It is football’s equivalent of Oscar Season; that time of year when the gongs are handed out and the focus is on individuals rather than teams. This year Manchester United’s sole nominee at the Professional Footballers Association ceremony, held last Sunday, was David De Gea. As the country’s outstanding stopper the Spaniard fully deserved recognition after being voted into the PFA’s Team of the Year. Indeed, no other Red will be come close to being in contention for the Football Writers’ Association award when it is revealed next month.
And yet Louis van Gaal is seemingly in danger of losing one of his few genuinely world-class performers. It is, after all, no exaggeration to conclude that United would be some distance from Champions League qualification but for the 24-year-old’s outstanding form – especially from October to March. In the past month De Gea’s performances have, observationally at least, deteriorated just a touch – perhaps a hangover from the pending drama this summer.
After all, the lure of Real Madrid and greater proximity to his girlfriend, the singer Edurne, have seemingly won De Gea’s heart despite United’s reported £200,000-per-week contract offer. The youngster will earn far less at Bernabéu, but the nights will no longer be lonesome and Madrid’s glitter is always alluring.
United paid almost £18 million for the teenage Atlético Madrid ‘keeper in 2011; signing the 19-year-old on a five year £75,000-per-week deal after he had appeared in just 84 matches for Atleti. That inexperience and a steep Premier League learning curve told, however, as De Gea faced a barrage of critical opinion in his first few months at Old Trafford. It could have broken lesser players.
“OMG,” extolled BBC pundit Mark Bright in August 2011, “Man Utd cannot win the Premier League with De Gea.” Meanwhile, in the Guardian, the typically circumspect Daniel Taylor noted that “there has to be a case for Anders Lindegaard to take over,” arguing that the “Dane is seven years older than De Gea, has a greater penalty-box presence and… the trust of his team-mates.”
The assessment bordered on personal in the Times podcast, where critic-in-chief Patrick Barclay described United’s new net-minder as “Heurelho Gomes with less shot-stopping skills,” arguing that the “goalkeeper is like a jelly. I can’t see what he’s got. How on earth Ferguson and all his millions of coaches could have watched this boy week-in-week out and then signed him for the first team I just don’t know.” It was a theme continued in plethora tabloids, broadsheets, podcasts, blogs and phone-ins across the country.
Except on Rant, of course, where there was never any doubt.
The critique stopped though. In 2013 De Gea was voted into the Premier League PFA Team of the Year, while the Spaniard picked up the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year and Manchester United Players’ Player of the Year in 2014. It really should have been a second PFA award last season – and a third in this. De Gea’s performances were consistently better than winner Petr Čech. The Madrileño is a rare talent indeed; one that may not be long for Old Trafford’s appreciation.
Should De Gea move this summer then his compatriot Victor Valdés is the front-runner to come straight into Van Gaal’s team. On paper Valdes offers much: a three-time Champions League and six-times La Liga winner with Barcelona. Valdés, with 15 major medals, is comfortably the most decorated player in United’s squad. He has also secured the Zamora Trophy on five occasions – an award for the goalkeeper who has the lowest ‘goals-to-games’ ratio in La Lifa – and the La Liga Goalkeeper of the Year award twice. Valdes offers both experience, with more than 500 appearances for Barcelona, and a medium-term option. He is just 33-years-old.
Yet, for all the Catalan’s experience, Valdés is not without fault. The stopper made a number of high-profile errors during his time at Barça, including a mistake to gift Angel Di María a goal in the 2012 Supercopa against Real Madrid. One replayed the world over. Valdés is also vulnerable to pressure under the high-ball – unsurprising for a player school in La Liga and just six feet tall.
United could yet look to acquire a replacement, although there are few stoppers available to match De Gea’s quality. Tottenham Hotspur’s Hugo Lloris has enjoyed another fine season in north London, with a consistency of performance and the protection of a lengthy contract that will enable Spurs to demand a fee in excess of £20 million. However, the 28-year-old is reportedly desperate to secure Champions League football three years after he joined the Londoners from Olympique Lyonnais.
Lloris is unlikely to achieve that goal with Spurs next season. Little wonder manager Mauricio Pochettino recently moved to deny that his player is unhappy. Yet, for all Lloris’ experience and quality, the Frenchman’s distribution with his feet is concerning – an area where Van Gaal’s possession-based game demands much from a ‘keeper. It is a fault on which to ponder.
Also in London the aforementioned Čech is available after falling behind Thibaut Courtois in the Blues’ pecking order. While manager José Mourninho has promised Cech his choice of destination it is a theory yet to be tested with a bid from a key rival for next season’s Premier League title. There is certain to be interest from other domestic clubs, including Liverpool and Arsenal, with Čech’s fee likely to be in the £10 million range for a player who is still only 33. Čech’s performances became more erratic after he suffering a fractured skill against Reading in 2006, although the Czech Republic international secured a dubious nomination for the PFA Team of the Year last season.
In Spain Real Madrid’s Keylor Navas could be available, with the Costa Rican international appearing on just 10 occasions for Los Merengues this season. Even if Iker Casillas is finally, mercifully, released after a long walk into mediocrity, Navas is likely to face the prospect of keeping De Gea’s bench warm next season. Or Čech’s. Either way, it has been a tough campaign for the 28-year-old former Levante player who was outstanding at last summer’s World Cup. Navas was voted La Liga’s Best Goalkeeper in 14 prompting a €10 million move to Madrid. After 12 long months it may be time to move on once more.
Barcelona’s young reserve Marc-André ter Stegen might also be available. Despite promising much, after a summer 2014 move to the Catalan giants, ter Stegen is yet to break into the team ahead of Claudio Bravo. Meanwhile, 23-year-old Bernd Leno has enjoyed a fine season in Bundesliga with Bayer Leverkusen. Not that United would gamble on a young ‘keeper!
Elsewhere, and probably only in a fit of desperation, United could look to a clutch of experienced stoppers around Europe, including Internazionale’s Samir Handanovic, Bayern Munich’s bench-warming Pepe Reina, AC Milan’s Diego López, and Hamburg’s René Adler.
Yet, in compiling any list, it is clear that there are few options for United to retain parity in the goalkeeping department. Not unless the unequivocally unavailability of Courtois and Bayern Munich’s outstanding Manuel Neuer changes this summer.
It is a somber thought as De Gea plays out the end game in a long-running strategy to join Madrid; one that United can only block by forcing the player to remain for a further season. In that scenario a new contract may yet be signed, if only to offer De Gea a handsome final pay-off, and the Reds some leverage next summer. Few doubt the player’s destination of choice though.