The Nineteenth of June marked a day, which David de Gea and Manchester United fans all across the world would probably want to forget. Their hopes of attaining silverware this season went agonisingly tumbling down with a set of uncharacteristic and jaw-dropping errors made by their Spanish goalkeeper. Gifting Chelsea a 3-1 win in the FA Cup semi-final, the unrecognisable tag loomed with bitter quarrels amongst the United faithful on whether or not it was time to dethrone a goalkeeper, who had seemingly been untouchable across the last five years.
His several high-profile mistakes across recent seasons are a far cry from when he was recognised as the best ‘keeper in the Premier League‘. Winner of four Player of the Year awards, De Gea’s immaculate reflexes, which on occasions felt like his tribute to the Matrix movie, categorised him as the ever-dependable last line of defence at Manchester United.
His recent debacle at Wembley is ironic to someone who has physically witnessed one of his best performances at that very stadium one and half years ago. From using every inch of his body to protect the ball from crossing the line, as if his life depended on it to squirming routine straightforward saves, the contrast across the different occasions left me shellshocked.
Taking a trip down memory lane to January 2019, things were slightly nerve-wracking aligned with a sense of chest-thumping bullish confidence oozing from Spurs supporters. Emitting notions of pompousness based on the club’s domestic and European form, 13th January marked a fixture between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United.
Publicised on the backdrop of being heavily linked with the prestigious manager’s role at Manchester United, then Tottenham boss Mauricio Pochettino had dominated the headlines. Represented as a beloved godfather figure to the Lilywhites, Tottenham fans made their feelings vehemently clear when the away fans gathered at Wembley.
With the continual extensions of the new stadium’s opening deadline, Tottenham had been taking solace at England’s national stadium, Wembley. Having marked the date on a calendar, my money saving efforts were paid off by acquiring a South Stand Level 1 ticket precisely in front of the goal.
Joining in on the somewhat revolutionary chants directed at the swarm of red draped fans bestowed at the away stand, “You can’t have our manager” was echoed from the entire South Stand. As players began to grace the pitch, watching Pochettino happily dawn the Spurs emblem on his blazer acted as the catharsis to all those in home attendance. The right cue for “He’s magic you know, he’s Mauricio Pochettino”, which began echoing at high decibels throughout the historical venue.
The game began with Tottenham settling down quickly with their fluid passing game, enjoying the bulk of possession. It was clear from the onset that Manchester United had set up their gameplay to try and hit Spurs on the counterattack. The warning signs were there with Martial and Rashford racing forward at every opportunity that presented itself on the break.
Call it inevitable or just Lloris’s bad positioning in front of goal, the fear that had been twitching to become a harsh reality finally did descend upon Spurs supporters. With so much attacking movement on display, one interception from Kieran Trippier’s loose ball is all it took for the Red Devils to make a decisive foray against the Tottenham goal.
Depleted in terms of numbers at the back, Pogba’s god-gifted vision allowed him to find the clinical Rashford with a sumptuous curling long ball. Decisive in approach and clinical in finish, United’s young scarlet fizzled past Vertonghen before expertly placing the ball past Lloris in the bottom right corner. In hindsight, watching Rashford take flight after he picked up gears to leave Vertonghen high and dry, it felt inevitable to all those in attendance that “The Boy Wonder” was going to silence Wembley.
In just a matter of under 45 minutes, the events that had unfolded whitewashed the euphoria that began with the backdrop of highlighting how Pochettino could not be poached away from the kingdom he had created. From “You can’t have our manager”, the only voices beckoning upon Wembley now came from the distant away stand. With “Ole’s at the wheel” taking flight, the notion had changed with Spurs fans left dumbstruck with their bombastic attitude backfiring.
Heading into the second half, there was optimism that Spurs could bounce back. During the half-time chitter-chatter amongst neighbouring seated supporters, many believed Pochettino’s half time team talk would help mastermind a strong second-half performance with Spurs coming out of the blocks quickly. Placed now in front of United’s goal, I would never have imagined witnessing David de Gea produce a display that would leave me heartbroken yet mesmerised.
The 11 saves that the Spaniard made left me in awe of his positioning and shot-stopping reflexes. He was decisive on each occasion and no matter how the shots were fired; he always had an answer. If emotions could be controlled like puppets, David de Gea played the role of a puppet master in disguise. With 75,000 Spurs fans as puppets, David de Gea’s relentless pursuit to deny the Lilywhites of any sort of goal-bound celebrations, left him pulling strings and constantly toying with the Spurs faithful.
In his exhibition showcasing goalkeeping of the highest order – what stood out was how each save was better than the last. Early into the second half as the onslaught continued, a chance was presented when a leaping Dele Alli connected in harmony with Trippier’s inviting cross. The header was gracefully placed into the bottom left corner and expertly disguised by the approaching Harry Kane, as the ball reached the goal line.
What looked like a certain cause for celebration soon turned into the agonising sounds of moans and groans echoing all throughout Wembley. Seemingly out of position as the ball glided through the air, David de Gea took a leaf out the books of Olympic gymnasts as he defied the laws of gravity to momentarily pause mid-air to sweep the ball away from the goal line. As the attack came to an end, it was clear to see that entire Spurs contingent and their supporters were left bamboozled, thinking of what they have to do to get on the scoresheet
On several instances, as Kane outmanoeuvred the United defence, De Gea’s tenacious self-belief made sure that the England captain was not going to get on the scoresheet. His preferred theme of stopping Kane’s powerful shots with his solid right boot made for an enthralling watch but left Spurs fans gnawing away and almost giving an impression that it was too easy for the Spaniard. As the minutes past by, the level at which De Gea had reached in terms of his goalkeeping prowess made the Lilywhites countenance failure, fast relinquishing any hopes or optimism to achieve something out of the game.
Depriving fans all evening of any sort of unified North London celebrations, the Spaniard had one final trick up his sleeve. Individually being responsible to put the nail in the coffin, no one could have anticipated what would happen next as Spurs were handed a corner. Approaching the final minutes of the clock, Eriksen’s expertly crafted low cross delivered and perfected right from the training ground practices was met by the right boot of Toby Alderweireld.
With little or no reaction time left for De Gea due to the close proximity at which the shot approached the goal, one couldn’t blame the Lilywhites to believe that the net would finally be rattled through an unlikely source. Yet, as Spurs fans approached the edge of their seats, ready to erupt in jubilation, history, unfortunately, repeated itself.
Based purely on instinct, lay within an individual with goalkeeping attributes parallel to none, De Gea outstretched his left leg in the blink of the eye. The outstretched leg was enough to deflect the ball from harm’s way, toppling all other saves to reign supreme as the most magnificent and breath-taking save made on that excruciatingly painful night at Wembley.
At the final whistle, Tottenham had thrown the entirety of their attacking powerhouse with a sequence of headers and shots from various ranges. They had nothing left in their tank and on any other day they would have run riot on the scoresheet. Yet that day belonged to a man seemingly out to prove all his critics wrong, who believed he was past his prime.
As the calamity of the final whistle descended upon Wembley, much to the pain and sorrow of 75,000 Spurs fans who had made their voices heard all evening, the away section was witnessed producing a rightful gesture. As their saviour approached taking off his gloves, the Red Devil supporters lifted their arms and bowed down in respect: An ode to his unbelievable perseverance. Never had they witnessed their goalkeeper produce such a triumphant display in order to obtain a clean sheet.
The fast-paced, nerve-wracking and deeply frustrating game came to an eventual end. I sat there receiving consolations from those around at how unfortunate Spurs had been to leave with nothing. Certainly, deserving much more in terms of the excellent performance, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was anything to be sorrowful about. Faced with such a dilemma, I left Wembley thinking about how grateful I was to be there in person to witness such a masterclass.
For a man who had kept a record-breaking 18 clean sheets during the 2017-18 season, visually being able to experience a live demonstration of the impeccable range of his goal saving expertise provided some very satisfying consolation to an otherwise exasperated cold evening at Wembley.