After an incredible Saturday of Premier League action in which we were treated to 24 goals in just six games, a 98th minute equaliser and an Aston Villa goal for the second game in succession, it was very easy to get excited about what awaited us on Sunday. With arguably the biggest Premier League fixture of them all in Liverpool v Manchester United, and Arsenal venturing to their bogey ground, the Britannia, this Sabbath was guaranteed to be super.
How wrong we were. The earlier game at Anfield was one of the lowest quality clashes between Manchester and Merseyside in years, while the later offering served up a little more in the way of quality but nothing in terms of goals.
However, there were constants in both these games. A quick peruse of the match reports will show that in both of the matches men between the sticks were bestowed with the man of the match award. In fact, three of the four goalkeepers were fantastic and that is no slight on the much-criticised Simon Mignolet, who wasn’t given the opportunity to show his skills and had little chance with Wayne Rooney’s undeserved winner.
Messrs Cech, De Gea and Butland were all excellent this weekend and instead of lamenting the lack of goals on display we should instead be praising the quality of goalkeeping on show in the English top-flight.
There has been plenty of talk about this being a low quality season, and in many aspects that is correct. Many of the bigger teams look off the pace and no one seems to have the consistency to put a run together; it’s safe to say that not one of the clubs gunning for the title has a vintage squad at their disposal. However, one area in which the division excels is in its quality of number ones.
No other league can live up to the level of goalkeeping that the Premier League has. When a club the size of West Brom can boast a massively improved Boaz Myhill, England international Ben Foster and Denmark keeper Anders Lindegaard in their goalkeeping stable, it shows the strength that lies behind top-flight defences.
In Liverpool on Sunday afternoon United stopper De Gea was his usual inspired self. Keeping hold of the Spaniard has proved to be the best bit of transfer business Louis van Gaal has done in his time at Old Trafford, granted that isn’t exactly difficult. The former Atletico man’s showing in front of the Kop was the reason Man United had any hope of taking three, or maybe even one point from the match.
He made four stops in the match, including an impressive double save from Emre Can and then Roberto Firmino, while he also stayed alert to deny the Brazilian later in the game as everyone else paused expecting to see an offside flag.
What is even more impressive is how De Gea seems to be constantly improving. When he arrived in England he was rightly criticised for his weakness in commanding his area but yesterday, according to Squawka, the 25-year-old had 100% claim rate. He also showed excellent composure in a one-on-one situation early on as he came out to shut Adam Lallana down and diffuse any chance of the home side taking the lead.
Afterwards his manager took the bizarre decision to play down his number one’s performance, claiming he didn’t think he ‘did very much’. On the contrary Mr Van Gaal, he pretty much won you the game and, if rumours are to believed, kept you in a job. The Dutch boss claims the Red Devils can still win the title, De Gea is pretty much the sole reason for that.
At the more experienced end of the scale, Petr Cech is showing that he is the best £10m Arsene Wenger has ever spent. His display at Stoke earned Arsenal a point in a game was that usually the Gunners would have lost.
Much of the chat has been about this being ‘Arsenal’s year’, and that may well be correct but the main factor in it being their season will be the Czech stopper.
You cannot win the Premier League without a great goalkeeper and the three titles that Wenger has won in north London have been backed up by David Seaman and Jens Lehmann. After finally instilling some defensive stability, Cech looks to be the final piece in the Gunners jigsaw.
It is not just his ability to keep the ball out of the net, he showed that with five saves against the Potters, the best of which was a wonderful double stop, but, perhaps even more importantly, it is the confidence that he instils in the defenders in front of him.
No keeper has more clean sheets than the 10 that the 33-year-old has racked-up this term, and the one in Staffordshire could be the biggest yet. You cannot underestimate the psychological impact of being top of the league and the 6ft5” colossus is the reason Arsenal did not go the same way as Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea by losing at Stoke.
If either United or the Gunners are crowned champions at the end of this campaign, it will be in a large part down to the two understated, yet massively valued walls that have been constructed behind their defensive units.