Man United shouldn't apologise for having a great goalkeeper
There was nothing 'lucky' about the win
David De Gea's performance against Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday has rightly earned widespread praise.
The Manchester United goalkeeper made an incredible 11 saves in the 1-0 win at Wembley - the most made by a Premier League 'keeper in a match while also keeping a clean sheet.
It was the most saves made by a goalkeeper in a Premier League game since De Gea made 14 stops against Arsenal in December 2017.
The Spain international, who had been in patchy form during and after the World Cup, was rightly named a man of the match for this display, but that didn't do his performance justice. This game will always be associated with De Gea. He was that impressive.
Following the final whistle, Mauricio Pochettino said that the second half was the best display from his team during his four and half years with the club. Yet, Tottenham still couldn't find a way past United's 'keeper.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer also made an interesting remark about De Gea and goalkeepers in general.
"You are allowed to have a good goalkeeper," the United caretaker manager said.
"I've played with a few fantastic goalkeepers. We have a tradition of having them and he has grown and grown. He deserves that man of the match today."
Solskjaer's line about being "allowed to have a good goalkeeper" is spot on and should serve as the perfect rebuttal to those who have criticised United following the game.
There has been a theory doing the rounds that the team were somehow lucky to win the tie, that their goalkeeper saved them so, therefore, the victory is devalued. This is complete nonsense.
De Gea saved United and ultimately proved the difference between a win and a draw. But is that not the idea of having a good goalkeeper? That's his job - to save shots fired at him and help keep his team in the game.
The fact that he did so doesn't and shouldn't cheapen United's victory. It is nothing to be ashamed of. Arguing that it is like saying Barcelona did not deserve to win a game because Lionel Messi scored a goal, and if they didn't have him, they wouldn't have won.
Having great players doesn't de-legitimise a team's victory. The whole point of having great players is for them to be the difference between victory and defeat. The ability to do so is what makes a player great.
The only thing De Gea's performance against Spurs should prove is how important it is to have a world class 'keeper. Liverpool have learned a similar lesson this season.
It also shows that some seem to consider a goalkeeper to be a separate entity from the rest of the team. As though the team got "lucky" because they have a great goalkeeper.
De Gea is a United player just as Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford are. He is there to help the team just as they are.
The club also signed De Gea as a teenager, showed faith in him as he was developing and helped him reach his potential. Where is the luck in that?
🍾Man of the Match, @ManUtd’s David De Gea 🍾
✋11 saves (all in the 2nd half), the most by any keeper in a PL fixture this season
✋13.75% of his saves in PL this season were in the 2nd half
✋Back-to-back PL clean sheets for the 1st time since a run of 4, Dec 2017-Jan 2018 pic.twitter.com/zJnmcHNPgF
— Sky Sports Statto (@SkySportsStatto) January 13, 2019
There are others, even more bafflingly, who have argued that the brilliance of De Gea's performance has been overstated, that most of Tottenham's efforts were straight at him. Again, this is a deeply flawed argument.
As Watford goalkeeper Ben Foster said, some of the shots were within reach of De Gea because of his excellent positioning, not because they were poor efforts on goal.
I see a lot of people saying all De Gea saves were straight at him, please factor in that the guy has some mad sense to know where to be at just the right time, you can’t teach that. Proper goally 👏
— Ben Foster (@BenFoster) January 13, 2019
Match of the Day 2 expanded on this during their analysis, highlighting De Gea's positioning for several of the shots he faced.
The pundits Jermaine Jenas and Darren Fletcher compared Rashford's goal with a chance Harry Kane had from a similar position.
They argued that the Tottenham striker had the easier chance, yet De Gea's excellent positioning and anticipation of Kane's effort meant he was able to stop it. Whereas Hugo Lloris positioned himself slightly wider of the goal and couldn't stop Rashford's shot.
It was a small detail, but small details make all the difference in these big games and at these vital moments.
Like Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Kevin de Bruyne, Mohamed Salah or any other great player, De Gea has the ability to make extraordinary feats look simple. This shouldn't be taken for granted or discounted.
There was another claim that, because De Gea is a brilliant goalkeeper, we should expect him to save these shots, that a goalkeeper of his calibre should be stopping such efforts.
By this logic, because someone is great at their job, they shouldn't receive praise for doing a great job. This is nonsense.
As is the theory that it was a smash and grab by Man United at Wembley, no different to displays under Jose Mourinho. That just simply isn't the case.
That game against Arsenal in December 2017, when De Gea was equally brilliant, was merely a smash and grab.
Arsenal had 16 shots on target that day, United had four. (Against Spurs, United had eight shots on target and the home side had 11 efforts on target).
United won 3-1 at the Emirates yet the xG (expected goals) statistic shows that they should have been comfortably beaten.
United camped on their 18-yard line, took their chances in front of goal and hung on. De Gea performed miracles as Arsenal were allowed shot after shot on the United goal. This was the Mourinho template last season.
However, Solskjaer had a plan to hurt Spurs and the team executed it brilliantly, particularly in the first hour. They took advantage of the space out wide due to Tottenham's narrow midfield diamond and set traps throughout the pitch.
The front pairing of Rashford and Martial, with Jesse Lingard playing almost as a false-nine, caused Spurs serious problems and they punished them on the counter-attack with a wonderfully crafted goal.
Then, when they started to tire after 60 breathless minutes, United relied upon their goalkeeper to help them get through the game. De Gea did his part just as Rashford had earlier in the game. That's not the same as soaking up the pressure and praying for your 'keeper to bail the team out. The xG for the game shows that.
Yes, Spurs led United in this area, but it was close and conveys how this was an even match between two very good sides.
On Sunday, De Gea was there to be the difference when called upon, the same way a centre-forward is tasked with putting the ball in the opposition net.
That doesn't mean the team were lucky and it doesn't mean the victory was a smash and grab.
Having a great goalkeeper isn't something United should apologise for either and having one certainly doesn't somehow devalue the win.