David de Gea was Sir Alex Ferguson’s last great gift to Manchester United. In the six years since the great man’s retirement, only the Spanish goalkeeper has consistently met the standards of the previous two decades.
De Gea was scouted heavily over 18 months by Eric Steele, Ferguson’s goalkeeping coach. Buying the teenager from Atletico Madrid for £18.9m in the summer of 2011 was a risk, but a deeply calculated one. Ferguson had recognised the mistakes he had made with keepers over the years.
It might seem odd to say this about someone who had brought Peter Schmeichel and later Edwin van der Sar to Old Trafford, but goalkeepers were a problem throughout Ferguson’s reign, going back to the humiliating fate that befell Jim Leighton, dropped for the replay of the 1990 FA Cup final after a series of disasters in the first match.
Leighton, a loyalist from Aberdeen days, had been one of Ferguson’s first big purchases, and the pair have never spoken since that cutthroat, but necessary decision.
The next best of the multitude of keepers Ferguson in the era after Schmeichel and before Van der Sar bought was Fabien Barthez, eventually discarded after far too many clownish lapses. Beyond the France World Cup winner, names like Ben Foster, Roy Carroll, Ricardo, Andy Goram. Massimo Taibi and Mark Bosnich conjure memories of pratfalls and unfulfilled promise.
Foster was expected to succeed Van der Sar – they even job-shared for a time – but could not deal with the relentlessness of Ferguson’s United. “It just wasn’t for me,” he said last year. “You can appreciate these players at the top level, what they have to go through. A lot is asked of them.”
Bosnich, Schmeichel’s immediate successor, was late for training on his first day back at the club where he had previously been a trainee, and had spent the summer in the tabloids after getting into a fight on the night before his wedding day.
Worse still for Ferguson, a bulky Bosnich looked like he enjoyed his Mancunian chippy teas rather too much and seemed unable to kick a ball, as if he had not realised the backpass law had been changed as far back as 1992.
In United’s first competitive game after Schmeichel’s departure from the club after winning the Treble in 1999, a Premier League match at Everton, it was a Bosnich kicking error that gifted the equaliser in an anticlimactic 1-1 draw. That set off a succession of failed goalkeeping experiments, during a time in which United’s previous supremacy to Arsenal was lost and aslo when their defence was no longer as solid as it had been when Schmeichel was barking instructions and scaring opposition attackers.
It was not until 2005 that Van der Sar, who might have been an option in 1999, came from Fulham to give the club a dependable, experienced goalkeeper, and one who would win the Champions League in the penalty shootout with Chelsea in 2008.
These are lessons from the past that United must heed as the future of De Gea is being questioned once again as transfer season rolls around. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who counts Ferguson as a confidante and mentor, will be keen to follow the advice of the old master.
Great goalkeepers, and especially those capable of dealing with the unique demands of Manchester United, do not come around so often. The obvious advice would be to retain De Gea as long as he is useful to the club, the approach Ferguson took to each and every player under his charge.
But these are different times, where a player holds even more of the cards and leaving United is no longer a step-down. As yet, a new contract has not been signed and that seems likely to continue for the immediate future.
This week’s national newspapers suggest that someone not un-adjacent to executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward has been briefing on the club’s summer business, including the club’s reluctance to run De Gea’s deal down to the final year of his contract.
Where might De Gea pitch up? The evidence of Zinedine Zidane picking son Luca in goals for last week’s match against Huesca is a fairly damning verdict on Thibaut Courtois and suggests Real Madrid, the club perennially linked, is a highly possible destination.
“Whether I will play with a regular goalkeeper next year?” said Zidane. “That depends on the keepers that I will have in my squad.”
Barring a supreme piece of nepotism and Luca getting the gloves on a full-time basis, then that leaves an obvious vacancy at the Santiago Bernabeu. De Gea, of course, was a broken fax machine in the summer of 2015 away from joining Real and, in choosing to extend his stay in Manchester, ended up missing out on winning three Champions League titles.
Has his United haul of FA Cup, League Cup and Europa League been enough to sate De Gea’s competitive desires? His medal cabinet is unlikely to be added to this season barring a Champions League miracle to match Liverpool’s 2005 win. And the magical realism of Solskjaer’s initial spell in charge has now faded.
Paris Saint-Germain are flush with cash and ambition and where De Gea would add to his sole, 2012-13 Premier League title in terms of domestic trophies.
Gianluigi Buffon is winding down his career, and if Ander Herrera is set to earn £200,000 a week from PSG, as reported this week, then De Gea would earn a yet greater fortune.
With Paul Pogba not exactly proclaiming undying loyalty to the red cause, his performances having dropped during United’s slump, there is a chance of Woodward and Solskjaer having to face down, explain away the loss of their club’s best players.
Talk of five or more coming in this summer does not seem quite so exciting if De Gea, in particular, is going to be cashed in to pay for the latest spree, and considering the various failed splurges of the last six years.
Is there a De Gea-style gem out there? AC Milan’s Gianluigi Donnarumma is a potential new Buffon, but has suffered recent slumps of form that are completely understandable for a 20-year-old. His agent is also Mino Raiola, still involved with Pogba, which may also cloud the waters.
Then there is Atletico’s Jan Oblak, who succeeded De Gea and Courtois on that club’s conveyor belt of goalkeeping excellence and is regarded as the best in La Liga.
There are already a group of United fans steadying themselves for the loss of De Gea in the “I didn’t fancy her anyway” fashion by pinpointing a lapse in form of late, including Tuesday’s 2-1 loss at Wolves. That De Gea, not much of a ball-player and passive by nature, does not make much of a contribution to overall play in the style of Schmeichel and Van der Sar has also been highlighted as a weakness.
But that stance ignores what De Gea has produced for the club during so many hours of need, and crucially forgets the problems Ferguson, of all people, once had in finding a proper Manchester United goalkeeper.