David de Gea: The Manchester United ‘flop’ that became a legend

Such is the cutthroat nature of modern football  that players are often written off long before they’ve had their chance. But sometimes a little patience can yield impressive results.

Nobody in the Premier League is a better example of that fact than Manchester United’s David de Gea.

Seeking to replace the retiring Edwin van der Saar, United spent big money to bring de Gea to Manchester in 2011; there was a lot of optimism about the move.

de Gea had been a key performer for Atletico Madrid as they had won the Europa League and Super Cup the previous season. His talent was obvious and at such a young age vast improvement was expected. As far as United were concerned, they had a future superstar on their hands.

Replacing van der Saar would be a tough ask, though; the Dutchman had been an inspired signing for Alex Ferguson, winning no fewer than 11 trophies in his six years at the club. The pressure to live up to that was on de Gea from the start.

A shaky performance in the Community Shield win over Manchester City meant he started on bad footing. And further doubts about his performances were raised by several more less than stellar performances. Even Ferguson reluctantly admitted that it was a ‘learning curve’ for his new No.1.

“de Gea is high, has good feet, comes with authority and is agile… has everything to be one of the greatest goalkeepers in the next ten years.”

Edwin van der Saar

An improvement would eventually come as de Gea found his feet and his confidence with several impressive performances. January and a trip to Anfield would prove to unravel all of that, though.

A 2-1 defeat to Liverpool had the wolves baying for his blood once more, in an all-round disappointing performance from United, de Gea had been among the worst.

As far as most were concerned, he was not technically or physically capable of playing in the Premier League. And Liverpool’s famous old home had exposed more weaknesses in the already fragile Spaniard.

By the end of the season, the doubts had not subsided – the player himself later admitted he considered leaving. There were, however, shoots of hope: 13 clean sheets in 29 games compared favourably to van der Saar’s 14 in 33 the year before.

That summer saw him bulk up to the max as United’s fitness coaches sought to get rid of his slender frame. The talk was they were using techniques used in rugby and American football to help their man to deal with the rigours of the Premier League. By the beginning of the next season, de Gea was barely recognisable.

Just like his physical appearance, a drastic change in fortunes was also afoot. He would finish that campaign with 11 clean sheets, a Premier League winner’s medal and a place in the PFA Team of the Year.”

“We are now seeing a huge improvement in his game. And he is winning United match after match, which is what I expect from a United goalkeeper. He has now become a great goalkeeper.”

Gary Neville

The following year, he was equally impressive; a number of world-class saves had pundits, including United legend Peter Schmeichel, practically falling over themselves to praise him.

Since then, he has barely looked back. Long gone are any doubts regarding his ability. In fact, most would say he’s the Premier League’s finest and, in the world, only Manuel Neuer receives more praise than he does.

His fellow professionals certainly agree, naming de Gea in the PFA Team of the Year in four of the past five seasons. The money spent to buy him, which once looked like far too much, now looks like one of the best bargains in the history of the game.

A look at the response to the continued rumours of him moving to Real Madrid show just how important a player he has become.

Ask United fans to answer who they think their best ever goalkeeper is and de Gea is sure to be among those listed. That’s some going considering the greats that have tended goal for the club over the years.

Not all players make it in the Premier League and United know that more than most. Sometimes some deserve a second chance, though, and de Gea is certainly evidence of that.