‘It’s not about me or the other manager’, said Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in his pre-match interview at Wembley, but he was wrong.
This game was about him and Mauricio Pochettino, as it was about anything else. This was the game that would offer a hint of how well Solskjaer has done so far at Manchester United; since replacing Jose Mourinho in December, the caretaker boss had overseen five wins in five games, with 16 goals scored, but while you can only beat what’s in front of you, three of the five teams are battling relegation in the Premier League, one’s on a wretched run, and the last one is trying to survive in the second-tier. Ole had done well so far, but this was the game in which many would determine if he’s been doing really well, or just not been Mourinho; and to audition for the job in the long term.
For Pochettino, he’s the seeming favourite to get the United job in the summer, he’s taken a Spurs side previously known for having zero backbone to three successive top-three finishes, on comparatively meagre budget and thinner squad. United apparently want him. Real Madrid apparently want him as well. Whatever way you looked at it, no matter how much we tried to spin it off and focus on the actual football on the pitch, this wasn’t just about the actual football on the pitch, this was billed as the ‘Solskjaer v Pochettino’ affair.
That was before kick-off, but after full-time, it was a game remembered for something else. The game that was billed as the ‘Ole-Poch’ game will be tagged as the ‘David de Gea show’, the game that was seen as the battle of two potential United managers will forever be remembered for the display one remarkable United goalkeeper. And after a catalogue of saves at the national stadium, why not? Perhaps it was most summed up after full-time, when substitute Juan Mata walked up to De Gea and simply put his hands on his head in utter disbelief, a kind ‘how on earth did you pull this off’ look.
That De Gea was that good is hardly surprising, not to those who have watched him since he joined United in the summer of 2012, some seven months before that stunning save at Stamford Bridge from a free-kick by a certain…Juan Mata, the game that De Gea once said was a turning point in his time with the Red Devils. It’s hardly unexpected to see De Gea being magnificent in between the sticks, not with the man having won successive Player of the Season awards at United, or twitter memes depicting him as Neo in the Matrix.
And the fact that De Gea being this good isn’t surprising is just about what makes us take him for granted, almost getting used to Lionel Messi do things Lionel Messi can do that anyone else can’t.
That’s why when De Gea made one error at the World Cup in Russia last June, he was pilloried for the rest of the tournament, like he single-handedly sent Spain packing from the tournament. That’s why every error gets psycho-analysed and accentuated by cynics.
In this growing era of goalkeepers playing with their feet, it’s easy to overlook De Gea, as ludicrous as it sounds. ‘He’s good but can he fit into another team’s system?’ ‘He’s good but clearly he doesn’t fit Spain’ style’ are the kind of comments that make the rounds. And the numbers don’t do him justice this season; three clean sheets in the league before this Tottenham game looked demeaning, but as it is with the fact that having the best defence doesn’t necessarily mean you’re the best at defending, also having the most clean sheets doesn’t make the best in goal.
There’s a difference when you have to face about two shots all game, even though it requires great concentration to save those as well, than when you have to withstand a barrage. And at Wembley, it was a barrage, almost like it was Spurs against De Gea. Between the start of the second half and 88th minute, a 43-minute period, De Gea made 11 saves, an average of a save every four minutes. The sort of fortitude that is required to make save after save in such a time-lag is easier talked about than it is shown, and every time Spurs knocked on the door, De Gea said no, even when the action was too quick for the watching eye, even when the goal seemed dead-cert, De Gea defied the North Londoners.
De Gea might not stand out for his distribution with his feet or his passing range, but when it comes to goalkeepers standing out, none do it like he does. United won 1-0 thanks to a Marcus Rashford goal, but that seemed to hardly matter in the end, you could easily say it was De Gea who scored for United and it would be believable, that’s how much he was the difference. And for all the talk of not suiting the modern passing from the back style – which is in no way a bad thing, it should be said – the Spaniard does know how to use his feet.
Of the 11 saves he made today, more than half were with his feet, the speed of thought of the goalie to readjust himself and go with his feet when his hands might not be quick enough is one of the reasons why he’s so highly-rated and highly-coveted, one of the reasons the ‘United don’t deserve him’ talk will keep raging on.
In the era of the ball-playing goalkeepers, De Gea is one of those conventional ones doing the business. Except there’s nothing conventional about how he does it, and if we ever made the mistake of forgetting what he could do, he reminded us at Wembley, that, no matter how, Dave saves.