There was a moment in St James’ Park on Saturday night when it was tempting to wonder if anything would ever go right for David de Gea again.
When a Newcastle cross from the right was deflected off Luke Shaw’s shoe and appeared past the Manchester United goalkeeper on the front post, De Gea seemed to have a chance to react. But he didn’t. Rooted in the spot with his weight on the right, De Gea could only see the ball passing him to his left.
It was not a mistake. It was just bad luck. But such things have happened to De Gea so often over the past two years that it was painful to see a goalkeeper apparently trapped in terminal decline.
David de Gea’s early contribution was crucial for Manchester United in Paris on Tuesday evening
De Gea probably should have left Old Trafford three or four years ago. He had already done what he came for. He has won the Premier League and other trophies. Why stay?
Maybe there is something else in there. United now has a skilled and impatient deputy in Dean Henderson. It still feels like the follow-up won’t be long.
Here in Paris, however, there was a reminder of what remains a natural and athletic goalkeeper De Gea.
United’s control of this game for long periods has been impressive and unexpected. Until Anthony Martial headed PSG back into the game with an own goal early in the second half, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team was by far the better side.
The goalkeeper made a performance to remind us how natural he really is
Even after Martial’s strange blunder, PSG threatened to gain power for a very short time. By the time Marcus Rashford delivered his second deadly blow in the French capital in the space of 18 months, United was once again dominant.
But none of that should overshadow the vital nature of De Gea’s early contribution. No matter how well you play in these types of games, how brave your manager’s team selection is and how smart your tactics are, it is still devilishly hard to get a result without big performances in your own half.
Here United got one from young defender Alex Tuanzebe. The 22-year-old hadn’t played football at all since he was injured last December and his Champions League experience was limited to 18 minutes as a substitute almost three years ago. Here, against Kylian Mbappé’s fast pace and the admittedly rather erratic threat from Neymar, the young United defender was astonishingly assured. There are those who have wondered for a while whether Tuanzebe would ever start. Maybe that time is now.
Behind him, however, De Gea was fantastic and contributed a performance to remind us just how naturally gifted he really is. The Gea has not been looking very comfortable for a long time. In some ways, this was an evening to remind us how far his standards have generally dropped in recent times.
De Gea bravely dives to the feet of Angel Di Maria to deny the PSG midfielder
So yes, he was the key to what happened on this wet night. Without his early stop from Angel di Maria and his block from Abdou Diallo that followed a few minutes later, United could not have eased dominance in the game. Instead, Solskjaer’s team would have gone on the hunt, PSG would have been confident and could have escaped the England team for the night.
The Di Maria save was good without being great. Diallo’s was world class and not long after, United led the way.
This was a much better performance for United than the one that landed Solskjaer the job in March 2019. That evening United had courage but also luck. PSG played suicidal football that night and United had the guts to capitalize. This was different. PSG were poor all night, while United – bravely set up by a manager who once again wasn’t afraid to leave out big names – was assertive and fluid. In all fairness, it all came as a surprise.
Solskjaer deserves credit. He continues to learn how demanding and ridiculous it is to be United’s manager and time will tell if he can get them where they need to go. Doubts remain.
But he had some good days. He could have reacted in many ways to his team’s home strike by Tottenham before the international break, but he was decisive and clinical. For example, Paul Pogba must feel like a door has been slammed in his face.
Pogba was on the field by the time United won the game late, but again it was others who made the difference. De Gea made another brilliant save – this time from Mbappé – just before Martial blundered. Rashford may have won it at death, but this was a front-to-back victory for Solshkaer’s team.