In an alternate universe, one in which fax machines are a little more reliable, David de Gea is currently a Real Madrid player and has been for nearly four years. Back home, in the city where he was born and brought up, in the city where his family and girlfriend lives, he’s a three-time Champions League winner and has bolstered his status as one of the best goalkeepers of his generation.
Of course, this reality is somewhat different for De Gea. We all know how that transfer deadline day back in 2015 unfolded and how Manchester United kept hold of their number one. Now, however, the 28-year-old is nearing another sliding doors moment in his career. Whether it comes this summer or the next, there will be a crossroads.
Only a few weeks ago it seemed that this crossroads would ultimately lead to De Gea staying at Man Utd, possibly as the most highest paid goalkeeper in the game. That’s what the Spaniard was demanding to extend his contract and as United’s most consistent performer for a number of years, his leverage was strong.
That might no longer be the case. Since those stories surfaced, De Gea has endured the worst run of his Man Utd career. His mistake in the 1-1 draw against Chelsea on Sunday was just the latest in a series of blunders that have cost United dearly of late. It cost them at Goodison Park, it cost them at Camp Nou, it cost them in the Manchester derby and it may have cost them their top four place.
Now, the nature of the question over De Gea’s future has shifted. Rather than doing all they can to hold off potential suitors, recent reports speculate that Man Utd could actively encourage them. If they genuinely have a declining goalkeeper on their hands, then this summer might be the last chance they have to attract a big fee.
From the player’s perspective, too, a move away from Manchester United might be the best option. De Gea has the look of a player, and a person, who needs a new challenge. He is one of the few remaining Premier League champions in the Man Utd dressing room, but with the Old Trafford outfit so far off the pace what else is there for the Spaniard to prove in the near future?
At Juventus or Paris Saint-Germain, the two clubs believed to be monitoring the Spaniard’s situation, De Gea would be energised by a very immediate, very achievable objective - win the Champions League. It just so happens that this would align with De Gea’s personal career checklist - he is still to be crowned a European champion.
While there is something to be said for the loyalty De Gea has shown Man Utd, he has wasted too many years treading water for a team and a club doing the same. The Spaniard has now gone six years, since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, without winning a major honour and at 28, if he stays where he is any longer, his best years as a professional will be squandered.
Some will, with some justification, argue that De Gea’s best years are in fact behind him. Comparisons have been drawn with Iker Casillas and Manuel Neuer, two goalkeeping greats who have fallen on tough times in the twilight of their careers, with De Gea also facing questions at last summer’s World Cup for Spain.
However, De Gea is significantly younger than both Casillas and Neuer. He can still make changes to his game to keep him at the top. What’s more, one month of poor performances, even one as abysmally bad as the one De Gea has suffered this April, isn’t enough to counter seven seasons of brilliance.
All things considered, De Gea would still be staying for at least another season, putting pen to paper on a long-term deal, if it were up to United. Even taking into account his recent blunders, the Spaniard is one of the few world class players at Old Trafford. He still has the backing of the supporters, leaving the pitch at half time to the sound of his name being chanted by the Stratford End minutes after his mistake had gifted Chelsea an equaliser on Sunday.
De Gea, however, could certainly use a change of scenery. There is no denying that he has entered a career rut and Man Utd, on the brink of a summer overhaul, have little to offer the Spaniard beyond a better contract. De Gea finds himself in a similar situation to Eden Hazard, a player who also needs to leave his comfort zone to up his levels.
The problem for Manchester United is they have allowed De Gea’s transfer value to sag before the Spaniard’s looming career crossroads. Had they sold De Gea last summer, when he was still considered the best goalkeeper in the Premier League, maybe even in Europe, when he still had two years left on his contract, they surely would have been able to command a fee of around £80 million.
That money could have been used to activate the €100 million release clause of Jan Oblak at Atletico Madrid, ensuring that the United’s number one shirt is still filled by a world class talent. As things stand, though, De Gea’s value on the open market stands at a reported £60 million, meaning Man Utd would have to pick up the shortfall to sign someone like Oblak as a replacement.
It’s somewhat ironic that after years of being a target for Real Madrid, the club of De Gea’s hometown, they are no longer interested, already over-stocked with two elite goalkeepers in Thibaut Courtois and Keylor Navas, with the Man Utd number one’s future up in the air. Nonetheless, there are options for the Spaniard. Better options than the one being put forward by his current employers.
Both De Gea and Manchester United are at crossroads this summer. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer already has so much work to do that he could do without having to find a new first choice goalkeeper before the start of next season, but if it’s up to the player now might be the time to seek pastures new. Functioning fax machine dependent, of course.