"Is that skinny kid with the bad alpaca-like facial hair the guy we just bought from Atlético for £18 million?"
I got to see one of David de Gea's first starts for Manchester United. I went to watch United play Barcelona in Washington, D.C. during United's pre-season tour of the United States in 2011. The match took place several months after Messi, Villa, Xavi and Iniesta dismantled Sir Alex Ferguson's last great United team in London during the Champions League Final. The 20 year-old, rail-thin de Gea had just signed for the club to replace United legend Edwin van der Sar, and he looked like an overgrown tuft of grass standing in his green kit on the Fed Ex Field turf.
Against familiar opponents Barcelona, de Gea didn't have too much to do. With the memory of losing the biggest game of the year in their own home country still fresh on their minds, the game clearly meant more to the United players than their counterparts - which did not include the likes of Messi, Xavi or Gerard Piqué. United were in control for most of the match and won comfortably, 2-1. Nani scored the opener after getting somewhat fortunate and sliding the ball between Victor Valdes's legs. Barcelona's Thiago, who nearly became a Manchester United player one year later, unleashed a thunderbolt of a goal that Dhalsim wouldn't have been able to save that brought the capacity crowd of 82,000 to its feet. Michael Owen then won the game by scoring the most Michael Owen goal ever - burying a one-on-one effort after Tom Cleverley stole the ball and slid the pass to Owen just before the latter broke the off-side line.
My eyes were on de Gea for most of the evening. United fans had been spoiled by watching the steady and consistent van der Sar in net over the last several years, and I was curious how de Gea would step into that void. He was a virtual spectator for most of the match (indeed, it's hard to evaluate anyone on the basis of a performance during a pre-season friendly). With Barca playing at half-speed, de Gea didn't have to make any spectacular saves. He got down nicely to stop a Pedro shot in the first half and could do nothing about Thiago's goal. Instead, what struck me was how he distributed the ball. Van der Sar was always a great distributor, but towards the end of his career, his leg strength had diminished. De Gea could boom a kick past the center circle without trying and his long kicks, invariably, found a red shirt. He did this time and time again and he did it ease. It was like playing FIFA 2012 on the easiest level where the goalie's kicks always land perfectly at the feet of a teammate- except it was in real life. Physically, at least, de Gea seemed like the real deal.
As we know now, it's been a difficult journey for the kid from Madrid. During his first year and change at United, he was the error-prone skinny kid who got bullied during corners, gave up soft goals and couldn't get down fast enough to stop low shots. It's crazy to think that he nearly lost his job on at least two separate occasions. Anders Lindegaard all but won the job after de Gea's error-prone performance at home against Blackburn in early 2012 (de Gea got it back after Lindegaard got hurt). The following season, Sir Alex seemed to favor Lindegaard early on, until the Dane's poor showing against Reading. De Gea's masterful performance against Real Madrid later that year in the Champions League seemed to cement his status.
Now, he's arguably the best keeper in the world. With apologies to Manuel Neuer and Thibaut Courtois, de Gea has maintained a ridiculously high standard while dealing with a revolving cast of defenders (none of whom will ever be mistaken for Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra or Gary Neville). Van Gaal has certainly done him no favors by constantly shifting between a back four and back three.
Spectacular, match-saving performances are becoming mundane for him. Sunday was the latest example as United beat Liverpool 3-0. Once again, de Gea was the star, as he stopped at least six Liverpool scoring chances, including one where Raheem Sterling was through on goal after a poor backpass from Jonny Evans. His dominant performance inspired several funny Internet memes, including this Pink Floyd-inspired one.
Indeed, ever since the Everton match, de Gea has been on an incredible run of form. Against the Toffees, he stopped a Leighton Baines penalty shot (he had never missed from the spot in the Premier League) and then spectacularly denied Bryan Oviedo's equalizer attempt in stoppage time. He was in sizzling form against Chelsea and Manchester City, keeping his beleaguered team in both matches (although they only ended up taking one point from both of those games). He kept a determined Arsenal off the scoresheet until Olivier Giroud scored a belter in stoppage time that no one could have stopped. He preserved United's 2-1 victory against Stoke with two brilliant stoppage time saves (Ashley Young also cleared a shot off the line during that period).
In its last ten matches, United have taken 23 points out of a possible 30. If not for de Gea's brilliance, the team probably only gets nine points. Top four would be a bigger pipe-dream than a Steven Gerrard winning the Premier League with Liverpool (sorry, I had to).
It's getting to the point where Manchester United might be better-served by simply handing David de Gea a blank contract extension and asking him to fill in the spots where it says "wages" and "contract length." Even if that were to happen, you could still say United is getting a bargain. At 24, de Gea isn't even in the prime of his career yet. That's quite a scary thought.