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Iconic Performances: De Gea’s one-man defiance at Arsenal

Sometimes in football the final score is not a true reflection on the events of a game. The term smash-and-grab has become a popularised when discussing such occasions, when the full-time result has been the sole sign of superiority across the ninety minutes.

Manchester United’s win at Arsenal during the 2017/18 Premier League campaign is a prime example. Arsenal completed almost four times as many passes as their visitors, boasted 75% of the possession, had 33 shots to Manchester United’s eight and led 12 to one in corner kicks.

Still, somehow, the Gunners ended up on the losing side.

Bad luck and bad finishing no doubt played their part, but the defining difference between the sides was a superb showing of shot-stopping from the Spaniard in the away goal.

Manchester United fans had been accustomed to performances of the highest standard from David de Gea, a goalkeeper who overcame a rocky start to become one of the Premier League’s best at Old Trafford.

Sir Alex Ferguson sanctioned the signing of De Gea from Atletico Madrid after Edwin van der Sar’s retirement, investing £18.9m – the second highest fee ever paid for a goalkeeper at that time – on a largely unproven 20-year-old.

Ferguson had faith in the young shot-stopper, but a series of early errors had others less convinced. Slight in frame and fragile in confidence, the rigours of the Premier League appeared too much too soon for De Gea.

After a spell out of the team he began to grow at Old Trafford. An exquisite stoppage-time save from a Juan Mata free-kick earned a draw at Chelsea and provided the first true glimpse of his capabilities.

He was named in the PFA Team of the Year in 2012/13 as United won the Premier League title and added further inclusions in consecutive campaigns between 2015 and 2018. The latter of those seasons saw De Gea recognised as one of the world’s best, with his one-man act of defiance at Arsenal the crescendo in a career littered with performances of outstanding agility and remarkable reflexes.

Manchester United travelled to north London aiming to keep pace with Manchester City at the top of the Premier League and began in perfect fashion with an early one-two combination. Antonio Valencia opened the scoring inside four minutes after capitalising on Laurent Koscielny’s loose pass, before Jesse Lingard combined well with Romelu Lukaku and Anthony Martial to double the advantage moments later.

United’s early lead opened up a compelling encounter. There were 20 shots on goal in an end-to-end first half alone, though Arsenal – for all of their effort – faced a goalkeeper at the peak of his powers.

Alexandre Lacazette was first to be frustrated as De Gea saved with his legs from close range, before sprawling at the striker’s feet to deflect another effort onto the crossbar. Next came Mesut Ozil, whose low effort produced a straightforward stop from De Gea, though the Spaniard was forced into a full-length save to palm away Hector Bellerin’s fierce strike as Arsenal upped the ante.

De Gea then got down well as Sead Kolasinac tried his luck from range, before producing his best save of the opening period from an unlikely avenue. Romelu Lukaku inadvertently diverted Alexis Sanchez’s free-kick towards his own goal, but breathed a sigh of relief as De Gea contorted on the goal-line to claw away the loose ball.

For long periods it was one-way traffic, as the side trailing pushed desperately to get back into the game. Lacazette reduced the deficit early in the second period, but hopes of an equaliser faded fast as De Gea defied physics as a brilliant barrier between Arsenal and a result.

He produced a miraculous moment seven minutes after Lacazette’s goal, with a stunning double-save. Having got down sharply to save Lacazette’s low effort, he leapt and stretched with razor-like reflexes to turn Sanchez’s follow-up away with an outstretched boot.

Lacazette looked on forlorn, but he was not the only one. Sanchez, Alex Iwobi, Danny Welbeck and Nacho Monreal all tested De Gea across the second half. None found a breakthrough.

Against the run of the game Jesse Lingard scored a second goal on the counter-attack to seal the win for Manchester United, who held on despite a red card for Paul Pogba, in large part thanks to the heroics of De Gea.

In key moments he had made big saves, appearing almost to have additional limbs as he turned away chance after chance. This was a performance so good that it had altered the narrative of the game, as an Arsenal side who had dominated ended with nothing, victim of Manchester United’s counter-attack and De Gea’s brilliance in goal.

As the full-time whistle blew, Arsenal’s 12-match winning run on home soil came to an end and Manchester United remained in championship contention. De Gea, an improbable blend of reaction and reflexes at the Emirates, had produced a match-winning masterclass in goalkeeping.

Only two other goalkeepers – Tim Krul and Vito Mannone – had ever previously recorded 14 saves in a Premier League game since Opta first began collecting the data almost two decades earlier.

De Gea matched that achievement in almost nonchalant fashion. Whether a gasp-inducing save or a routine stop to relieve pressure, De Gea simply shrugged, returned to his goal line, and awaited the next moment he would be called into action.

De Gea’s decline and a change in the role of goalkeepers means it is easy to forget just how consistently brilliant the Spaniard was at his peak. In the art of shot-stopping, there are few in the Premier League era who can hold a candle to De Gea. His mesmerising performance at Arsenal ranks as one of the Premier League’s greatest goalkeeping displays.

Read – Iconic Performances: Roy Keane’s superhuman display v Juventus

Read Also – Iconic Performances: ‘Super sub’ Solskjaer hits four at Forest

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