Some players know how to time a run of good form. Emmanuel Adebayor, for instance, was renowned for finding his goalscoring touch almost every time his contract was up for renewal.
Aaron Ramsey is another who, amid speculation linking him with a departure from Arsenal, timed a spectacular run of form earlier this season, subsequently earning a move to Juventus. David De Gea, however, does not have this knack.
Just a few weeks ago, reports claimed De Gea was demanding to be made the world’s highest paid goalkeeper to stay at Manchester United. At present, the Spaniard’s contract only ties him to the Old Trafford outfit until the summer of 2020. As European football’s most revered shot-stopper it was natural that Man Utd should wish to tie him down for longer and De Gea, at that time, had the leverage to demand £400,000 a week.
That might no longer be the case, though. De Gea has since made a series of costly blunders, his most recent coming in Wednesday’s Manchester derby when he reacted slowly to Leroy Sane’s low strike, succeeding only in diverting the ball into the corner of his own net.
This was after his failure to keep out Gylfi Sigurdsson’s long-range strike in the 4-0 defeat to Everton and the gaffe that saw a relatively tame Lionel Messi effort squirm through his arms just days before that.
This has been the worst week of De Gea’s career.
It’s even worse than the spell that saw him widely questioned not long after signing for Man Utd back in 2011, when a scrawny teenager looked out of place on such a big stage. The leverage he once had in those contract talks is now gone, with speculation even linking United with a move for Atletico Madrid’s Jan Oblak this summer.
Of course, some of the reaction to De Gea’s blunders has been over the top. It’s just a few months ago that the Spaniard turned in a performance widely hailed as the best ever by a goalkeeper in the Premier League era, making the most saves in a single game as Man Utd claimed a 1-0 away win over Spurs.
It’s easy to forget that De Gea has still had a better season than the majority of his goalkeeper peers in the Premier League.
But his recent mistakes throw into focus the mortality of a top-level goalkeeper. While the career of a keeper might stretch a little longer than that of other players in other positions, there is a certain profoundness to their decline when it comes.
Goalkeepers define eras and span generations.
The changing of the goalkeeping guard can feel more like a presidential handover than the mere replacement of a football player. De Gea’s recent performances hint at the beginning of the end of the Spaniard’s premiership.
It happens to the best of them. Take Manuel Neuer, for instance.
Injury has shaken the Bayern Munich man, once viewed as, alongside De Gea, the best goalkeeper of his generation. Neuer is now a shadow of his former self. Iker Casillas suffered a similar fall, leaving Real Madrid after becoming something of a liability.
It seemed destined that Casillas would see out his career at the Santiago Bernabeu, but instead, he has spent the last few years at Porto, performing nowhere close to the levels that saw him become a legend.
Goalkeepers are perhaps more vulnerable to changing trends and times than other players, making it difficult for them to keep themselves at the very top.
Gianluigi Buffon has managed it, although even he has been guilty of making mistakes in recent seasons – see his error against Manchester United that ultimately contributed to Paris Saint-Germain’s exit from the Champions League.
At 28, De Gea certainly still has time to halt his slide in form, but what we have seen in the past week, if we’re being truthful, is more than just an isolated series of blunders.
Mistakes have been creeping into his game for some time now, and not just for Spain either.
It could be that playing behind a defence as shaky as United’s is finally taking its toll, but whatever it is, De Gea has taken the first step on a path walked by many great, but ultimately mortal, goalkeepers before him.