Manchester United had spoiled De Gea for too long – he was unsuitable for Ten Hag’s purpose

In the media suite at the Brentford Community Stadium, Erik ten Hag, chastened by a 4-0 defeat in his second game in charge of Manchester United, took the question in stride.

It related to his then goalkeeper, David de Gea, and the Spaniard’s suitability within the Dutchman’s tactical plans, where a goalkeeper is expected to construct play from the team’s base.

Ten Hag’s response was immediate. “I’m confident he can do it,” Ten Hag said. “He has already shown it; I’ve seen it in training and I’ve seen it in the first games that he can do it.”

And yet, in the team’s very next game, a home game against Liverpool, Ten Hag seemed to compromise right away. After two defeats against Brighton and Brentford, self-preservation kicked in and De Gea’s instructions seemed more certain; especially playing longer and avoiding the sweat-inducing moments inside United’s own penalty area.

For Ten Hag – a manager who has shown in his treatment of Cristiano Ronaldo and Harry Maguire that history and profile now offer little protection at United – reliance on De Gea always seemed sub-optimal and more born of pragmatism than desire.

The story essentially went like this; when Ten Hag arrived at the club, he saw his immediate priority to upgrade the team in central defence, central midfield and in the wide positions. And while he would have liked a new goalkeeper, he also acknowledged that De Gea, with one year remaining on his £375,000-a-year contract week, would not be easily moved out of the club and would be too expensive to keep as a backup goalkeeper.

Bryan Mbeumo scores Brentford’s fourth (Photo: Ian Kington/AFP via Getty Images)

Moreover, like many elite coaches, Ten Hag is confident in his own abilities and perhaps optimistically felt in retrospect that the Spaniard would improve under his tutelage. On the training pitch, De Gea showed a willingness to learn, but in games he sometimes looked like a pensioner handed an iPad and ordered to make a TikTok video.

While United did not immediately seek an upgrade in goal, they decided early on under Ten Hag that they would not trigger an option in De Gea’s deal. This would have extended the contract at £375,000 per week with a further year until the summer of 2024. Instead, United believed it would make sharper financial sense for De Gea, now 32, to accept a smaller package if he wanted to remain at the club and sign a new deal altogether. This led to several months of negotiations between the two parties, but sources close to United, who did not want to be named as they relayed private contractual talks, insist that despite extensive discussions, no contract was ever formally offered to De Gea.

There was a point in the spring when all sides agreed a deal on a renewal was close, only for United to return to De Gea with a contract with terms that had been reduced yet again. By the end of June, the consensus had moved even further, with United and De Gea deciding the time had come to part ways. As always, the truth in all this may lie somewhere in between, and perhaps one day De Gea, who rarely speaks to the media, will give his own version of events.

This led to no shortage of gripes over United’s handling of a player who spent 12 years at Old Trafford after signing from Atletico Madrid when United were managed by Sir Alex Ferguson in the summer of 2011. At his very best, De Gea was a sensational watch. Most football fans buy tickets to watch people score goals, but the speed and dexterity of his reflexes made his ability to stop them just as captivating. Many people will admit that it may have been uncomfortable and humiliating for De Gea to be repeatedly offered reduced terms at a club where he won the club’s player of the season award on four occasions. It may have been nicer to provide clarity ahead of the team’s final home game of the season against Fulham in May, where the Spaniard would have received a warm ovation from the club’s supporters.


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Yet employment realities don’t always work this way, and perhaps it’s also worth remembering the chain of events that led United to this point. De Gea’s limitations when playing under pressure had been present for much of the campaign under Ten Hag, but this had often been mitigated by smart, sometimes jaw-dropping shot-stopping. But as the season ended, glaring errors returned to De Gea’s play, first against Sevilla as United crashed out of the Europa League, then against West Ham United when United’s top four chances were briefly in jeopardy, then in the FA Cup final against Manchester City. , when Ilkay Gundogan’s second goal crawled into the net.

(Photo: Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)

Prior to this run of form, both United and Ten Hag had been set to trudge through at least one more campaign with De Gea in goal. The view had been that further reinforcements to the team’s midfield and up front should be prioritized with the club’s summer budget constrained by the need to comply with both the Premier League and UEFA Financial Fair Play rules.


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Still, football clubs and managers should be allowed to change their minds based on the evidence in front of them, and Ten Hag’s view evolved as De Gea’s performances not only limited what the manager could achieve stylistically, but also demonstrated glaring flaws that damaged the team’s prospects in more competitions. As such, United’s crime here, if there is one, is that manager and director of football John Murtough did not recognize early enough, perhaps even before it was staring them squarely in the face, that action was required. It has prompted De Gea to leave the club and United are pursuing a goalkeeper, Andre Onana, who Ten Hag trained before at Ajax and who excelled in the Champions League for Inter Milan.

In these circumstances, the temptation for journalists and football supporters may be to side with the individual against the power of the club, and no one can hide that the situation appeared to be unfolding a little clumsily. But perhaps it’s also worth remembering that Manchester United have given plenty of patience and given De Gea no small amount of pampering over the past decade.

When he signed as a 20-year-old goalkeeper in 2011, he required a lot of care and patience. Former Liverpool midfielder Jamie Redknapp commented on television that De Gea “looked like he was going to grow into his clothes”. De Gea’s start at United was so uncertain that The Times of London newspaper called Massimo Taibi, arguably the worst goalkeeper in United’s history, who said he saw parallels with his own beginnings at Old Trafford. United’s trust and patience in a young player was sensible and justified, repaid with over 500 appearances for the club, but there were also moments when De Gea seemed to push the boundaries of goodwill in his own ways.

For example, in the summer of 2015, he ran his contract down to within a year of expiry and appeared desperate to secure a transfer to Real Madrid, which memorably fell through amid a dispute over a fax machine between the two clubs on deadline day. De Gea, arguably the world’s best goalkeeper at the time, stayed at United instead and received a £150,000-a-year pay rise. week on the £40,000 contract he signed when he first joined United. At this stage of his career, De Gea deserved special treatment because he was a special footballer who demonstrated rare qualities.


The De Gea contract farce is not how a big club should work and would not happen at Man City

In 2019, De Gea again ran his contract down to within a year of expiry, this time nearly doubling his wages in doing so. This was the end of United’s era of desperation and excess under disastrous vice-chairman Ed Woodward, who sanctioned the renewal, announced in September 2019, despite De Gea enduring a palpable decline in form in the 2018–19 season following on from a sub-par World Cup -show for Spain.

De Gea’s fall in the spring of 2019 was extraordinary, demonstrating a number of fundamental flaws that seemed to hint at a larger crisis of confidence. Perhaps at the time United felt he had enough credit in the bank to merit further patience, but De Gea’s brinkmanship, entering the final year of his deal, meant Woodward approved a contract that acted as a noose on the necks of both Ole Gunnar Solskjær and Ten Hag because United grossly overpaid a goalkeeper whose skills were increasingly ill-suited to the style desired by managers at the top of modern football.

De Gea receives his Premier League Golden Glove award for 2022-23 (Photo: Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)

Even after De Gea failed to save a single penalty in the 2021 Europa League final against Villarreal, as well as missing the decisive penalty himself, the Spaniard’s No.1 remained Under Ten Hag. He was never dropped from the starting line-up, mostly because the club lacked high-quality substitutes.

De Gea still seemed to have a special status, but he was no longer a special footballer. Now he has finally been reduced to mortal status. It may seem cruel at first glance, but United’s wider prospects are all the better for it.

(Top photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images)

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