Manchester United may boast the best defensive record in the league this season, but that can largely be attributed to the fantastic performances of David de Gea.
While he has made many world-class saves that you wouldn’t expect many other goalkeepers to make, no display stands out more than the match between United and Arsenal at the Emirates. Jose Mourinho’s team won 3-1 thanks to goals from Jesse Lingard and Antonio Valencia, but it was De Gea who ensured they left London with all three points.
The Spaniard made 14 saves in the game, the record highest number since Opta started measuring such statistics in 2003, making particularly impressive stops to deny now teammate Alexis Sanchez.
United fans can be especially grateful to De Gea because their defence has been severely lacking at times. Phil Jones and Chris Smalling have been the first-choice pairing but have never managed to mature into the replacements for Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand that the supporters had been hoping for.
Former captain Vidic has recently claimed he should take some of the blame for the pair not developing as the way it was predicted. He left the club at the end of the 2013-14 season when Jones had just turned 24 so wasn’t around to give him the advice he needed.
"It didn't help them because they didn't have a more experienced player to pick their brain when they played," Vidic said of his exit. "It's not just about playing together with an experienced player. If Phil Jones is 24 and playing alongside someone who is 34, the player who is 34 years old is using his brain more than the 24-year-old. If they do something bad, you say: 'OK, he's 24 but where was I to help him?"
Both players have gone through periods of great form from time to time, but this is usually followed by lengthy injuries, own goals, conceding penalties, or other massive errors.
Jones may still have a future at the club, but many United fans ran out of patience with Smalling some time ago. He is 28 years old and has made close to 300 appearances for the club, so can’t use inexperience as an excuse.
Eric Bailly, the defender Mourinho signed in his first summer at the club, has the potential to be great for United, though. Like the other two, he seems to have real issues with injuries, but when he’s fit he's impressed.
His defending style is fairly unconventional; Bailly contorts into all sorts of unusual shapes to win the ball, but he has proven to be solid at the back. He’s without question United’s best defender but he's missed most of the 2017-18 campaign.
Win cash prizes for free with our competition!
Don't miss out - join our March Tipster Competition today
Bailly began United’s game against Liverpool on Saturday. It was his first start since November and just his 10th Premier League appearance of the season. To throw him back into action for such a big game, faced with the attacking talent of Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino was asking a lot, but he played well.
However, with United holding on to a comfortable 2-0 lead, Bailly made a dreadful mistake by scoring an own goal. Mane put a cross in o the box which should have been easy enough for Bailly to clear but, off balance, he attempted to stop it with the wrong foot and directed it past De Gea.
Jones was guilty of a very similar mistake against Tottenham a few weeks ago, but Bailly largely escaped the criticism Jones had endured. Had Liverpool gone on to equalise, maybe it would have been different, but Bailly certainly has more support than Jones or Smalling. He’s made nowhere near as many mistakes, which helps.
However, United are getting to the serious stage in the season now. While a top-four finish looks safe, thanks to the nine-point advantage they have over fifth-placed Chelsea, Mourinho will now be turning his attention to the cup competitions.
In the week ahead, United have the second leg of their round of 16 tie against Sevilla in the Champions League, as well as the FA Cup quarter-final against Brighton. Both games are must-wins, with United seeking further silverware to add to the two trophies Mourinho won last season.
The fans will be hoping his own goal was just a one-off mistake, with Bailly a better option than Victor Lindelof, and Jones and Marcos Rojo fighting to be fit.
De Gea provides United with a security blanket but, as the games start to come thick and fast with the quality of opposition likely to increase, the timing of Bailly’s return couldn’t be better. If he can keep himself fit until May, United’s chances of lifting a trophy this season receive a major boost.