It was in the dying stages at the end of a feisty affair at Stamford Bridge: that was the defining moment. Up until that split second, his short United career had been obituarised and wrought with doubt, to the point where even the most ardent of optimists had begun wringing their hands. United, as is woven into their DNA, had resurrected themselves from near-capitulation and restored a 3 goal deficit to draw level with a resurgent Chelsea. For a spell it looked as though a miracle, even by their unearthly standards, was about to take place. But having fended off a full collapse, Chelsea relented and, with a neatly positioned free-kick, were granted the opportunity to proffer a sting that could potentially have set flame to United's title hopes. Then it happened. With Juan Mata's rasping strike looking eagerly net-bound, the much maligned de Gea leapt to complete what, even now, still looks like a physics-defying finger-tipped save. The immediate joy centred on the sealing of a point, but something else had also been cemented: he had arrived.
Overly-analytical football observers tend to indulge in psychology to appear intellectually superior to those solely interested in the beauty of the game. Yet, in the immediate aftermath of de Gea's save, even the most catatonic of viewers would have noticed a change in his presence. Given their position is a team's last line of defence, it is goalkeepers who are the most autopsied of all players. Human error is rarely afforded forgiveness in football, particularly when mistakes lead to the loss of points and, subsequently, the collapse of a campaign. The early struggles of de Gea were well documented in acres of column space. While the young Spaniard's initial steps into the rigors of the Premier League were coupled with nervousness, the scathing nature of the criticism subjected towards him was unjustified. Purported experts in the field bemoaned an apparent lack of big-game experience, blissfully ignoring the fact he had already jousted his way to heights unseen by 'keepers 10 years his senior. Football critics have an issue with time. If a player, particularly a goalkeeper, doesn't perform immediately he is just as quickly castigated and flung to the wolves. And then, of course, time develops and humble pie is gorged on by all.
It would do a disservice to de Gea's recent rise to suggest his early form didn't inspire some discontent. Spoiled by the immaculate service of Edwin van der Sar's reign, United supporters had become somewhat unused to the sobering jitters of goalkeeping uncertainty. While some lamented de Gea's early nerves, others deemed it appropriate to write off a talent that had been unequivocal during his rise to prominence at Atletico Madrid. United perhaps played their own part in de Gea's early stumbling. Rather than relent with the Spaniard, reserve 'keeper Anders Lindegaard was drafted in to relieve the pressure heaped upon the youngster. It was the Dane's injury, however, and de Gea's extended run, which has finally added a sense of order to United's goalkeeping situation. Gone, it would appear, is the calamitous flapping and misjudgements that blighted his early days. Looking surer now and more commanding by the week, de Gea may not be United's most crucial outlet as they close in on another title, but a quick glance at his reel of highlights defines the impact his form has made throughout United's extended run of wins. His propensity for displaying the outlandish was once more seen at Blackburn last week, when he pulled off a string of saves at a time when United were pressurised and in dire need of success. It's not just a penchant for the spectacular that marks de Gea down as a natural heir to van der Sar's throne.
All goalkeepers should be hardwired to achieve the abnormal to benefit their team, but few have the ingredients needed in order to truly prosper at the highest level. What is often overlooked can frequently lead to what renders a player special. In de Gea's case, as it was with van der Sar, there is an order brought about through the efficient completion of the basics. Some 'keepers are quite content to propel the ball as far as they can so long as it's away from their direct vicinity; de Gea, however, is a one of those rare beasts whose distribution smacks of a man who would at times rather be traversing outfield as a deep-lying creative midfielder. His errors ironed out, he has potentially been the league's most competent stopper in the frenetic run in. As imperative to United's recent run of domination as anyone else, de Gea's moments of magic roll quickly from memory: at Norwich, when his policing of the area ensured the day was a defining one; at White Hart Lane, when a tricky deflected shot was successfully palmed away; against Bilbao, on both occasions, where further embarrassment was somehow staved off by his ability. He has quickly developed a consistency that should, save for a catastrophe, see him snare a league winner's medal shortly.
Such is the enormity of wages garnered by modern footballers, we - the saps in the stands - sometimes come to the conclusion that money diminishes the frailties of man. Mistakes appear unacceptable because, well, they're paid enough. Much of the early noise directed towards David de Gea centred on his nerve and how, because it was Manchester United, a player who couldn't adjust in the immediate was destined to be flogged before settling. Sensationalists perceived his early flaws as the mistakes of a child who would never acclimatise himself to the harsh climes of life at the top. Rationalists, however, accepted the disorder of the present, knowing full well that previous capabilities do not dissolve through a move abroad. Those too quick to condemn de Gea's early faults put his errors down to a lack of talent - an absurd view, given his previous competence with Atletico Madrid. His early mistakes, as anyone capable of applying logic to observance would testify, were borne out of a nervousness that time, as shown, would get rid of. Entrusted with a consistent run - a run pockmarked by considerable pressure - de Gea has eased himself into a period of excellence, a result that came as little surprise to those who had observed his talents for longer than the millisecond it took his critics to pour acid into their inkwells. The role of number one is now his - an extraordinary feat, one can concede, for a 21 year old who we were told was too flaky, too inexperienced, to ever claim the shirt as his own. His rise is not only a testament to the club, who tracked him for years and who emplaced faith in one so young, but also to the player himself, who rather than succumb to unjustified critiques, simply learned from his mistakes and moved on. Supporters often become reduced to whimpering wrecks as a result of their impatience. Dictated by the modern need for immediate results, a player is elevated into a hero or a villain after too short a period.
David de Gea's shift from jittery new-arrival to able number one has been exemplary, but not surprising. Modern football affords us as many moments to despair at as it does ones to celebrate, but one that shall forever remain pleasing can be found in the case of de Gea: players overcoming futile lashings from 'experts' to prosper as logicians only know they will. If, as seems likely, United attain a 20th league title in the coming weeks there will be a certain aptness about this particular success - not only because of their inherent resilience, but also in the way their form has mirrored their young goalkeeper's. Sluggish and slow to impress to begin with, a coming to form - when it really mattered - has put them in prime position to snare what their form over recent months deserves: a league title.