After a £40m bid was foiled only by a faulty fax machine, it seemed strange to see David de Gea sign another contract with Manchester United.
After that, the links with Real Madrid cooled as the Spanish giants seemed happy enough in their own skin, winning two of the last three Champions Leagues and perhaps winning again this season. Until now, that is – even if De Gea is said not to be pushing for a move away from Old Trafford this summer.
It doesn’t stop people talking.
Since David Moyes took over from Alex Ferguson in 2013, De Gea has been United’s brightest star, and arguably the biggest plus point of the entire time. They may well have his saves to thank for finishing as high up the league table as they have done each season since Ferguson’s departure. If anyone was in any doubt about the Spaniard’s worth to the team back then, he’s proved it by now.
And yet, Manchester United have fallen on difficult times of late, becoming a team who struggle to qualify for Europe rather than one who fight for league titles.
That is down to their transition period and may not be of too much concern to United fans who are surely confident of returning to former glories under Jose Mourinho, but it is true that the team haven’t been as good. And that means they spent the last few years concedes more goals than usual.
This is where De Gea shone, though. Goalkeepers, more than most outfield players, only really get the chance to put themselves in the headlines when their team fails in its job. They are a last line of defence, and necessarily are more of an insurance policy than a plan A. De Gea’s form over the last few years is quite clearly down to this – that and the fact that he’s a very good goalkeeper.
But is he one of the best – the sort that would command a huge price tag and a move to Real Madrid, Champions League semi-finalists in each of the last seven seasons?
This season, under Jose Mourinho, De Gea has made some uncharacteristic mistakes. Not too many, not enough to warrant dropping him or anything like that. But the latest – against West Brom in a 0-0 draw at Old Trafford which almost cost United a point – is one that cause his boss to speak out. He accused his goalkeeper of ‘sleeping’, which in turn reportedly caused a rift between the two.
This season isn’t enough to question De Gea’s brilliance as a shot stopper, but it is noticeable that the Spaniard’s form has wobbled at a time when United are defensively stronger than they have been at any point since Ferguson’s departure.
When you are a goalkeeper for a team who face lots of shots and don’t have as much possession, you have less time to lose your focus and more chance to show off your shot-stopping abilities. When you play as a keeper for a side who dominate possession against weaker sides, and who only concede shots whenever they’ve made a mistake somewhere along the line, you only get the chance to make a few stops per game, lowering the chances of seeming like the hero and increasing your chances of being seen as the villain if you make a mistake.
Is it time to call De Gea’s concentration into question? At this point, Manchester United are far from a team who can qualify for the Champions League semi-finals seven years in a row. They are not at that level, and moving from there to Madrid is clearly a step up in terms of level – at least for now.
And if that happens, will De Gea perform to the same level? Will he be able to make the step from Europa League semi-finalists to Champions League semis?
Being a keeper for a superclub like Real Madrid involves different stresses on different skills. Instead of stressing shot-stopping, it stresses concentration, command of area and being good with your feet. Clearly De Gea is a fantastic keeper and probably good at all of those thing – but is he good enough?
Maybe it’s time we stop talking about De Gea as one of the best in the world and start talking about him as a keeper who hasn’t been tested much at the highest level for the last four years.