David de Gea's progression proving invaluable to Manchester United
Impatience is a way of life at Manchester United, where both annual expectations and wage bills are massive, and world-class players lie in wait to take your spot at the mere hint of a drop in form.
Goalkeeper is a unique position, though, with a later development curve than field players, and impatience there ultimately can cost you talented players. There's only room for one goalkeeper at a time on the field, and there's no room for mistakes at a club like United.
A bit more than a decade ago, United's bright goalkeeping hopeful was Tim Howard. Brought in from MLS to succeed Fabian Barthez, Howard was just 23 years old at the time – near infancy in goalkeeper years – and accordingly, had issues with consistency. Even while earning Professional Footballers Association Best XI status after his first season in Manchester, he lost his job to Roy Carroll for a spell after his huge injury-time gaffe against Porto eliminated United from that season's Champions League.
Howard's sketchy play continued in his second season there, and that following summer, United went and bought Edwin van der Sar, more or less ending Howard's run with the club. He made only six total appearances the following season, and then joined Everton, first on loan and then on a permanent transfer.
Of course, van der Sar was outstanding for United, helping the club win multiple league titles and a Champions League crown over Chelsea with an epic performance in the penalty shootout. Howard, though has gone on to a standout run with both Everton and the U.S. national team, and you can't help but wonder what would have happened had United been (able to be) a bit more patient with him.
Three years ago, Sir Alex Ferguson was looking at a similar situation. Heralded 20-year-old David de Gea had been brought in to succeed van der Sar, and he, too, had trouble in his debut campaign. De Gea, shorter and with a narrower frame than many modern goalkeepers, committed some schoolboy blunders and consistently had trouble coming off his line for balls. He eventually lost his job to backup Anders Lindegaard, only winning it back permanently when Lindegaard was injured during training.
Unlike Howard, de Gea showed some improvement early in his second season, eventually making the lion's share of the club's starts during a championship season. He's improved a lot since, as has his decision making, and he now stands as perhaps the best goalkeeper in the league. He's certainly United's MVP for the first half of this season, and you can make a really compelling argument that he's the league's Player of the Year so far for how many points he's single-handledly stolen for his club.
United's defensive flaws have been examined ad nauseum. The Red Devils have a top-heavy, attacking roster with glaring holes in the back that either weren't filled over the summer or widened due to a huge number of injuries the club has suffered. The fact that they're currently in third place speaks volumes about the state of some of the other contenders, but it also speaks to United's opportunism as the club continues to adjust to life under new manager Louis van Gaal. United may not be playing the best brand of soccer, but the Red Devils have won six straight league matches, and all points count the same in the table once they're earned.
Yes, when you have attacking talent like Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney (and Radamel Falcao, when he's not injured), you have the type of proverbial "get out of jail free" cards world-class goal scorers give you, but even by those standards, what United has been doing recently is remarkable.
Per Sky Sports News, United has scored on 12 of its 20 shots on target over its last five league matches, a lofty (and totally unsustainable) 60 percent conversion rate.
The goal-poaching has provided United with just enough wiggle room to swipe 2-1 wins at Arsenal and Southampton, and a wholly deceiving 3-0 win over Liverpool this past weekend.
Beyond that, though, has been the play of de Gea, who has come up huge for United in numerous matches. The pinnacle may have been his performance against Everton, where he saved a penalty (Leighton Baines' first-ever Premier League miss from the spot) and then made two otherworldly saves at the end to preserve a 2-1 win.
He's exhibited similar acrobatics many weeks this season, though, causing a Groundhog's Day effect where it seems like after every match, van Gaal admits his team was outplayed but that de Gea was the difference. Sky Sports claims United has allowed the third-most "shots from errors" committed this season, but has only allowed one goal off of those errors – fewest in the Prem – thanks to de Gea's wonderful shotstopping.
Overall, United has the third-most saves per game on shots coming from inside the penalty area (e.g. the biggest danger zones) and is allowing the league's highest percentage of shots to come from the high goal expectancy danger zones. The five-goal fiasco at Leicester City seems like it was years ago, even as United's personnel – especially in central defense and central midfield – remains in significant flux. Simply put, de Gea's been great.
There's still a long way to go, but United's current position (along with the club's massive new shirt sponsor deal, among other revenue streams) makes it a mortal lock to make some moves in January. If the club shores up the defense ahead of its goalkeeper, the Red Devils could be back in Champions League play next season – at minimum – which is faster than many expected in August.
The rock at the heart of this resurgence has been the still-young man who Rooney called "the best goalkeeper in the world" this week. De Gea's not Manuel Neuer yet, but he's rapidly approaching that kind of level with his shotstopping and distribution. Early in the season when United was struggling, van Gaal repeatedly called for patience. He should be thankful his predecessor showed some of his own the second time around.