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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 April 2019

David de Gea's heroics against Spurs showed why he is the best, but no Manchester United goalkeeper should be so overworked

His 11 saves in the second half against Tottenham has earned him rave reviews, prompting comparisons with United's best. But Schmeichel and Van der Sar played in far superior teams to the Spaniard

Manchester United's David de Gea celebrates after he helped shutout Tottenham at Wembley as United claimed a 1-0 win. Reuters
Manchester United's David de Gea celebrates after he helped shutout Tottenham at Wembley as United claimed a 1-0 win. Reuters

Dave saves. And saves. And saves. Eleven efforts in total, all within the space of 45 minutes as David de Gea registered more saves in a half than any other goalkeeper has mustered in a Premier League game this season. Whatever Tottenham Hotspur threw at him on Sunday, he saved. “David de Gea is a wall,” wrote Peter Schmeichel on Twitter.

One of his former teammates was musing about De Gea’s place in Manchester United history. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s status in the Old Trafford pantheon gives his words more weight. “We've had some great keepers at this club and I think he's challenging both Edwin [van der Sar] and Peter for the No 1 spot historically," United’s caretaker manager said.

Arguably he played with Schmeichel after the Dane was at his greatest and alongside Van der Sar before the Dutchman’s finest deeds. Equally, too, a motivator was never likely to pronounce that De Gea ranked a distant third.

But it does raise the question of where De Gea belongs. His exalted predecessors played in better United teams. They were rarely that busy, but were rewarded with more medals for a collective excellence. He has delivered outstanding displays – last season’s 14-save extravaganza at Arsenal perhaps remains his tour de force – but there is no defining moment to rival Van der Sar’s 2008 Uefa Champions League penalty save from Nicolas Anelka; not when his teammates can land United only in the Europa League.

Richard Jolly's Premier League team of the week

In one sense, he already stands alone. De Gea has already won the Sir Matt Busby award as United’s player of the year more often than anyone else in its 31-season history. Yet the Spaniard’s four victories, separated only by his compatriot Ander Herrera’s 2016/17 prize, came in United’s most fallow period since 1990. Neither Schmeichel and Van der Sar even won it once but each faced more competition from in-form, high-class teammates. Schmeichel was sensational in 1995/96, but so was Eric Cantona and goalscorers normally command the attention, not goalkeepers.

At 28, De Gea has time on his side if he wants to claim the mantle of indisputably United’s greatest, but the bigger concern is he may have other priorities. With a contract expiring in 2020, it is imperative United convince him his ambitions are best served at Old Trafford. Solskjaer’s capacity to lighten the mood ought to have helped, but De Gea must wonder if his heroics since Alex Ferguson’s retirement have amounted to one long damage-limitation exercise, preventing things from getting even worse.

Because the numbers are instructive. One of Solskjaer’s more telling quotes was: “You are allowed to have a good goalkeeper.” It is not lucky in itself, even if it can give the impression of one man denying 11, of fortune, as well as an agile shot-stopper, saving a side.

But, in one sense, De Gea finds himself rubbing shoulders with Lukasz Fabianski and Neil Etheridge, not his peers. The Spaniard ranks third for saves this season. Alisson is 15th and Ederson 20th, and it is worth noting Liverpool’s Brazilian would be lower had Arsenal, Fulham and Crystal Palace stuck with one keeper for the whole campaign.

Last season, had De Gea managed one more stop, he would have recorded twice as many as Ederson. United outperformed expected goals dramatically, De Gea conceding eight fewer times than an average goalkeeper would probably do, based on the quality of chances opponents created. The figures underpinned Jose Mourinho’s summer quest for a centre-back. The best goalkeepers are not called into action that often. United should savour De Gea’s Wembley brilliance, hope their revival persuades him to commit his future to them and ensure Dave doesn’t need to save quite as often in the future.

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Updated: January 14, 2019 01:42 PM

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