It’s now 55 years since Lev Yashin won the Ballon d’Or – the last goalkeeper to collect Europe’s premier individual award. More locally, it’s now 40 years since Peter Shilton was voted the PFA’s Player of the Year.
Both are special cases. Yashin was a national icon in the Soviet Union and a centrepiece of the great Dynamo Moscow sides of the 1950s and 1960s. He was a hero of Yuri Gagarin proportions, endowed with a set of enduring nicknames and who, when he died in 1990, was honoured with a state funeral.
Shilton’s career was more parochial. He may not have embedded himself in the English conscience in quite the same way, but he too was a generational player. Brian Clough’s No.1 was honoured by his fellow professionals in 1978, having won a league championship with Nottingham Forest in his first season at the club. Back-to-back European Cups followed in 1979 and 1980, and Shilton’s performance in the final of the second, against Kevin Keegan’s Hamburg, remains one of the great goalkeeping displays of all time.
Out on their own
The implication is obvious: for all intents and purposes, goalkeeping is its own category.
The sport is weighted towards goals and attacking, and performance alone is never quite enough to correct that skew during awards season; to win, a goalkeeper must possess a quality which transcends the field. He can’t just be the most important player on the very best team, his value must be so overwhelmingly obvious that all counter-arguments are neutered at source.
Whether David de Gea ever infiltrates that territory will be shown in time. By consensus, he is now the Premier League’s elite player in his position. Continentally, the discussion is broader: Atletico Madrid’s Jan Oblak has been consistently outstanding for many seasons and Barcelona’s Marc-Andre ter Stegen is, while a broader, slightly more modern player, part of the conversation too.
Of the three, De Gea plays for the weakest side. Manchester United remain in their listless, post-Ferguson tumble and Jose Mourinho continues to tommy gun his own players from the technical area. From that perspective, De Gea’s situation appears less than enviable. While his near-equals (and several inferiors) are competing for league championships and continental titles, he remains in a strange purgatory.
United have been porous enough for him stake his claim to be the world’s best, but not nearly good enough to formalise their goalkeeper’s excellence; in football, as in every other sport, the rubber stamp of validation comes from winning finals and collecting medals.
United’s hopes of winning the Premier League are already over, their chances of re-qualifying for the Champions League are receding fast, and, while still involved in this year’s edition, the knockout rounds are expected to deliver a quick and chastening exit.
In the firing line
So it’s easy to see De Gea as a man on an island, looking out to sea at elusive objectives.
His stay at Old Trafford been extended, too. While his existing contract had been due to expire in the summer of 2019, Manchester United have now exercised their option to tack on a further year. A club of such means can improve quickly, of course, and United are only ever a few well-directed cheques away from being competitive again, but there’s scant evidence of forward momentum at present and, under current management at least, little assurance of their ability to satisfy his professional ambition.
But then, that is to ignore the full dynamic of the situation in which De Gea finds himself.
In the broad sense, the influence of most big club goalkeepers is diluted by their own side’s dominance. One of the position’s eternal metrics may be the ability to perform to a high standard in spite of sporadic involvement, but precisely measuring the influence of any player who is part of a dominant team is very difficult.
Manuel Neuer has been one of the continent’s very best over the past decade, but could it definitely be said that Bayern Munich would have surrendered any of their six straight Bundesliga titles without him? Logically, the answer is no. It shouldn’t alter the perception of Neuer’s value, but it invariably does. That too is logical. The full range of his abilities is rarely shown and, quite unlike De Gea, weeks could pass without his performances being of any note.
There’s a precedent for this specific to Manchester United. While most would concede that Peter Schmeichel was fundamental to the club’s success in the 1990s, and the best goalkeeper in the country during that period, only once – in 1992/93 – was the Dane voted into the division’s Team of the Season. Nigel Martyn, Tim Flowers, David James and David Seaman were all recognised ahead of him, the former two twice, and that seconds the assumption that circumstances really do matter.
As a result, Schmeichel’s omissions are easy to rationalise. Much of his greatness was latent. Just as his prior reputation intimidated forwards who ran through on his goal, much of his overall effect was theoretical and his impact was often described in terms of what he might do. It was a calculation made from a sum of intangibles.
He had a tremendous command of his defenders, his distribution was exemplary and varied, and his aerial command was outstanding. At his absolute peak he possessed an aura, too, which implied that there was really nothing he couldn’t save.
Those were powerful attributes, certainly, and ones which instructed his team’s success in many of their tightest games, but they didn’t have a place on the Match of the Day title sequence or in the highlights packages of the time. In fact, when the relevant Premier League Years episodes come around and their associated top-five lists air, it’s amazing just how rarely he features.
With him, greatness lay partially in the subtext. Supporters who saw Schmeichel know what he was and the testimony of former team-mates helps preserve that legacy, but his career is more generally condensed down into a small list of his highlights.
His performance against Newcastle at St James’ Park, his save in Austria in the Champions League, and his starfish denial of Ivan Zamorano in 1999. There are others, many more in fact, but most of them have been lost to the haze of United’s more general excellence.
A question of status
De Gea doesn’t have that problem. In fact, his situation is optimal. United’s recent decline hasn’t reduced their global visibility, nor has it affected their ability to pay their players extravagantly. The Spaniard plays on centre stage for fantastic reward.
Moreover, he’s able to show the full rainbow of his abilities under that spotlight and, in something often under-appreciated, he gets to play the part of the only credible performer in what has otherwise generally been a fairly rotten production.
That’s a powerful framing; more so when any hypothetical move is considered. De Gea is categorically not for sale, but any transfer to a similar-sized club would almost certainly involve a retraction in status – even if his performances didn’t warrant it.
Conversely, in this Manchester United side, the imperfections which continue to blight them are what actually helps to inflate and sustain his reputation. After all, at the end of each United season, what percentage of the club’s standout moments would belong to him? And how many of those moments would be considered rare and as actions of the highest quality? De Gea’s weekly showreel is rich, diverse and highly concentrated.
Among his peers, that allows him to occupy a unique goalkeeping place. Comparisons with either Yashin or Shilton are tenuous, but he too exists in a special territory. His position is incontestable, his value almost impossibly vast.
At any given time, there are very few players in the world who can say that – who are genuinely irreplaceable – and two of them, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, are approaching their final days of dominance. When that happens and those two supernovas finally disappear, De Gea will be part of the group of players who move into their rarefied atmosphere.
And, strangely, that will be because of Manchester United, not in spite of them.