David De Gea heroics back up brutal honesty to illustrate Manchester United’s demise

Manchester United’s goalkeeper David de Gea gestures

David de Gea was doing wonders for his employers’ image again. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer believed in the magic, the mystique of Manchester United. De Gea can testify to the misery of Manchester United. His former manager believed in the brand. The goalkeeper has brought a brutal realism to his media duties. “I feel embarrassed sometimes, I feel… it’s difficult to say, but I feel horrible on the pitch,” he said. Which was one way of previewing United against Chelsea, a game that was a Champions League final 14 years ago and an FA Cup final four years ago.

Perhaps his team-mates didn’t tune in to see De Gea’s latest attempt to rouse spirits. If, at the other end of the East Lancs Road, Jurgen Klopp is a master of engendering optimism, maybe De Gea’s skills lie instead in spreading pessimism. United’s first, and last, point against top-four opponents under Ralf Rangnick came courtesy of the Spaniard’s goalkeeping prowess, rather more than his skills as a motivator. It owed much to the excellence of Cristiano Ronaldo and him, two with memories of altogether happier days, in either penalty box as United rode their luck to draw.

They may be exempted from the criticism that virtually everyone else at Old Trafford merits, from their team-mates to the powerbrokers who contrived to compile the most expensive squad in football history only for signings amounting to almost half a billion pounds to be unavailable as Ralf Rangnick named a bench with four kids, two goalkeepers, two injury-hit defenders and an ageing Juan Mata. This was strength in depth, Manchester United style, but a fine goalkeeper can compensate for a multitude of other failings.

And De Gea has a critic’s most important quality: credibility. His one-man rearguard action was required. He was afforded precious little protection; not by a defence lacking three of Solskjaer’s preferred back four and Rangnick’s favourite ball-winning midfielder. Goalkeeper for United used to be a part-time job, a highly-paid spectator watching his team-mates torment their unfortunate inferiors. Here De Gea had six saves to make in the first 36 minutes. Two from Kai Havertz were especially clear chances, one when N’Golo Kante turned playmaker to open United up all too easily. De Gea spread himself and blocked the shot.

He stood no chance with Marcos Alonso’s precise volley and the value of those saves became apparent 119 seconds later when Ronaldo levelled. A draw represented an unexpected boon, even if it leaves United with just two victories in 11 games.


De Gea punches clear against Chelsea

Their season has offered De Gea ample material. He called United a “disgrace” at Everton earlier this month. He branded their defeat at Watford “a nightmare, after a nightmare.” He finds ever newer ways of describing the anguish of playing for this United in the manner of a man forever reliving a traumatic experience. He gravitates to the cameras and the microphones, becoming the chronicler of a chronic malaise.

A stranger to interviews for much of his time in Manchester, De Gea has emerged as United’s most willing talker. He is a rival to Roy Keane for the title of their most eviscerating detractor. A difference is that Keane was drummed out of the club by Sir Alex Ferguson when he played the pundit on MUTV in 2005. De Gea will instead be lauded and applauded, partly by those who appreciate his honesty and partly due to his performances.

He will win United’s player of the year award for a record fifth time. At 37, Ronaldo scored a terrific 23rd goal of his season, Fred has exceeded the admittedly low expectations and Anthony Elanga’s emergence has offered a rare cause for positivity but De Gea is the only real candidate.

A cross beats De Gea and Werner

Ronaldo is the only other footballer to win the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award more than twice. It doesn’t make De Gea United’s outstanding player of its 33-year existence. It reflects his high standards, but also the lack of competition in some of those seasons. He has been the best player in bad teams; in superior sides, Paul Scholes, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra never claimed the individual honours. But now United are on course for their lowest Premier League points tally. And without De Gea, it would be lower again.

The context informs his criticism. He remembers what United was. In his second game at Old Trafford, they beat Arsenal 8-2 with Tom Cleverley playing in the centre of midfield. Perhaps he thought it would always be that way. Instead the job description has changed: as Chelsea had 21 shots, he prevented United from suffering a third straight defeat. It may save his team-mates another verbal assault, at least for a few days. But if he is a rare beacon of defiance, there may be more chapters in De Gea’s tale of fear and self-loathing at Old Trafford.

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