Rob DawsonCorrespondent5 minutes of reading
Erik ten Hag had his doubts 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 quite 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 director of football John Murtough early this year to decide how to spend the summer’s money, the prevailing view was that he could live with De Gea as No.1 for another year. But then he changed his mind.
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Failures 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 realizing that if he had stayed, his role would have been greatly reduced. De Gea’s social media post was quickly 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 thing, will be relieved that he’s gone.
If he has his way, Inter goalkeeper Andre Onana will arrive to take De Gea’s place, although a compromise on the transfer fee is still missing. 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 is able to occupy. Occasionally during the game in Istanbul, the Cameroon international strolled into midfield with the ball at his feet. For all De Gea’s qualities, especially his ability as a reflex shot-stopper, it’s something he never caught on to. He was dropped by former Spain coach Luis Enrique ahead of the European Championship for the same reason, and he wasn’t even a part of the squad for the World Cup in Qatar.
De Gea said on Saturday that it is “time for a new challenge”, but the question is where? The game has moved on since Real Madrid desperately tried 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 is a free agent. Most leaders throughout Europe will share Ten Hag’s opinion.
Early last season, Ten Hag and Murtough decided they would not trigger an automatic one-year extension to De Gea’s contract, worth around £375,000-a-week, and would instead look to negotiate a longer deal on reduced wages. Talks were positive and at one stage a deal was close – although United insist no formal contract offer was ever made – but as De Gea struggled in April and May, Ten Hag became more convinced that working with a limited summer budget due to Financial Fair Play restrictions, a new goalkeeper should be a priority in the transfer window.
De Gea made a poor mistake against West Ham and let Said Benrahma’s weak shot slip through his fingers, but it was his display in the Europa League game against Sevilla that highlighted the bigger problem. Twice he was tackled with the ball at his feet and United lost 3-0. Ten Hag defended his goalkeeper against public criticism after West Ham and Sevilla, but after the FA Cup final defeat to Man City, Ten Hag changed his tune.
“Put it this way, we’re headed in the right direction,” he said. “But there are occasions in the game, problems in the game, we need to improve, certainly if we want to take the next step and win trophies.”
Despite a lackluster end to his United career, De Gea will be remembered – ultimately – 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 are matched only 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 last game at Old Trafford without much fanfare because at the time he still believed he would be back next season. Bruno Fernandes himself said in his farewell message on social media that De Gea “deserved to say goodbye in the stadium with all the fans cheering you on for all the beautiful memories.”
Many fans will agree with Fernandes that it is a sad end to a great United career, but most will also agree with Ten Hag that it is time to move on.