There was a moment at St James’ Park on Saturday night when it was tempting to wonder if anything was going to go right for David de Gea ever again.
As a Newcastle cross from the right deflected from Luke Shaw’s boot and past the Manchester United goalkeeper at the near post, De Gea seemed to have an opportunity to respond. But he didn’t. Rooted to the spot with his weight on the right side, De Gea could only watch the ball as it passed by him to his left.
It was not a mistake. It was just bad luck. But such things have happened so much to De Gea over the last two years that it has been painful to watch a goalkeeper apparently stuck in terminal decline.
David de Gea’s early contribution was vital for Manchester United in Paris on Tuesday night
Arguably, De Gea should have left Old Trafford three of four years ago. He had already done what he came to do. He won the Premier League and other trophies. Why remain?
There may still be something in that. United have a capable and impatient deputy in Dean Henderson now. It still feels as though the succession will come before long.
Here in Paris, though, there was a reminder of just what a natural and athletic goalkeeper De Gea remains.
United’s control of this game for long periods was impressive and unexpected. Until the moment Anthony Martial headed PSG back in to the game with an own goal early in the second half, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team were the better side by a distance.
The goalkeeper produced a performance to remind us just how naturally gifted he really is
Even after Martial’s strange blunder, PSG only threatened to gain the ascendency very briefly. By the time Marcus Rashford struck his second mortal blow in the French capital in the space of 18 months, United were dominant once again.
But none of that should overshadow the vital nature of De Gea’s early contribution. However well you play in games like this, no matter how brave your manager’s team selection and how smart your tactics, it is still fiendishly 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 had not played any football at all since injury struck last December and his Champions League experience had been limited to 18 minutes as a substitute almost three years ago. Here, against the rapid pace of Kylian Mbappe and the admittedly rather erratic threat of Neymar, the young United defender was astonishingly assured. There have been those who have wondered for a while if Tuanzebe was ever going to kick on. Maybe that time is now.
Behind him, though, De Gea was superb, contributing a performance to remind us just how naturally gifted he really is. De Gea has not looked as comfortably excellent as this for a long time. In some ways this was a night to remind us just how far his standards have generally fallen in recent times.
De Gea bravely dives at the feet on Angel Di Maria to deny the PSG midfielder
So, yes, he was 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 couple of minutes later, United would not have been able to ease their way to dominance in the game. Instead, Solskjaer’s team would have been chasing, PSG would have been confident and the night could have got away from the English team.
The Di Maria save was good without being great. The one from Diallo was world class and not long after that United were ahead.
This was a much better United performance than the one that got Solskjaer the job in March 2019. That night, United were gutsy but also lucky. PSG played suicidal football that evening and United had the nerve to capitalise. This was different. PSG were poor all night while United – set up courageously by a manager once again unafraid to leave out big name players – were assertive and fluent. If truth be told, it all came as a bit of a surprise.
Solskjaer deserves credit. He continues to learn just how demanding and ludicrously consuming being manager of United is and time will tell if he can take them where they need to go. Doubts remain.
But he has had a very good few days. He could have reacted in many ways to his team’s home hammering by Tottenham before the international break but he has been decisive and clinical. Paul Pogba, for example, must feel as though a door has been slammed in his face.
Pogba was on the field by the time United won the game late on but again it was others making the difference. De Gea saved brilliantly again – this time from Mbappe – moments before Martial blundered. Rashford may have won it at the death but this was a victory earned from front to back of Solsjkaer’s team.