Hot take: Edwin Van Der Sar is Manchester United’s greatest ever goalkeeper. Peter Schmeichel rightfully earns votes in that argument, and De Gea is also phenomenal, but in the opinion of this writer, who grew up on the late noughties team, Edwin Van Der Sar is arguably the best of them all, when taking his entire career into account.
Peter Schmeichel’s legacy at United makes him the front-runner for many, but Edwin Van Der Sar’s career outside of United as well as at the club makes him a more qualified candidate for best ever goalkeeper. The reason Sir Alex Ferguson had kept an eye on Edwin Van Der Sar before eventually signing him is because he was on the list of replacements when Schmeichel left the club in 1999. Van Der Sar was an important part of Louis Van Gaal’s Ajax dynasty in the 1990s where he won 4 Eredivisie titles, 3 KNVB Cup titles, the UEFA Cup, and the UEFA Champions League.
Van Der Sar had a short spell at Juventus, and moved to Fulham after only a couple seasons at the bianconeri. He featured in UEFA Intertoto Cup winning teams at both clubs, and was part of a pretty formidable Fulham team that also had Steed Malbranque, Brian McBride, and future United striker Louis Saha. Then, In 2005, Sir Alex Ferguson decided it was time to move on from the Tim Howard/Roy Carroll experiment, and United acquired Van Der Sar for a bargain £2m. He was still trying to replace Peter Schmeichel, after the likes of Mark Bosnich, Fabien Barthez, Carroll, and Howard each tried and failed to fill the Dane’s gloves. With Van Der Sar, Sir Alex finally brought in the man he had scouted back in 1999 before opting instead for Mark Bosnich. The Dutchman had gone to Juventus instead of United in 1999, but wasn’t going to pass up a second chance to play for the Red Devils.
His composure and experience were exactly what United needed after struggling for 6 years to replace Peter Schmeichel. United were instantly better in defense in 2005-06, and with the addition of Nemanja Vidić and Patrice Evra in January 2006, the back line got even better. In 2006-07 United took their Premier League throne back from Chelsea, conceding only 27 goals in the process. His arrival marked the beginning of an historic run for the club that included 4 league titles, 2 league cups, and the UEFA Champions League in a dramatic 2008 final.
The 2008 Champions League final, Manchester United vs Chelsea, was a massive moment for English football. The first ever all-English final in the history of the competition did not disappoint either. United and Chelsea were clearly the best two teams in both England and Europe, and the game featured several dazzling moments, and key stops from Van Der Sar and Cech. The two sides remained level after extra time and the initial 5 spot kicks in the penalty shootout. With the game in his hands, Van Der Sar dove to his right and stopped Nicolas Anelka’s effort, giving Manchester United its 3rd Champions League title. “Van Der Sar saves it! United again!” became another vintage European moment for Clive Tyldesley and the millions of fans who couldn’t make the trip to Moscow. Like it did for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer 9 years earlier, the game clinching moment and commentary to pair with it further secured Van Der Sar’s legendary status at the club.
Van Der Sar spent every one of his seasons at United in contention for team of the year, golden glove, and even a couple player of the year awards as he commanded one of the best defensive groups in the world. He also set a world record in league play by going 1311 minutes without conceding a goal in the 2008-09 season, a season which also saw him win the award for best goalkeeper in Europe.
He retired in 2011, wearing the captain’s armband in a 3-1 loss to Lionel Messi’s FC Barcelona, one of the greatest teams ever assembled, but also helped United lift a record 19th Premier League. It was a season in which Van Der Sar in no way looked his age of 40. His intensity and vision never faded, and even his body seemed up for the job whenever he was forced into action. In one particularly nervy FA Cup tie against Arsenal, Van Der Sar put fans at ease, pulling off save after save in a 2-0 win over the gunners. He came up huge again for the Reds.
Edwin Van Der Sar’s greatness has never been questioned by Manchester United fans, but his legacy appears to be caught up in between a generation that rightfully remembers Schmeichel’s greatness, and a younger generation that is rightfully in awe of David De Gea. It is of the opinion of this writer that Edwin Van Der Sar should be at least considered at the same level of Schmeichel in the context of the greatest ever goalkeeper debate, and certainly his accomplishments as well as quality should keep him above De Gea for the time being. This isn’t to disrespect Schmeichel or De Gea either, both of whom are legendary in their own right, but Van Der Sar’s overall career as well as his brilliant service for United make him the best in my book.