There, I said it. Over the past two seasons, I have been one of the most vocal about De Gea not being good enough for Manchester United. He has very visible weaknesses. He struggles when a physical presence is required on crosses and set pieces, and his inability to speak English fluently greatly impairs his ability to command the back line. These are obvious, and were clear from the first big game against Manchester City in the community shield. The problem is, many people (myself included) never took the time to re-evaluate. Over the last couple of months though, I’ve come around. Not only do United have the best young keeper in the world right now, but they most likely have the best shot stopper in the world, period.
When evaluating goalkeepers, you have to also look at their supporting cast. When you look at United, you naturally would think that De Gea is surrounded by the best players possible. The problem with that theory is that it ignores the injuries and father time, which have wrecked havoc on United over the past two seasons.
Here are the appearances for Manchester United’s top defenders in the premier league so far this year: 26 total games played (starts)
Patrice Evra: 25 (25)
Rafael: 21 (20)
Rio Ferdinand: 20 (19)
Jonny Evans: 17 (16)
Chris Smalling: 12 (7)
Nemanja Vidic: 11 (10)
Phil Jones: 9 (5)
Nemanja Vidic has never really made it back to the every week starter, and defensive rock, that he was before his injury against Basel in the Champions League last season. With only 11 appearances so far this season for Vidic, De Gea has been deprived of not only his best defender, but the undoubted leader of this squad. Its clear to anyone watching that United are a much different animal when Vidic is in the lineup. It also speaks volumes that Evra is leading the way in appearances, and starts, while he is also seen by many as a weak link in the United defense. Far past his prime, its well known that Fergie was looking to bring in Leighton Baines as a replacement over the summer. The one bright spot has been the play of Jonny Evans. The player that pushed Pique out the door to blossom at Barcelona, has often been a disappointment to many United fans, but he’s been probably the most consistently good defender this season. With Vidic working his way back to full health, Rafael maturing into a world class right back, and Rio seeming to defy time, De Gea is set up to finally have some consistency in front of him for the rest of this season.
Now, getting to the man himself, one major argument in De Gea’s favor is to simply look at the stats. The below stats are from www.eplindex.com and show the comparison between David De Gea and Joe Hart. Hart is widely considered to be the best keeper in the EPL, more reliable, more mature, and generally favored by the media. Upon closer inspection though, De Gea is the clear winner. De Gea has obviously had to work more, 68 shots compared to 44, and over double the amount of saves per game. The one huge stat that took me by surprise was the aerial duels. De Gea won an astonishing 83% of his aerial battles, which flies in the face of everything you’ve have heard from people like me over the past 2 years. Clearly he doesn’t look the most confident, but its obvious that whatever he does works.
Saves: Hart – 44, de Gea – 68
Saves per game: Hart – 1.7, de Gea – 3.8
Saves to shot %: Hart – 65, de Gea – 77
Successful clearances: Hart – 26, de Gea – 24
Successful clearances per game: Hart – 1, de Gea – 1.3
Aerial duels won %: Hart – 75%, de Gea – 83%
Passing accuracy %: Hart – 60%%, de Gea – 56%
Total loss of possession: Hart – 224, de Gea – 188
Errors that lead to goals: Hart – 4, de Gea – 1
This plays into the other aspect of his game, his complete unorthodox style. This was on display for all to see in Madrid for their Champions League match against Real Madrid. Right off the bat, in probably his biggest game yet for United, De Gea made a save with his fingernails to dive and divert Coentrao’s wicked curling effort, that traveled through multiple players before being forced onto the post, in what was probably the save of the season. Later in the same match De Gea displayed what is quickly becoming his trademark, a glorious kick save of Coentrao’s effort. De Gea said: “It all happened so fast, I got across and was lucky enough to save it with my feet. Overall, I am very happy with my performance. I am improving every day at Old Trafford and I am very happy.” Which has to make every Manchester United fan very happy to hear. De Gea has proven already that when it comes to pure shot stopping, he has very few peers … if any.
It speaks volumes that coming out of a Champions League knockout match between two of the biggest clubs in the world, where Ronaldo (arguably the world best player) faced his former team Manchester United (which he’s still in love with), the major talking point was not about any of that, but it was all about the greatness of De Gea. Well done sir, you’ve proved a lot of us wrong and for once, I am glad to admit my mistake.