David De Gea nearing decision time again regarding his long-term Man United future
Two constants for Manchester United in the post-Alex Ferguson years have been the form and the future of goalkeeper David De Gea.
The club's Player of the Year in four of the last five seasons, no previous United goalkeeper, not even the great Peter Schmeichel or Edwin van der Sar, had ever won that award. The focus was firmly on the trophy-winning players in front of them.
As De Gea's stock rose to the level where he was considered one of the best three goalkeepers in football, so did the speculation about him leaving. That speculation dips when he signs a new or improved contract as he has three times in England, but it's never far away.
De Gea, at 27, with 325 United appearances in his seven and a bit seasons in Manchester, has so far not signed a contract which would keep him at United beyond 2019. If he doesn't sign, United will exercise the option to extend his deal another 12 months. The club have to protect themselves by stopping him from leaving for free next year. They also want to stop him from leaving for free in 2020, especially as top goalkeepers are now attracting a premium.
There are factors which might swing the situation in United's favour. One is the support and stability the Spaniard gets at United, a club who've never messed around with him or pushed him to go on loan as Atletico Madrid once did against his wishes. De Gea knows the grass isn't always greener and he said that he felt "really loved" at United as recently as last month. Jose Mourinho also said that he felt his goalkeeper would sign the new contract "as soon as possible" at the same time.
United fans have long backed him, even when they -- and the club -- thought he was leaving to join Real Madrid in 2015. The club fully expected fans to turn against their want-away keeper in the final games of the season. Instead, they applauded him.
United supported him when he struggled in his early months in England, something De Gea has never forgotten. He's never really been savaged by the media in England -- he and his family could barely understand the 2011 criticisms -- as he was in Spain during the World Cup this year. He leads a tranquil life in Manchester which he enjoys, whereas in Spain he's a regular fixture in the gossip pages because his partner, Edurne, is a pop star. That she's apparently not that enamoured with Manchester is a negative.
There are also only a tiny number of clubs who could afford De Gea's present wages, let alone the improved numbers being offered by United. The Real Madrid option, so long the favoured one, is seemingly closed after they signed Thibaut Courtois this summer from Chelsea. English rivals Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea are all happy with their current goalkeepers, too, not that De Gea would be inclined to stay in England post United.
Barcelona are content with 26-year-old Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Bayern Munich with Manuel Neuer, though he is 32 and has struggled recently for Germany. Paris St Germain may have the 40-year-old Gianluigi Buffon, but their fans are more than happy with Alphonse Areola, 25, who has done so well when called upon for PSG and France. Juventus? They couldn't come close to competing with United financially. China?
De Gea has never been about the money but there's an offer on the table which would make him United's second best paid player behind Alexis Sanchez. United would like this contract to be signed by January and remain in close contact with De Gea's agent, Jorge Mendes, who also represents Mourinho.
De Gea wants to play in the best team possible and win the biggest trophies in football. It suited him that that team was in his home city, but could anyone blame him for wanting to try something different from a United who are not at or near that elite level at present. Although De Gea has been constantly reassured by United that a brighter future is on the way, he's right to be sceptical given the two defenders right in front of him change every week. Oh how he must envy the stability Courtois now has in front of him in Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane at Madrid.
Deep down, United fans have known that he would of preferred to be playing for a Real Madrid side hoovering up Champions League trophies rather than finishing way off the pace in England. Could anyone blame De Gea for wanting to go back to his home city of Madrid, where his friends, family and partner live?
De Gea's no Anglophile either. He loves Spain, the country which he's currently away with on international duty. That being said, he's always been an absolute professional at Old Trafford, though it frustrates some at the club that he refuses to do media duties, probably because he'll always be asked about his future. He can afford to wait, afford to weigh up his options. It won't settle the nerves of United fans, but it isn't the biggest issue facing the club and has been in the background for a long time now.
If De Gea feels that the team are on their way back to be in a position to challenge the best, he'll be more likely to sign another contract. If he doesn't and also sees his close mates Juan Mata and Ander Herrera depart, he won't. De Gea also enjoys an excellent relationship with United's Spanish goalkeeping coach Emilio Alvarez.
What isn't being said is that, although he deserves a bit of a break for some time yet on account of his past heroics, he hasn't been quite as spectacular so far this season as last.
"The reason we finished second last year was because of the goalkeeper," Paul Scholes told ESPN. "Good goalkeepers are not easy to find. De Gea's not been quite as good this season, not saving them like he did all last year."
United are fortunate to have De Gea, by far the best signing the club have made in the last 10 years, and while he won the league in 2013, he's unfortunate to have been at the club at the wrong time since then. He must now decide whether he wants to leave England, bide his time or sign in the hope that, as he enters his peak years, United themselves can get back to the very top.