The Last Word: De Gea's fingertips keep United clinging on

As dynamic as they were dexterous, Bilbao would have been out of sight but for De Gea

Back in the old Fleet Street days, there was a notorious tyrant who would mystify one of his sub-editors by addressing him as "Fingertips". Eventually the poor fellow summoned up courage to ask his boss why. Came the reply: "Because, sonny, that's all you are clinging to your job by."

During his first months at Old Trafford, for broadly similar reasons, "Fingertips" seemed an apposite sobriquet for David de Gea. With his silly whiskers and flapping gloves, he resembled some pubescent pinniped panicking under the ice. Anders Lindegaard watched him picking the ball out of the net and wondered why he should be left to "pick his nose" on the bench. Eventually, their manager seemed to agree and they had just exchanged roles when Lindegaard got injured. It is barely an exaggeration to say that De Gea has since kept Manchester United's season alive more or less singlehanded.

The fingertips of that hand, sometimes their very cuticles, have deflected shots that seemed not merely booked for the top corner, but already unpacked and ordering room service. In so young a keeper, De Gea's response to all the calumny suggests equivalent mental strength.

The 21-year-old has still to convince everyone that he can command his area, but his predecessor ultimately owed his authority to experience rather than physique. In time, he will doubtless develop an aerial presence equal even with those who generated all that hot air about his inadequacies. He instead finds himself covering a multitude of sins in front of him.

That late save from Juan Mata at Stamford Bridge, when United had retrieved a three-goal deficit, was the psychological equivalent of stopping a whole dam with a thumbnail. His man-of-the-match performance at Norwich enabled Ryan Giggs to pilfer two priceless extra points in added time. De Gea proceeded to prolong United's European campaign, first against Ajax, and again on Thursday. This time, however, it can surely be only a temporary reprieve.

Some seem bewildered that the second-best team in their precious Premier League should be so manifestly inferior to the fifth-best in La Liga. Sure enough, they promptly wonder whether any of the Athletic Bilbao starlets, or even the mad genius prowling the dugout, might duly have earned exaltation by one of our big clubs. Such is the self-regard of the English game, where the Europa League has been treated as beneath the dignity of Manchester.

But while Premier League clubs retain the hype and the dough, their misadventures in Europe arguably urge a more organic approach to squad development and tactics in the Financial Fair Play era. Athletic confine their recruitment to the Basque Country, and its vicinity, with a total pool approximately equivalent to Greater Manchester. From a squad assembled at barely €20m [£17m], Marcelo Bielsa presented a young team that never backed off in an arena most English teams enter with all the swagger of marmots being strafed by napalm.

God knows why. It certainly can't be an intimidating atmosphere. Nor can it be Sir Alex Ferguson's senescent notion of the kind of midfield required in European football nowadays. (United's only home victims this campaign are Otelul Galati). United fans know good football when they see it, and will admit that Athletic were vindicated in their lack of inhibition. As dynamic as they were dexterous, they would have been out of sight but for De Gea.

You can only admire the way United have hung tough in the league since that humiliation by their neighbours. European teams, however, instead seem to be picking up a scent of decay. The only way United might be said to be "getting closer" to Barcelona would be to switch their home fixtures to Plymouth. Yes, the Champions League is poorer for the fact that Old Trafford hosts Europa League fixtures on Thursdays – but only in the sense that Athletic would give Barcelona a decent game.

They did so in La Liga, in a terrific draw; and the two will contest the Copa del Rey final. Pep Guardiola sought out Bielsa before committing to a coaching career. Bielsa's counsel lasted 11 hours. He is obsessive, cerebral, unpredictable. Suddenly the wiseguys are wondering whether he might do for Chelsea. At first the Athletic squad struggled with their new manager's innovative methods. Three defeats and a draw represented the club's worst start in 32 years. De Gea will sympathise. Now, however, he may suspect that only one of them will be picking up European silverware any time soon. Unaccountably, of course, United are still in the tie – but only by De Gea's fingertips.

Suggested Topics
News
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
science
News
Richard Dawkins dedicated his book 'The Greatest Show on Earth' to Josh Timonen
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Extras
indybest
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
Dinosaurs Unleashed at the Eden Project
travel
Arts and Entertainment
music
Sport
football
Life and Style
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the first online sale
techDespite a host of other online auction sites and fierce competition from Amazon, eBay is still the most popular e-commerce site in the UK
News
i100
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home