A month or so ago, when the debate over whether David de Gea or Dean Henderson should start in goal for Manchester United was at its peak, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had a stock answer for the questions that came his way. It wasn’t about whether De Gea or Henderson was first-choice, he insisted, because to his mind he already had “two No 1s”.
It was a nice line with one problem: You cannot play them both at once. And so, unless he rotated week in and week out and potentially spread uncertainty through his defence, a hierarchy would have to exist. Henderson has since emerged as United’s bonafide No 1, reducing De Gea to cup appearances and leaving his future uncertain.
Sources have described the current dynamic as unsustainable. De Gea wants to play and, despite his declining form over the past three years, is too good to be a second-choice. A permanent exit is not out of the question but a loan, with the target club in question paying a substantial amount of his salary, is thought to be a more realistic option.
For now, De Gea must make do with taking opportunities as and when they arrive, but he did more than that at the Stadio Olimpico on Thursday night. With a string of remarkable, reaction saves at point-blank range to deny Roma the stunning comeback that they desired, he showed that Solskjaer’s “two No 1s” comment was not far wrong.
“David was vital,” Solskjaer admitted in his post-match press conference, happy – and also slightly relieved – to progress 8-5 on aggregate and reach his first final as United manager at the fifth time of asking. “He was the man of the match for me,” he said of his goalkeeper. “Standout performer.”
De Gea’s reflexes are one aspect of goalkeeping ability that has never dimmed. Though not the most comfortable with the ball at his feet, or when forced to come off his line, or even when coming to collect crosses, his instinctive shot-stopping at close range can be spectacular to witness when one great save follows another.
Like in Seville three years ago, at the Emirates a few months before that, or at Stamford Bridge in 2012 when he was still adapting to life in English football, this was another game where De Gea produced a catalogue of brilliant stops, to the point where it was difficult to pick out the best.
The most important, though, undoubtedly came after Bryan Cristante had put Roma 2-1 ahead on the night, only three minutes after Edin Dzeko had cancelled out Edinson Cavani’s opener. The Serie A side suddenly had momentum and were streaming forward with ease, bypassing a United defence that was 7-4 up on aggregate and thought their job was done.
Just a minute after Cristante’s goal, De Gea first had to think fast to deny Dzeko’s diving header and then pushed away Pedro’s follow-up, which was creeping in at his near post. It was the type of double save that a goalkeeper without De Gea’s reflexes could not have made. If the aggregate score had gone to 7-5 with half an hour to play, anything could have happened.
De Gea denies Edin Dzeko in the UEL semi-final second leg
Despite him having conceded three times once all was said and done, and despite Cavani notching another to make sure of United’s trip to Gdansk, there were no complaints when De Gea was named man of the match. And once a place in the final was secured, the obvious question was whether or not De Gea will start it.
Surely he must, but Solskjaer has previous when it comes to overlooking ‘cup’ goalkeepers, dropping Sergio Romero at the business end of last season’s Europa League campaign despite the Argentine not putting a foot wrong. It was practically the end of Romero’s United career. Though he remains on the books, he has been unhappy ever since and will leave on a free transfer this summer.
When asked whether De Gea would keep his place for the final after the final whistle had sounded in Rome, Solskjaer offered no promises. “The final is still three weeks away,” he said. If he genuinely believes that Henderson is the better of the two, history suggests there is a chance Henderson will play.
Yet there was enough of a hint from the United manager to suggest De Gea will get the start he deserves. “We’ve got many games, but David’s put a very good application in by his performance,” Solskjaer added. “The proof is always on the pitch, you’ve got to perform and you keep your place in the team when you play well.”
It would only be right for De Gea to play as there is, of course, a non-zero chance that it could be his last appearance in a United shirt after nearly a decade of service. United finally appear to have found his successor. Yet Solskjaer knows that if De Gea does depart this summer, permanently or on loan, he will be losing a very good ‘No 1’.