Manchester United's 4-2 victory over Manchester City on Sunday was a perfect microcosm of United's entire 2014-2015 season.
United started off terribly, falling behind 1-0 after David Silva, James Milner and Sergio Aguero cut through the Reds' defense like a warm knife going through butter. United then got some good fortune to equalize before taking control of the game and winning comfortably. The four goal scorers, Ashley Young, Marouane Fellaini, Juan Mata and Chris Smalling, were all players who were somewhat overlooked or criticized going into the year only to play important roles in United's recent renaissance. Throw in the fact that United's two big-ticket summer acquisition, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao, watched most of the match from the bench and were relegated to making inconsequential cameos, and this game served as a perfect representation of Louis van Gaal's reign at United thus far.
For the first 20 minutes, it looked like City was going to win an unprecedented fifth derby match in a row. City confounded expectations and recent form by displaying some offensive brilliance in the opening minutes, as well as some uncharacteristic defensive discipline. Milner did a surprisingly good job man-marking Michael Carrick and making sure he didn't have time or space on the ball to pick out a pass. He and Silva swapped roles on offense, causing confusion among the back four and Carrick (who were all culpable for Aguero's opener). Yaya Toure, who has been much-maligned as of late, seemed in control of Marouane Fellaini, much like when these teams clashed in early 2013. Then, Fellaini started to assert himself while Toure faded. Whether it was fatigue or just plain indifference, Toure clearly didn't want to be out there on the pitch. On United's second goal, he made no effort to stop Young's cross from reaching Fellaini. Then, on United's third goal, his lackadaisical defense on Fellaini caused Martin Demichelis to come charging out to try and mark the big Belgian. A few passes later, with Demichelis well out of position, Mata was through on goal while Toure jogged nonchalantly towards the general vicinity of the play. That's what you get for throwing someone a lame birthday party.
One storyline didn't quite play out according to plan. David de Gea has been United's best player this season and has single-handedly won several matches for the team with his brilliant saves and overall play. De Gea didn't produce any highlight reel saves against City - the closest he got was getting a glove on what turned out to be Aguero's second goal of the game. However, he was no less important to United's win.
For United's opening goal, de Gea showed off some other strong areas of his game, including positional awareness and ball distribution. Phil Jones (who continues to be an adventure at center back) played a poor backpass to de Gea that Aguero nearly got on the end of. United was still recovering from the opening goal and was playing poorly. If Aguero scores there, then it's likely "Goodnight Irene" for United. De Gea, however, was alert to the problem and sprinted out- meeting the ball a good 25 yards from the edge of the penalty box and beating Aguero by a step. While most keepers would be content just getting the ball away, de Gea not only boomed it 80 yards downfield but got it to Fellaini. Sure, de Gea got lucky in that, even though Fellaini couldn't control it, the ball bounced right to Daley Blind, who was able to send in the cross that resulted in Young's goal. But sometimes, you make your own luck, and the fact that de Gea was able to kick it so deep and so accurately meant his teammates had a chance to create something. After all, he could have just kicked it out for a throw or passed it back to Jones. Instead, he picked out Fellaini standing near the City penalty area and helped create Young's goal, which went a long way towards settling United down after a terrible start while rattling City so badly that it never recovered.
Clearing the ball under pressure is an underrated skill that a lot of keepers struggle with. For instance. Tim Howard, one of the best in the world, gifted United a goal back in October after a poor clearance under pressure. For de Gea to not only get the ball away but turn it into a scoring opportunity is something that a lot of keepers can't do. Indeed, his world class distribution skills, which have been great since Day 1, are one of many things the team will miss if he ends up decamping to Real Madrid in the offseason. A surprising number of commentators have argued that giving up de Gea is a no-brainer for United if the team can get Gareth Bale in return - especially if de Gea isn't willing to sign a new deal (the fans, however, are a different story - but there's clearly observational bias at work - they've seen de Gea carry the team at times this year and love him for it).
Getting Victor Valdes was a smart move, but it's fair to ask whether he is capable of filling de Gea's rapidly growing shoes. Assuming he's over his ACL injury and reclaims his Barcelona form, then there's almost no drop-off. After all, before he got hurt, Valdes was one of the best keepers in the world. Indeed, there's a school of thought that Valdes is actually better suited to play van Gaal's style of football because he is more active in helping build up play from the back and rarely just booms it downfield, where there's little chance of retaining the ball.
"For years he has helped us a lot to bring the ball out from deep," observed the late Barcelona manager Tito Vilanova. "If he started hitting the ball long, we would lose our combination game.”
Indeed, the stats bear this out:
When it comes to distribution, both are extremely accurate. However, de Gea gets more distance on his distributions, on average, than Valdes does. De Gea is also more likely to catch the ball than Valdes, who is more of a puncher. Otherwise, their stats are fairly similar.
The real question (besides the state of his knee) is whether Valdes can adjust to the Premier League immediately. It would have been nice to give him some starts this season to see what he's made of. Unfortunately, United have been in must-win mode for the last few months, which means all de Gea, all the time. United will hope that Valdes adjusts faster than de Gea did. Otherwise, all the hard work and progress of this season could get flushed down the drain. Given how hard it is to replace a world-class goalkeeper (United fans know all about this - Massimo Taibi anyone?), United would be wise to do what it can to hold on to de Gea. Already one of the world's best, de Gea has another decade, at least, of world class football in him. Those guys don't just grow on trees.