THERE was a time when David de Gea (£2.8m) was the best goalkeeper in the world.
He peaked in the 2017/18 season when he was named in FIFA’s World XI, disrupting the the three-way dominance of Gigi Buffon, Iker Casillas and Manuel Neuer – one of the three legendary keepers had taken the coveted spot for 12 consecutive years prior to 2018.
It was just before Christmas in 2017 when the Spaniard produced his magnum opus in the form of a record-breaking performance against Arsenal at the Emirates.
De Gea registered 14 saves as Manchester United won 3-1, defying Alexandre Lacazette (£4.1m) and Alexis Sanchez with some excellent close-range blocks.
The Gunners amassed over five expected goals in that game, a Premier League record at the time, and statisticians would suggest De Gea’s efforts (combined with Arsenal’s wastefulness) prevented the Red Devils’ conceding an additional four goals in north London that day.
Similarly impressive numbers relating to shot-stopping followed Man United’s No1 around throughout that season.
He was named in the PFA Team of the Year for the fourth time in a row at the end of 2017/18 after claiming his first Golden Glove.
Add in four Sit Matt Busby Player of the Year awards, three Man United Players’ Player of the Year gongs, and a string of Match of the Day Save of the Season wins and it’s clear De Gea was in a league of his own among keepers on British soil for a few years.
However, his reign of superiority came to an abrupt end.
De Gea’s sharp decline started in Spain colours at the 2018 World Cup and his somewhat shaky form leaked into the following domestic season.
With the likes of Alisson (£3.8m), Ederson (£3.1m) and, more recently, Edouard Mendy (£4.4m) impressing for the league’s top teams, it appeared that De Gea had permanently been relegated out of the top bracket of keepers.
Some pundits have questioned whether the former Atletico Madrid stopper is even worthy of being in Man United’s first-choice XI in recent seasons, with Roy Keane acting as a particularly vocal critic last term.
Dean Henderson (£2.8m) was briefly installed as first-choice custodian under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and perhaps that spell was the catalyst for De Gea’s revival this season.
Man United have desperately struggled defensively in 2021/22 having conceded 24 goals in the Premier League – three more than 18th-placed Burnley at this stage.
While this doesn’t suggest a keeper who has rediscovered his best shot-stopping form, it’s generally accepted that the blame predominantly lies at the door of out-of-form defenders Aaron Wan-Bissaka (£2.9m), Luke Shaw (£2.4m) and Harry Maguire (£3.3m) – and perhaps Solskjaer for his failings to devise a tight defensive structure.
De Gea’s individual performances have generally been very good in recent weeks and while he’s still not particularly comfortable in possession and almost non-existent as a sweeper, his shot-stopping is statistically unmatched in the Premier League.
In fact, detailed metrics relating to xG prevented make him out to be one of the best in Europe this season.
Additionally, only three Prem keepers have made more saves this season and his two peers immediately above him (Jose Sa and Tim Krul) are only one save ahead.
The 31-year-old was superb at Carrow Road on Saturday to ensure a clean sheet and all three points for Man United.
He rightly claimed the Star Man award to bag 13 Dream Team points, taking his overall tally to 52.
Only four assets in his position have more points at this stage and, interestingly, that group doesn’t include Ederson, who is the most-popular keeper in the game with an ownership of 23.4%.
Man United are in the midst of a favourable run of fixtures that continues with Brighton, Newcastle and Burnley before New Year’s Eve.
If De Gea can keep two clean sheets in the next three Game Weeks then he may well jump into the top three keepers.
Experienced Dream Team gaffers will remember how fantastically reliable the Spaniard was between 2014 and 2018 will surely be tempted to back him again now his shot-stopping is once again garnering attention from the stats boffins.
Hope we haven’t jinxed you, David…
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