For many United fans, the Europa League final defeat on penalties to Villarreal was seen as the final nail in David de Gea’s coffin at the club. Of course, the defeat was over the course of 120 painstaking minutes but, to not beat around the bush, De Gea was awful in the shootout — failing to keep out any of the Spanish side’s eleven penalties.
In the days of coaches showing penalties on tablets and Tim Krul writing penalty tendencies on water bottles, to not keep any out, good quality or not, is unacceptable. This bitter pill rounded off a season where De Gea was scrutinised for errors most memorably against Southampton at St. Mary’s and Everton at Old Trafford, where talk of an unlikely title charge was all but extinguished as United threw away two leads.
To make matters worse, the depths of De Gea’s fall were encapsulated at Euro 2020, where he could not get a look in ahead of Bilbao’s Unai Simon, who finished 10th in La Liga after Simon’s unforgettably amateur error against Croatia.
De Gea was not even in the reckoning as Spain progressed.
United were always going to be faced with this goalkeeping predicament sooner than later, it was even speculated to the nth degree last summer. United have two good goalkeepers on their books, both of whom deem themselves worthy of the number 1 jersey in their own right and it’s not unreasonable to think that this situation is not sustainable long term.
It was not for our noisy neighbours when Joe Hart came through to challenge Shay Given, nor Chelsea when Thibaut Courtois came back a La Liga winner and ousted Petr Cech. Both those teams, with footballing people at the top, changed their guards and reaped the rewards. Loyal readers of my work will recall I feel it’s time to blood Dean Henderson, a view I believe is privately shared by the club.
It has made good virtual, and now pub, debates and it cannot be ignored that something has to give at some point. Many recognised that ‘point’ was this summer. Reality bites though and it is far too simplistic on paper, when fans draw up their transfer window wants, to say “so and so needs to go, I’d get rid of X”, particularly when you have the world’s costliest keeper on your books with clubs still feeling the financial effects of a global pandemic and Europe’s elite clubs in no great need for a new goalkeeper.
The contract De Gea signed was obviously pre pandemic, but can anyone say with unequivocal certainty that deal has been well justified? Equally, how do you get rid of De Gea, without facing two egg in face moments? Either do a Sanchez style subsidised loan — where you are paying to not play them, or pay up the remainder of his contract? We haven’t even done that with our footballer made of breadsticks Phil Jones, so they certainly wouldn’t entertain that idea for the world’s most expensive keeper.
The keeping situation is no closer to being resolved, with no offers coming for De Gea and United reticent to lose Henderson, as a potential future star. As I see it, we are in a scenario now where the club want to put their faith in Henderson, but recognise they are stuck with De Gea who is well within his rights to sit tight on his contract running until 2023 which the club sanctioned. Unless something unexpectedly dramatic materialises in the next four weeks, United will be facing the same problem as last season, with two number ones earning close to £500,000 per week with one of them guaranteed to be discontent at their lack of playing time. This is without mentioning that United added another old boy Tom Heaton to their ranks AND retained fourth official and part time player Lee Grant! It is a department bereft of ruthlessness.
The board could call themselves a real tour de force with the stunning acquisition of Raphael Varane, a decade down the line, but does that alone mean that United can give themselves some breathing space with the keeping situation? I really do not think so. The old adage goes, “defences win you titles”: Even with arguably our best ever partnership of Ferdinand and Vidic, they could rest assured knowing they had a permanent world class stopper behind them in Van Der Sar. Having consistency at the back breeds confidence and a confident defence invariably leads to clean sheets. If De Gea and Henderson stay at the club, you can guarantee the cameras will hone in on the keeper sat glumly on the bench and pundits debating who should be in goal. The spotlight will be on any keeper who makes a mistake, both will be on tenterhooks knowing if they cock up, they are out of the team.
As I understand from the club, they were intent on installing Henderson as the number one for the season opener against Leeds, however the news that Henderson is suffering from seemingly long COVID has all but confirmed (via BBC Sport) that De Gea is pencilled in to take the gloves in ten days time.
It is a bizarre turn of events, one nobody is immune from in these strange times, but it is a chance De Gea must seize. It is vital that United have a good start to the campaign if they want to put up a more sustained title challenge. We were unprepared last season and lost two of our first three matches and arguably should have lost them all. United have only played three pre season games, at the time of writing and, apart from Wan-Bissaka, none of our guaranteed starters have kicked a ball since the season’s end. History cannot repeat itself, we were stung by Crystal Palace last season as we were woefully undercooked and Leeds would love nothing more than inflicting a huge early season blow. De Gea only has Saturday’s final pre season match against Everton to prepare for the crunch match, it is far from ideal.
Far from ideal perfectly describes the keeping conundrum. The footballing gods have seemingly given David de Gea a lifeline at Manchester United. He really is in the last chance saloon.