When the ball cannons off Christian Kabasele’s head, David de Gea’s feet are on the ground. But this is only just true. Over the previous few seconds, as the free-kick swings in from Will Hughes on the right wing, De Gea has been making a dozen subtle adjustments that will ensure that at the very moment the ball is propelled towards him, he is in exactly the perfect position to react to it.
Legs spread wide, but not braced. Weight tilted ever so slightly forward, so he can attack the ball, rather than simply diving sideways. And most importantly of all, he is on the very tips of his toes, on the very cusp of explosion, so that the instant his brain registers where the ball is heading, his body is ready to go.
What happens next will generally be described as “pure instinct”. And it is, but not quite in the way we usually mean it. The eyes go first, then the hands, then – thrillingly – everything else. Like all the best goalkeepers, when De Gea dives it feels less like his feet are propelling him off the ground, and more like the sheer force of his arms are dragging the rest of his body with them.
At the moment of contact, his body is curved dramatically to the left, like an ear of wheat being bent in a strong breeze. He gets both palms to the ball, with enough force that it deflects wide of the goal rather than into it. The Vicarage Road crowd unleashes a scream of anguish, the sound of one point being snatched from their grasp. The full-time whistle blows. Manchester United have beaten Watford 2-1, and once again, David de Gea has saved them.
Even more remarkably, it wasn’t even the best save De Gea made in the game. There was a better one in the first half, with the score still 0-0, when the ball sat up nicely for Troy Deeney 16 yards out and he smashed it with the force of a comet – swerving, too – only for De Gea to stick out a right hand and flap it away. Again it was instinctive, but not in the sense of pure reflex: rather in the sense of being able to read and anticipate the game so well that when the shot comes, you are ideally placed.
In short, you might call De Gea an absolute natural. And after a dispiritingly poor World Cup with Spain – where he failed to stop six of his seven shots on target, and all four of Russia’s penalties in the last-16 – the signs are that he is back on top of his game. He shone against England in the Nations League last week, earning a glowing review from his manager Luis Enrique, and with his confidence suitably boosted, De Gea can get back to his day job of being casually brilliant for United.
“He’s the Messi of goalkeeping,” says Ben Foster, one of De Gea’s predecessors at Old Trafford, and here the man watching in grudging admiration as his opposite number denied his side a point. “Some of the saves he makes, at really critical times, are just breathtaking.
“He’s the most natural goalie you will ever see. From what I hear, he’s not a great trainer. Training doesn’t do it for him. But 3pm, the adrenaline rush: that’s what turns him on. That’s something you really can’t teach. He’s got the game management, the nous of what to do at any given time.”
Foster remembers in particular a save De Gea made at Sevilla in last season’s Champions League, a header by Luis Muriel from five yards. “Most goalies would just close their eyes and hope for the best,” Foster says. “He just watched it all the way, kept his eyes on the ball, saved it, and just got up like it was nothing.That’s the difference: being able to stuff like that under pressure. Five yards out? Most goalies would have no chance.”
There are two main criticisms of De Gea: first, that when he is required to play a more dynamic role behind a high defence – as Spain often employ – he is found wanting. Second, that he’s less assured with the ball at his feet. Neither is quite true: De Gea is quick out of his goal as anyone, and a perfectly fine distributor when he has to be. It’s just that, partly because of his own shot-stopping talent and partly because of United’s tactics, he doesn’t often have to be.
Certainly De Gea’s worth is not underrated by his team-mates. “For the majority of the game he didn’t have much to do,” said Chris Smalling. “But what makes him one of the best keepers in the world is not having much to do and then standing up in the last minute: a crucial time. The best keepers don’t switch off. And we know David is always there.”
And in a way, the restoration of De Gea after a traumatic summer has a wider symbolism in a United side that for all its tribulations over recent months, has emerged from the storm still intact, still united. Two tough away wins have brought them within touching distance of the top four, and the performances against Burnley and Watford were a neat rebuttal of the hypothesis that United is breaking apart from within. The fans are still behind Mourinho, and on this evidence so is the dressing room.
“I think it’s come together the last few games,” said Smalling. “Burnley was comfortable and the first half here was comfortable. But in the second half we were digging in. We were always going to be a little bit deep, because they threw on an extra striker, and had nothing to lose. But credit to the team for digging in and making sure we had three points.”
With De Gea at the helm, United certainly have a platform to build on. The pessimistic view is that a team this reliant on their goalkeeper probably has problems further up the pitch. The riposte, meanwhile, would be that when your keeper is as good as De Gea is, why wouldn’t you rely on him?