Erik ten Hag had doubts about David de Gea from his first day in charge of Manchester United, but towards the end of last season it reached the point of no return. Last summer, Ten Hag’s first in charge, he decided he had inherited bigger problems than a goalkeeper who wasn’t entirely comfortable with the ball at his feet and instead spent his transfer budget on a centre-back, a left-back, a midfielder and a winger.
When Ten Hag sat down with football director John Murtough early this year to decide how to spend this summer’s money, the prevailing opinion was that he could live with De Gea as his No.1 for another year. But then he changed his mind.
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Mistakes against Sevilla, West Ham and in the FA Cup final against Manchester City convinced Ten Hag that it was time for a change. In the end, it was De Gea who announced his exit on Saturday, but only after realising that, had he stayed, his role would have been greatly reduced. De Gea’s social media posts were swiftly followed by a club statement in which Murtough said De Gea would “leave Manchester United with the deepest respect and warmest appreciation of everyone associated with the club.” But Ten Hag, for one, will be relieved he’s gone.
If he gets his way, Inter goalkeeper Andre Onana will arrive to take De Gea’s place, although there still needs to be a compromise over the transfer fee. United are looking at other targets while Dean Henderson, back from his loan spell at Nottingham Forest, is also being considered, but Onana is Ten Hag’s first choice, having worked together at Ajax.
Before the Champions League final, Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola highlighted Onana as one of Inter’s most dangerous players because of the positions he’s able to take up. Occasionally, during the game in Istanbul, the Cameroon international strolled into midfield with the ball at his feet. For all of De Gea’s attributes, particularly his ability as a reflex shot-stopper, it’s something he never got to grips with. He was dropped by former Spain coach Luis Enrique ahead of the European Championships for the same reason, and he wasn’t even part of the squad for the World Cup in Qatar.
De Gea said on Saturday it’s “time for a new challenge,” but the question is where? The game has moved on since Real Madrid tried desperately to sign him from United in the summer of 2015, and there will be few top clubs picking up the phone even now that he’s a free agent. Most managers across Europe will share Ten Hag’s opinion.
Early last season, Ten Hag and Murtough decided they wouldn’t trigger an automatic one-year extension in De Gea’s contract worth around £375k-a-week and instead would look to negotiate a longer deal on reduced wages. Talks were positive and, at one stage, an agreement was close — although United insist that a formal contract offer was never made — but as De Gea struggled during April and May, Ten Hag became more convinced that, even working with a limited summer budget because of Financial Fair Play restrictions, a new goalkeeper would have to be a priority in the transfer window.
De Gea made a poor mistake against West Ham, letting Said Benrahma’s weak shot slip through his fingers, but it was his display in the Europa League tie against Sevilla that highlighted the bigger problem. Twice he was caught out with the ball at his feet and United lost 3-0. Ten Hag defended his goalkeeper from public criticism after West Ham and Sevilla, but following the FA Cup final defeat to Man City, Ten Hag changed his tone.
“Say it like this, we are in the right direction,” he said. “But there are occasions in the game, issues in the game we have to improve, definitely, if we want to make the next step and win trophies.”
Despite a limp end to his United career, De Gea will be remembered — eventually — as a club legend. His 545 appearances puts him seventh on the all-time list and his four player of the year awards in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2018 is only matched by Cristiano Ronaldo. He was part of the last United team to win the Premier League title under Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013, and in February passed Peter Schmeichel’s record for the most clean sheets in United’s history. He had 17 in the Premier League last season to win his second Golden Glove award.
There is something unfortunate about De Gea walking off after his final game at Old Trafford without any great fanfare because, at that point, he still believed he would be back next season. Even Bruno Fernandes said in his farewell message posted on social media that De Gea “deserved to say goodbye at the stadium with all the fans cheering you for all the beautiful memories.”
Many fans will agree with Fernandes that it’s a sad end to a great United career, but most will also agree with Ten Hag that it’s time to move on.