely, succeeding arguably the greatest club manager of all time with a squad that looks inferior to at least two or three of your closest rivals – but rabid, sensationalist fandom is the type of support that receives most publicity. Militant fans would have been foaming at the mouth, MOYES OUT echoing in their ears, had United lost here. Hell, if we’d drawn, David Moyes would still have had his image pinned up on dartboards in and around Manchester. A point in the Champions League? A bullseye between the eyes please. The mania surrounding Moyes’ failure to achieve a seamless transition is ludicrous but, sadly, predictable when one considers the instant gratification some fans demand (though what with the ticket prices at Old Trafford, I can appreciate why).
This win was characterised by dominance in possession, more shots on target and crucially, something which even OPTA stats can’t measure: passion. Invention, a bit of flair. There have been times at Old Trafford this season when United’s outfield players have looked like ten geriatric old turds who’ve been cloaked in red and told five minutes before kick-off they were going to play. This can be excused of Ryan Giggs who’s the only one in this squad who should be contemplating his free bus pass but the others? It’s been dreadful at times, with Valencia, Young and Shinji Kagawa particularly culpable.
However, last night demonstrated signs of general improvement and, despite Giggs’ creaking hips he was a vital component of this win. Likewise the scarily hungry and in form Wayne Rooney, who has used the furore over Alex Ferguson’s autobiography positively, regaining his fitness and playing like the absolute monster which his unfortunate nickname of Shrek suggests he should be doing.
Nevertheless, I reserve most praise for a player whose contribution has quietly but impressively ticked along under the radar. He doesn’t even wear red; but before any smart-alecks suggest I’m talking about Man United’s twelfth man Howard Webb, it’s the wispy-bearded Spaniard David De Gea who has been outstanding as of late. After a difficult start to his United career, which began with question marks over his £17.8 million fee from Atletico Madrid and a succession of embarrassing errors, David has matured into one of United’s most consistent current players, as well as one of their only potentially world class youngsters.
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When he arrived as a raw 20 year old in 2011, De Gea had the physique of a female catwalk model and it showed; muscled off the ball by opposition strikers and targeted at corners as a weakness in the United team, fans and pundits alike wondered whether Ferguson had made a mistake in investing so much money in Edwin van der Sar’s anointed successor. There were numerous of setbacks – being cautioned for nicking donuts from Krispy Kreme was a weird one – though I like to think he was just trying to bulk up a bit. He was also declared as being longsighted but, hey, Peter Schmeichel wore contact lenses, and if that clearly didn’t hamper the Great Dane, that was never an excuse for the tentative display against Blackburn on New Year’s Eve, 2011 that saw De Gea dropped in favour of Anders Lindegaard. The whispers which suggested the Spaniard was going to become the next Mark Bosnich or Massimo Taibi became ever louder.
De Gea did the right thing: he waited for his chance and, when Lindegaard got injured, snatched at it hungrily like he’d done with those stolen donuts several months previously. The turning point came in United’s disappointing 3-2 loss at home to Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League; despite the scoreline, De Gea had a particularly good game and the result was more a reflection of an inadequate back four than anything else. De Gea rightly chastised his defence for “falling asleep”, illustrating that this was no timid boy; here was a grown man, maturing into his role and ready to assume responsibility. The Spaniard’s natural agility became allied to improved distribution, handling and physical strength and he finished the season with the best saves to shots ratio in The Premier League at 77.9%.
Last season, De Gea cemented his position as no.1 and finished in the PFA Team of the Year, reflecting his integral role in the run to United regaining their Premier League crown. Most significantly for a young keeper, De Gea continues to get better all the time; last night, his athletic tip over the bar from a ferocious Haris Seferovic strike maintained United’s lead. Moments like this are becoming increasingly regular and, if it weren’t for De Gea’s good form, United may be in the bottom half of the Premier League at this moment in time. Frankly, it's fantastic news that the young Spaniard recently committed himself to the club until 2018; what's an extra £15k a week when he could become one of the top goalies in the world within the next couple of years?
The Old Trafford faithful rose to the challenge of last night’s introduction of a ‘singing section’, an area of the stadium usually reserved for away fans in the league. It was loud, proud and created exactly the sort of intimidating atmosphere United require if they’re to subdue visiting teams. Before Ferguson’s retirement, the air of indomitability surrounding Old Trafford was a given – we’re Man United, there’s no way you’re beating us – but now that’s gone. Perhaps this is a sensible short term solution to try and regain some of that obnoxious but necessary swagger.
The cheers were loudest for the brilliant Rooney, whose skilful input instigated the goal which gave victory for United. But there was another player who deserved just as much praise. Remember, David De Gea’s save against Emanuele Giaccherini of Sunderland earlier this month was described as “one of the best saves ever seen in the Premier League”. Wonderful praise and who did it come from? Peter Schmeichel. It’s early days and a bold claim, considering the Great Dane’s achievements at the club, but if De Gea continues to progress at his current rate, he could become just as pivotal to United’s future success as his illustrious predecessor was during the 1990s.
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