David de Gea is the Premier League player of the month for January 2022. He is also Manchester United's club player of the month for the third time this season. Though that may seem like good news for the Spaniard, it does not reflect well on the form of his club.
De Gea's return to form after a lengthy slump will of course be a positive for manager Ralf Rangnick, but the fact that he has been United's standout player for the majority of this season is not the best indication when it comes to their defensive prowess.
David de Gea's individual success not a good omen for Manchester United
There was a period under José Mourinho when David de Gea was responsible for a great deal of Manchester United's success.
In fact, he was the essential factor.
The Spanish goalkeeper bailed out his teammates on multiple occasions with superhuman performances in goals. The most famous flashpoint came in a "brick wall" performance at the Emirates, capped with a scarcely believable double save from Alexis Sanchez and Alexandre Lacazette.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) December 2, 2021
To say that United depended on de Gea would be an understatement. No disrespect to Chris Smalling and Phil Jones but, while their rivals were moving fast to bolster their rear guard with the likes of Virgil van Dijk, United were clutching on to early leads and hoping for miracles from de Gea to keep them in the game.
There was a very strong argument for de Gea to be awarded Premier League player of the season for 2017-18, one of the strongest individual showings in modern memory. And then...it all went wrong. The 2018 World Cup saw de Gea have a nightmare against Portugal, and his form took a sharp downturn.
The brilliance of 2018 was still seen in glimpses, like the win at Wembley against Spurs in January 2019, but de Gea became known for his clangers more than anything. Simple errors in games as big as Champions League quarter-finals were paired with shocking mistakes that cost United in games that they should have won.
— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) December 22, 2019
His drop in form led to him spending plenty of time out of the side last season, as youngster Dean Henderson finally staked his claim to the Manchester United goalkeeper jersey.
The Europa League final saw de Gea in the starting lineup, in his unfamiliar role as cup goalkeeper. The events of that final are well documented, with de Gea ultimately failing to save any of Villarreal's 11 spot kicks in the deciding shootout - and missing his own penalty to hand the trophy to the Yellow Submarine.
That Villarreal game has firmly become a "sliding doors" moment for the club. The failure to win a major trophy and to kick on from reaching a final was the first domino in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer losing his job as manager, and has led to a rather spectacular fall from grace for a team that also finished second in the Premier League last year.
It has had an interesting effect on de Gea, however. The Spaniard has transformed this season and has returned to the form of 2018 - if not better. His shot stopping has been just as good as it was in Mourinho's last full season in charge, and saved United from embarrassment in games against Wolves, West Ham, Norwich, and Newcastle.
It's clear that de Gea was wounded by the experience of Villarreal. His failure to save a single penalty was not an isolated incident - he had not saved a spot kick for club or country since April 2016 ahead of the final. This season, he has saved two already (three, if you include the first go at Watford's penalty in November).
— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) January 22, 2022
He was fortunate to get his place as #1 reinstated at the start of the season, with Dean Henderson struggling with a COVID infection. That being said, he has firmly kept Henderson out of the team, to the extent that the Englishman now on the verge of an exit from the club, after appearing to have established himself as the long-term goalkeeper towards the end of last season.
The revival of David de Gea has been one of the few positives for Manchester United this season. They can rely on the Spaniard once again, and he has reestablished himself as one of the best goalkeepers in the world.
But the extent to which the club are relying upon de Gea will be of major concern to manager Ralf Rangnick. It was announced on Friday that he had won the club's player of the month for January, after his heroics bailed United out on numerous occasions. The only issue is that he also won the award in December. And November.
This is not to say that the form of de Gea is necessarily a bad thing for a club like Manchester United. To have a man regarded as one of the world's best in his position firing on all cylinders couldn't be construed as a problem by any football fan.
That being said, the fact that he is United's standout player is of huge concern.
This is a club that splashed out millions on Jadon Sancho last summer with high hopes for the English winger's prospects. Bruno Fernandes has catapulted himself to being one of the world's most renowned creative midfielders. There's the small matter of veteran strikers Cristiano Ronaldo and Edinson Cavani up front. Marcus Rashford has contributed 20+ goals to the last two seasons for United.
All of those attacking players have shown hints of form this season, but only hints. Cavani has shown energy and desire when he has been given the opportunity, but only two goals all season is not a fantastic showing for the Uruguayan. Rashford has been unrecognisable. Fernandes has struggled to rack up the ridiculous numbers he sustained for the first 12 months of his time at Old Trafford.
— Premier League (@premierleague) February 4, 2022
Ronaldo is the only one of those stars to have performed somewhat consistently - as reflected by him taking the club player of the month for September and October. The fact that only two players have won Manchester United's player of the month awards since last summer is a dire indicator of just how many of the squad are struggling.
De Gea's brilliance has been undeniable, and it is always good to see a player recognised for good performances. But a goalkeeper should never be a team's strongest player, let alone a team that was touted for major honours this season.
A team like Manchester United expect (rightly or wrongly) to contend for the biggest trophies every season. Their legendary manager Alex Ferguson famously commented that forwards win you matches, but defences win you titles. De Gea has now won the club's player of the month three months in a row - and is the first goalkeeper to win the Premier League gong in six years. That does not exactly do anything to speak highly of United's defence.
Remember, this is a defence that includes a World Cup and Champions League winner in Raphael Varane, and two of last season's best performers in Luke Shaw and Harry Maguire - both of whom were crucial cogs in England's machine at EURO 2020.
Simply put, United's defenders are desperately underperforming, and leaving David de Gea with far too much work to do. The fact that the Spaniard is up to the job is a break of luck for the team, but it is unsustainable for such an expensive squad to depend so heavily on their shot stopper.
The miracle work of David de Gea in goal can only go on so long. Unless Manchester United's superstars can start producing the goods - both up front and at the back - the picture may soon turn ugly. Progress has been hard to see under new boss Ralf Rangnick, and the consistent image of de Gea being head and shoulders above the rest of the squad is not the best indicator that any meaningful change has occurred.
Time will tell if the winter break has done anything to steady the ship but, in a case of serious déja-vu, David de Gea is once again the inexplicable centre of Manchester United's beautiful mess.