As a lifelong Manchester United fan, I have witnessed a good deal of disappointing signings. These have tended, typically, to be over-priced foreign signings whom I have backed for greatness in the face of my friends’ scepticism, usually along the lines of “Kleberson has won a WORLD CUP!” Or failing that, “but have you SEEN Forlan’s strike rate??” Don’t get me started on Juan Sebastien Veron, either.
Over the last couple of years, then, I have soured distinctly in reaction to United’s transfer policy of buying unproven youngsters for inflated prices. I was furious when the club spent £10m on Chris Smalling, and apoplectic to see United pay twice that for Phil Jones. I also felt Ashley Young was somewhat over-priced and unnecessary. The club doesn’t actually have a great deal of disposable income, you see (thanks largely to a certain American leprechaun), so to see it ‘wasted’ in such heavy quantities was alarming.
Imagine my consternation and confusion, then, as I watch all three blossom into star players in this still-young but already enthralling 2011/12 season. Jones’ runs from the back have been as mesmerising as they are unstoppable, and Smalling’s defensive improvements have more than covered for his colleague’s occasional absence in the back four. Young, meanwhile, is holding the excellent and indefatigable Park Ji-Sung out of the team, and forcing Antonio Valencia – one of the 2010/11 Premier League’s most improved players – into covering at right-back. Additional, cheaper (or home-grown) young arrivals are also thriving in Fergie’s new up-tempo system, primarily Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and Tom Cleverley.
That brings us, then, to the last element of Old Trafford’s youth revolution – and the man who has probably come in for more criticism in his embryonic United career than the other three put together. David de Gea briefly looked over-whelmed by the astronomical price-tag which has made him the second-most expensive goalkeeper in history (behind Gianluigi Buffon, no less) at the tender age of 20.
He was unconvincing at best against Manchester City in the Community Shield, and seemed intimidated by West Brom’s physicality in the league curtain-raiser, something he doubtless has barely experienced in two years as Atletico’s number one. It was beginning to look like another typical Ferguson blunder in his on-going pursuit of becoming a decent judge of goalkeepers – a flaw that Tomasz Kuszczak is probably painfully aware of right now as he officially slides behind Ben Amos in the Old Trafford pecking order.
In the last four games, though, after an uneventful night in the triumph over Tottenham, the real de Gea has started to emerge from behind his price-tag. United may have conceded twice against Arsenal in one of the most famous games in Old Trafford’s century of service, but the young Spaniard saved Robin van Persie’s spot-kick. Then, against Chelsea, despite succumbing to a deft finish from Fernando Torres, he produced a couple of excellent reaction stops, especially the one that denied Ramires in the first half. At the weekend, de Gea looked transformed, sprinting out to punch away Rory Delap’s early throw and standing up to the threat of Peter Crouch in the air.
It is too early to say whether de Gea is on the path to fully justifying that enormous price-tag – but in the last two years, Ferguson and his scouts have unearthed a plethora of young diamonds ready to shine. We wait with baited breath to see if the Spaniard is another.
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