In a dramatic evening of football, Chelsea smashed Manchester United 3-0 to make the FA Cup final.
In contrast to Saturday’s semi-final, which was a battle between two supremely coached sides playing on the razor’s edge of execution, Sunday night’s contest was a far more tepid affair between two sides who don’t quite know the best way to play.
Chelsea won the contest at a canter in the end, but at no point did they look like the kind of coherent outfit that they have at several points in this season. They were comfortably superior to Manchester United, but like Arsenal the day before their dominance was defensive. Their attacking edge consisted of an absolutely atrocious performance from David de Gea.
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The Spaniard was United’s player of the season for three straight years (and four in five) and for the longest time was the only thing standing between The Red Devils and a Leeds-style spiralling abyss of misery.
Countless times he intervened like a goalkeeping god, descending from the heavens to thwart an opponent who had no right to be thwarted. United’s second-place finish in 2017/18 was always entirely delivered by De Gea’s benevolent genius.
So to see him play as poorly as he has this season has been baffling. And to see him be as much of a disaster as he was tonight at Wembley is something that would be almost unthinkable even a year ago.
But he was atrocious against Chelsea, and was clearly the difference between a tight and tense affair between two teams trying to out-think each other and the Blues cruising all the way to the FA Cup final in Frank Lampard’s first season in charge.
Chelsea have struggled defensively this season, and to avoid getting crucified by a red hot United attack Frank Lampard switched to 3-4-3 system. Then in an effort to rest his starters and also hit the Blues on the break as he did multiple times earlier in the season, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer also switched to a back three, playing a 3-5-2 shape that they used before.
However Chelsea looked much more comfortable in their system than United did, and dominating the proceedings as a result. At no point were United “in” the game. They launched hopeful attacks, trying to force it, but beyond some sharp through-balls from Bruno Fernandes never looked like breaking the Blues down.
Lampard’s gamble paid off; Chelsea were solid. Then as United streamed forward, they left themselves vulnerable at the back where Chelsea would raid. But the Blues didn’t look like too potent of a team either, until David de Gea intervened anyway.
De Gea was responsible for all three goals that United conceded. On the first he was slow to react when Giroud flicked a low shot his way. His wrists used to be made of vibranium but have softened now to be made out of paper mache. Giroud’s shot trickled over the line, almost embarrassingly so; De Gea even had time to turn and watch it go in.
The third goal was an own goal, so perhaps you could cut him a little slack, but it’s not as though Maguire swiped it in under no pressure; he was going into a 50-50 with Antonio Rudiger and De Gea was simply reacting to a shot. And he reacted slowly and was beaten at his near-post, something that has always been a weakness of his, even when he was at his mountainous best.
Those two errors alone would be cause for serious criticism, but the second goal was honestly the killer. The absolute worst mistake at the worst time you could imagine. As United had just come out of half-time, and looked to turn things around and equalise, a bad pass from Brandon Williams saw Mason Mount advance on United’s goal and unleash a shot from outside the box.
But it was a hopeful shot at best. Low and quick but not especially far from De Gea. He should have saved it. But instead he let it slip through his fingers and into the back of the net. It was an absolute dagger through the heart of Man Utd as it made their comeback twice as hard. Chelsea were instantly buoyed and knew that they had full control of the match.
Worse, you could see the confidence drain from the United players in front of him. Having seen the goalkeeper let two soft shots into the back of the net, they now had to live in fear of any shot that Chelsea would take. The anxiety that created in their defending was plain to see as they panicked every time Chelsea had the ball. This led to a situation where the Blues could have honestly scored more than three.
And it all came from David de Gea’s despair. Sure there were other factors like Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team selection, the 48 hours extra rest Chelsea had before the game, but in the end it all came down to one of the most hideously weak goalkeeping displays in recent FA Cup memory. A hat-trick of goalkeeping calamities that condemned a promising Manchester United side to a humiliating defeat.
With The Red Devils looking to qualify for next season’s Champions League and even move into being title contenders, they need a goalkeeper who can perform to that standard. And what has been abundantly clear over the last few months but especially at Wembley on Sunday is that David de Gea is no longer that goalkeeper.
It’s not clear if Dean Henderson, on loan at Sheffield United from Manchester United, is the answer between the sticks. It’s not obvious that the Spaniard, who was supreme for so long, is now in a place where he can only hold United back from their lofty ambitions. A goalkeeping genius reduced to an absolute liability.