David de Gea was 19 at the time, but the opening five minutes of the 2009-10 Europa League semifinal between Liverpool and Atletico Madrid at Anfield were enough to set him on course to join Manchester United, and a decade of being regarded as one of the world’s best goalkeepers.
“I was sat next to [former Liverpool and England keeper] Ray Clemence and he asked who I was watching,” Eric Steele, United’s goalkeeper coach from 2008 to 2013, told ESPN. “Well, United don’t sign players from Liverpool and my field is goalkeeping, so it was fairly obvious I was there to watch David. I’d first seen him a couple of years earlier and had monitored him ever since.
“Ray wasn’t impressed initially. He saw David, slim and slight, and suggested there wasn’t much to him. But within five minutes of the kick-off, David had made a couple of big saves and then came off his line to clear a corner with a really commanding punch. Ray turned to me, his eyes lit up and he said, ‘yep, you’ve definitely got a keeper there.'”
Fast forward to the present day, and De Gea is sat on the bench at Euro 2020 with Spain with the doubters now wondering if we will we ever see that decisive, confident De Gea again.
After a turbulent period in his career, for both club and country, the 30-year-old is fighting for his future and his reputation. There have been costly errors leading to him losing his No. 1 role for club and country and even Steele, the man who persuaded Sir Alex Ferguson to sign him for United ahead of Germany’s Manuel Neuer in 2011, admits his old protege faces a crucial summer.
“[De Gea] has to ask himself what he was doing back when he got the headlines for the right reasons, how he can get back to that and what he needs to change,” Steele said. “It’s got to be the mentality. It’s not his style to come out and tell people, but inside, he will know he has to really start performing the way he was.”
Uncertainty is everywhere for De Gea right now. Athletic Bilbao’s Unai Simon has taken over as Spain’s No. 1 at Euro 2020 and De Gea doesn’t know if he will regain Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s trust as United’s first-choice goalkeeper, having been replaced by Dean Henderson for Premier League games towards the end of last season. Henderson’s withdrawal from the England squad due to a hip injury may yet play in De Gea’s favour if the issue disrupts his teammate’s preseason preparations, but in the immediate term, Simon is the main obstacle in De Gea’s path.
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“David has a huge challenge against Simon,” Steele said. “He has established himself at Bilbao, has a great physical frame and, at 23, there is more to come from him.
“I watched [Simon] in a game against Barcelona. It was 1-1, Barca had a free kick with the last kick of the game and he came 12 yards off his line to claim the ball. I rewound it and watched it back and I went ‘wow.’ I like that in a keeper. The one thing about Simon is that he’s commanding.”
De Gea was picked by United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer for the Europa League final against Villarreal in Gdansk last month, but his failure to save any of 11 penalties faced in the postmatch shootout, combined with missing his spot kick to hand the Spanish club victory, may yet prove to be his final act in a United shirt.
But how has it come to this?
De Gea is United’s highest-paid player, earning £375,000-a-week since he signed a new four-year contract in 2019, offered because of his consistency in goal. He has been voted United’s player of the year four times in the past eight seasons and was named in the PFA Premier League Team of the Season five times during the same period.
It’s undeniable that De Gea has made some painful mistakes, but he was also outstanding in the Europa League semifinal second leg against Roma, and clearly retains the ability to produce his very best. There has been a decline, however, since a poor showing for Spain at the 2018 World Cup preceded a series of uncharacteristic errors for United. Three years on, the gradual deterioration in De Gea’s performances and lack of consistency has led to him losing his club and international spots to Henderson and Simon respectively.
“It’s not all down to David,” one source told ESPN. “When he arrived at United, he had Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic in front of him, he could play a short pass to Paul Scholes or Michael Carrick and never see the ball lost to the opposition, or he could send a long ball to Wayne Rooney or Robin van Persie and know that it would stick, allowing him to turn defence into attack very quickly for United. But what has he got now? He has poor centre-halves in front of him, the likes of Fred and Aaron Wan-Bissaka unable to keep the ball when they receive it and until Edinson Cavani arrived, nobody capable of holding the ball up front.
“United have contributed to his loss of form by not getting players around him. And the chopping and changing of managers since Ferguson left in 2013 hasn’t helped him, either: he’s also had six goalkeeper coaches in 10 years at the club.”
That blunt assessment is shared by Steele, who admits that uncertainty about the players around any goalkeeper can be corrosive to their confidence.
“David has had a lot of [defensive] combinations in front of him, but every goalkeeper likes stability,” Steele said. “The spine of the team is massive. Stability in front of him would certainly help — it would also help Henderson — but there have been so many changes, with Eric Bailly, Victor Lindelof, and sometimes Scott McTominay playing with Harry Maguire.
“You have to build a relationship with the two central defenders. It’s vital, certainly on set pieces. This season, United haven’t done well on that front and people have targeted the team — not just the keepers, but the team as a whole because of the way they have defended.
“David has to build his own game back and then work on relationships with his two central defenders because they have to be his best friends in the team.”
De Gea at Man United
Statistically, De Gea’s United numbers underline his reputation as one of the best keepers in the world. In 441 appearances, he has kept 154 clean sheets. Had he been a striker with 154 goals in 441 appearances, he would be in the same bracket as the likes of Ruud van Nistelrooy and Scholes.
De Gea’s pedigree is why Solskjaer remains torn over what to do with his goalkeepers. Sources have told ESPN that De Gea is regarded by United as their best keeper, and still young enough to play on for another 10 years, but Henderson’s progress over the past 12 months has propelled him into the first team, and neither is likely to settle for being a backup next season.
“David isn’t a sulker,” a United source told ESPN. “When the manager picked Dean for the final two months of the season, David accepted it as the nature of the job and worked as hard as ever to get back to his best, but also to help Dean.
“There is a perception outside the club of David being a loner or somebody who doesn’t mix well, but that’s not the case. He is well-liked and has the absolute respect of every one of his teammates.”
De Gea is also popular with the staff at the club and before the pandemic, he regularly accompanied office staff and kit men to gigs in Manchester, paying for tickets to watch heavy metal bands like Avenged Sevenfold. “He has taken the kit men to see Slipknot the last three times they have been to Manchester,” the United source said.
But away from the club, De Gea lives a quiet, sometimes solitary, existence in Manchester and that is unlikely to change if he stays at United.
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De Gea’s long-term partner, singer Edurne Garcia Almagro, flew to Manchester after the birth of daughter Yanay for the final weeks of the season (De Gea lost his place to Henderson after returning to Spain for the birth in March). The pair have maintained a long-distance relationship throughout his time in England, with Edurne continuing to live in Madrid. His domestic situation may yet influence whether he stays at United or seeks a move away this summer; while sources have said that they expect him to stay for at least one more season to try to reclaim his No. 1 spot at Old Trafford, it’s true that his social network in Manchester has been impacted in recent months, merely adding to the sense of uncertainty around his future.
De Gea was close with Sergio Aguero and the Argentine’s adviser, Ruben Dominguez. The former Manchester City forward would regularly host barbecues for the Spanish-speaking players at United and City. With Aguero leaving for Barcelona this summer and Dominguez set to follow, it further diminishes De Gea’s social circle, following Ander Herrera’s move to Paris Saint-Germain two years ago, David Silva’s return to Spain with Real Sociedad last year and the departure of goalkeeping coach Emilio Alvarez from United in 2019.
The closure of the Manchester restaurant Tapeo and Wine last September, run by Juan Mata’s father, Juan Manuel Mata Rodriguez, was another blow for De Gea, as it was a natural meeting place for those in his circle, including both Mata and his father, and City defender Aymeric Laporte.
“David has a small circle of friends in the city, and all of the Spanish-speaking players would socialise together,” a Spanish agent based in Manchester told ESPN. “He always seems happy at United, despite suggestions that he doesn’t enjoy England, and the general view among those close to him is that he will stay and fight to play.”
The way forward
If he chooses to leave United, De Gea’s options are limited. While his salary would be a stumbling block for even the wealthiest of clubs, his difficult relationship with the Spanish media has left him unconvinced of the merits of a return to La Liga.
A dream move back to Spain with Real Madrid in 2015 suffered a last-minute collapse, and with Real and Barcelona now both happy with Thibaut Courtois and Marc-Andre ter Stegen respectively, a return to Atletico only seems viable if the Spanish champions were to offload the highly rated Jan Oblak. That said, given De Gea’s distrust of the Spanish media due to the severity of the criticism he is subjected to whenever he plays poorly for the national team, sources have said he is no rush to push for a move to La Liga.
Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain have both maintained a long-term interest in De Gea, but the financial cost of a transfer fee and wages have led to both pursuing less expensive options. All in all, the smart money is on De Gea sitting tight and giving himself one more chance to save his United career.
“At the moment, he’ll be coming back to United unless something changes,” Steele said. “He will expect to come back and go into battle again with Dean Henderson. I don’t think he will look upon himself as a No. 2.
“This is probably the biggest dip he’s had, and it’s a massive dip in terms of where he’s been. All of a sudden, he has to take his dip in form and react.”
For Steele, it’s a case of De Gea getting back to basics and remembering the qualities that made him the goalkeeper he became.
“There are two words that I always use: command and demand,” Steele said. “I still think he can go back to the incidents when he was getting battered early on in his United career, when he came and commanded, took the ball, punched really well. Demand is about demanding more of the people in front of him. If the two centre-halves aren’t having the best of times, he has to demand more of them.
“That might be saying something at half-time about getting tighter or dropping deeper, because tactically, he knows the game and that’s where he needs to demand more of others. But David certainly has it in him to get back to his best.
“Don’t write him off — he is a strong character and he has the mentality and the technique to do it.”