Dave’s last day? De Gea farce highlights more muddled thinking at Man Utd…

Ian Watson
Manchester United goalkeeper David De Gea retrieves the ball during a match at Old Trafford.
David De Gea has left Man Utd at the end of his contract.

If David De Gea wasn’t an international goalkeeper, instead just a normo like the rest of us, he’d probably be going in to work today, on what’s likely to be the last of 4386 days of stellar service, to be greeted by at least a card and the promise of a farewell pint at clocking-off time. Instead, De Gea knows not if he’s coming or going.

No one does, seemingly. Not De Gea; not Manchester United. It’s a shabby way to treat a long-serving employee, albeit a very well remunerated one, and an even shabbier way of conducting business.

Unfortunately for United, precisely no one is shocked that all this seems to have come as a surprise to the club. De Gea hardly gave a fortnight’s notice. The countdown to the expiry of his contract started the day he signed it almost four years ago. At the very least, a clear, definitive plan for this being his last day on the payroll should have been in place weeks, months ago.

Instead, United will enter July without their No.1 for the last dozen years; another international who isn’t wanted and doesn’t want to be there; and Tom Heaton, who liked the idea of getting his gloves dirty again at Luton but, for now, needs to stick around in case he’s needed to go from serving volleys and tea to guarding Erik ten Hag’s net.

At any other club, there would be no need for panic just yet. The Premier League season is six weeks from starting. But this is Manchester United, where the contrast in how the club conducts itself between De Gea’s first and final days could not be more stark.

De Gea signed for Sir Alex Ferguson who, along with his coaches and scouts, spent months meticulously identifying what they needed from whomever was to fill Edwin van der Sar’s massive mitts. When they decided it was a job for De Gea, the deal was arranged before Van der Sar had played his final game.

A succession plan for De Gea, though, still appears to be at the rough sketch stage. Indeed, United don’t appear to have fathomed yet if they actually need one.

Word is, they offered De Gea a new deal towards the end of last season. One on considerably reduced terms, which was inevitable. Since 2019, De Gea has been receiving Alexis Sanchez money, a sum of around £375,000 per week, making him comfortably the world’s highest-paid goalkeeper. A status the Spaniard no longer merits. But, in Ten Hag’s mind, De Gea has done a job. And the manager was content to make do if it meant funds could be reallocated towards other priorities. Like the gaping void in the centre of his attack.

De Gea accepted those terms, with reports suggesting he signed the contract. United dispute that; regardless, they backed out of the deal. They offered a different one, on further reduced terms. Understandably, De Gea is not a happy bunny.

The 32-year-old has a problem, though. There are hardly a pile of proposals on his table. There is the one on United-headed paper; another in Arabic; and that seems to be it. The fact that there is no clamour outside Saudi for De Gea’s scribble tells its own story.

It is De Gea’s time to go. For the majority of his 12-year stint, the goalkeeper has been one of United’s better performers. In four of those seasons, he was the best. For many United fans, watching the waif who arrived as a boy in 2011 grow into his gloves and become a man has been one of the highlights of the post-Ferguson era. So many saves that have rendered supporters speechless.

So too, though, have some of his mistakes. De Gea has a distinctive style, a reactive approach which contradicts what many modern coaches want from their No.1. Goalkeeping is more of an art than a science, so to appreciate it becomes a matter of taste.

Ten Hag prefers a more proactive stopper. One who’ll leave his line to defend space, either by claiming crosses or sweeping behind his backline. And one as adept at serving as the first line of attack as the last line of defence.

A dozen years ago, one of De Gea’s strengths was the calmness he displayed on the ball. It was one of the reasons Ferguson took what appeared to be a huge gamble in signing a rookie teenager to replace Van der Sar. That strength, though, has now become his weakness.

Why has the game caught up with De Gea and subsequently passed him by? Only he and his coaches can answer that. But there is a frustration outside Old Trafford that the goalkeeper has failed either to identify his weaknesses or work to mitigate or eradicate them.

All of which should have made United’s course of action a straightforward one. This summer, the plan should have been to sign a new No.1 and probably a back-up too. But top-class goalkeepers don’t come cheap – just one of the factors that appears to have clouded their already jumbled-up decision-making.

All of which has led to this: a day that may or may not be De Gea’s last. Whether it should be, or it should not, the absence of any clarity is damning on United.

Read next: Onana, Costa, Pickford? Nine contenders to replace David De Gea as next Man Utd goalkeeper