Man United are running out of time to give David De Gea a new contract. Can they do it before he leaves for free?
In 2015, after a summer of rumour and speculation, Manchester United accepted defeat in their attempt to get David De Gea to sign a new contract and agreed to sell the Spaniard to Real Madrid. Four years and a faulty fax machine later, and United are back where they started. In less than three months' time -- July 1, to be exact -- De Gea will officially have one year left on his deal at Old Trafford and the decision facing executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward and the Glazer family will be whether to cash in on their prized goalkeeper or hold their nerve.
Sources have told ESPN FC that their plan, as of writing, is to stand firm. Bids in the summer will be rebuffed in the hope that De Gea can be convinced to stay. Their view is that they can take the financial hit should the worst happen and he leaves for nothing in 12 months; to the club, it's worth the risk if it gives them extra time to negotiate a fresh agreement.
At the moment, though, an agreement is some way off. Sources close to De Gea have suggested the club do not have the "capacity" to meet his demands. Other sources have hinted that associated costs (including agents' fees) have driven up the price of the deal.
United are ready to pay the goalkeeper £350,000 per week over five years in a deal that would earn him more than £90 million. De Gea is asking for more and, at the moment, the gap is so wide that there is no end in sight.
De Gea and his representatives believe he deserves to be one of the highest-paid players at United. He has, after all, won the club's player of the year award in four of the past five seasons and is among the best goalkeepers in the world. At 28, he is in the prime of his career and is keen to cash in while he can. You can see his point.
United, meanwhile, are trying to manage a wage structure that has been wrecked somewhat by Alexis Sanchez's mega-money move from Arsenal in January 2018. More than that, they're also trying to cope with a shifting landscape in the transfer market. Neymar's £199m move from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain in 2017 blew the roof off the market in terms of transfer fees and it's taken time for wages to catch up. During negotiations with De Gea and Ander Herrera in particular, they've started to feel the pinch. After more than a year of talks, Herrera is two months away from leaving on a free transfer, with PSG linked most closely to the Spanish midfielder.
Neymar and Sanchez have set a benchmark, but United are at least learning. From now on, their top players will be offered five-year contracts with the option of a sixth rather than the four-plus-one deal De Gea signed in 2015 when his transfer to Real Madrid fell through at the last minute. Club chiefs hope it will give them more protection from situations like this happening again in the future.
It's clear that United want De Gea to stay. In August 2018, they were confident an agreement was close. Buoyed by Thibaut Courtois' move from Chelsea to Real Madrid, there was a strong belief behind the scenes that he would sign a new contract sooner rather than later. Eight months later, the word being used is no longer "confidence" but "hope."
In United's favour is a lack of other options for De Gea. Any club in the world would love the chance to sign him, but the wage packet being talked about means he will be out of reach to all but a handful of Europe's elite. He wouldn't play anywhere else in the Premier League, and Barcelona already have Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
A move to Real Madrid would allow him to move back to the city where he and girlfriend, Edurne, grew up. He has had problems with the Spanish press since becoming the national team's No.1 but the pull towards home is strong. Sources have told ESPN FC that he particularly enjoyed his incredible save from Luis Muriel's point-blank header during the Champions League last-16 first leg against Sevilla last season because his parents and sister were in the Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan Stadium to see it.
Real have been keen in the past and have the financial clout to sign De Gea, but they would likely have to jettison Courtois, who is only 12 months into a six-year deal. It is noteworthy, though, that the Belgian's first season at the Bernabeu has not gone well and Keylor Navas has been first choice since Zinedine Zidane's return as manager.
Next in line would be PSG and Juventus in terms of realistic suitors, but even then there are people at United who doubt whether the Italian champions have the resources after splashing out on Cristiano Ronaldo.
If De Gea does leave, United are prepared. In 2015, they signed Argentina's No.1, Sergio Romero, and were ready to pull the trigger on Jasper Cillessen, then playing for Ajax and now at Barcelona. This time, scouts have spent time watching Gianluigi Donnarumma at AC Milan and Jan Oblak at Atletico Madrid. Sources have told ESPN FC that Oblak is first choice if they find themselves looking for a new goalkeeper; they believe the Slovenian is attainable even if he signs a new contract.
Neither United nor De Gea has given up hope that he could yet sign a new deal at Old Trafford. De Gea is settled in Manchester and has close friends in the dressing room in Herrera, Juan Mata and goalkeeper coach Emilio Alvarez. He was also appreciative that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer listened to his advice and retained Alvarez in the wake of Jose Mourinho's dismissal. The pair worked together at Atletico and have a good relationship away from football as well as on the training ground.
United are willing to push the boat out to keep one of the only genuine world-class players in the squad, but they will stop short of offering him Sanchez-type money to stay. The trick now is to find a middle ground but the clock is ticking.
Sources have told ESPN FC that United are braced for bids this summer that will test their resolve. They are planning to have him in their team next season whether he has signed a new contract or not, but there is also a reluctant acceptance that things can change very quickly -- just as they did on deadline day in 2015.