With more than ten years of service and over 400 appearances, David de Gea should be an untouchable Prem icon. At his peak, he was among the best keepers in football; at his lowest, he was the bane of every United fan’s existence.
Very few players have seen the historic highs and frightful lows that de Gea has.
If it hadn’t been for a tax machine failing, de Gea’s English adventure would have ended years ago. Instead of being part of historic Real sides, the Spaniard saw the decline of United firsthand.
When de Gea joined United in 2011, he had already played a hand in Atletí’s revival barely into his twenties. As managers and teammates changed, he was the only piece of so many United projects that passed by. In his 12 years with the club, de Gea has been named player of the season and criticized by fans for terrible mistakes.
Similar to Darwin Núñez, de Gea is a prism that is best used to view the post-Ferguson era. His success dovetailed United’s, and so did his failures. Both parties are so linked that it’s hard to envision a divorce, no matter what.
Few players in the Prem can match de Gea’s records; one can’t deny the numbers that he has put up. At the same time, no other player can be the Jekyll and Hyde to his fans.
Spending over 12 years with one club should surely put one’s name amongst the icons of the club. However, de Gea has a weird place in United lore.
It’s clear that when he was brought on at the tail end of Ferguson’s reign, de Gea was meant to bridge the gap between the Scotsman and whoever would replace him. In his first season, he tasted Premier League glory and firmly won the starting spot for years to come. Ferguson had, perhaps, unwittingly made the Spaniard the poster boy for whatever would come next.
At the age of 22, de Gea was a league champion who had become United’s number one and was knocking on Spain’s door. Despite United failing under Moyes and then van Gaal, he was still the best keeper in the Prem. By the end of the 2014/15 season, the United number one had already racked up an impressive trophy cabinet.
Despite a failed move to Real Madrid, the 2015/16 was a continuation of a prime that would continue until the end of the 2019 season. His decline happened rather fast, and United did try to prepare for it with Dean Henderson being primed to replace him. However, it seems that de Gea has a hold over that United box until he gives it up, as he is likely to be United’s starter going into next year.
What makes de Gea unique is that his keeper style is a throwback to those like Buffon and Casillas, but his athleticism allows him to have supremely fast reflexes. When he was younger, that athleticism allowed him to be a monster in net that could stop any attack. He differs from peers in modern football, as he isn’t really used in buildup play and is only focused on shot stopping.
The Spaniard arrived in England as Sir Alex Ferguson’s choice to lead United into a new era. Now, he’s so far removed from Ferguson that it’s hard to remember how de Gea looked in those days.
One of recent football history’s greatest what-ifs is what would have happened to both the club and player had de Gea joined Real in 2016? It’s hard to envision that today, given just how closely intertwined de Gea and United are.
Not surprisingly, de Gea’s best moments came when there was a glimmer of hope at United. Mourinho’s first few seasons and van Gaal’s first come to mind. These were the moments that made the Spaniard into the fascinating prospect that he was for so long.
His personal lows, especially those that coincided with Henderson pushing for his spot, have come more recently. Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s reign was really when both player and club’s fortunes came apart. With more focus on United’s struggles, de Gea’s downturn in form was magnified.
This is really when the memes and revisionism came to the forefront, with de Gea being viewed as one of the game’s worst keepers. Even today, despite winning a gold glove, most football fans see him as a keeper who is no longer fit for the Prem.
Today, the Spaniard is probably no longer fit to be United’s first choice, but it doesn’t mean he’s washed or his legacy is in tatters. As uncontroversial as it sounds, he really is a mid-keeper who had a career that matched his club’s. Despite what some might try to argue, de Gea is not all that’s wrong with United; he’s just an unwilling cog in a terrible machine.
It’s easy and totally understandable to direct frustrations toward players. One just can’t lose sight of the context of struggles, and de Gea has never truly seen stability at United. It’s a club that is in a constant state of turmoil that can ruin any player.
Time will be good for a lot of players, but for de Gea, he will see his legacy improve with more time removed from him playing there. To truly make any sort of decision on him, de Gea needs to be removed from United.
David de Gea might be the only player in modern football to reach 500 appearances with a club but never be truly enjoyed by his audience. United and him are forever linked at the hip, no matter how the other party feels. Both sides started their relationship with such hope and promise, but now just tolerate each other.
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