What A Difference One Week Makes…

Going into the FA Cup Final, things seemed to be looking up for David de Gea. Despite an uneven season, the longtime Manchester United #1 won his second Premier League Golden Glove award and looked set to sign a new contract— albeit for less money.

He wasn’t guaranteed to be the starter going into next season, but by accepting a hefty pay cut, he was set to stay at United and either compete for the top job or transition into a role as a backup and locker room leader.

But the seven day period between the FA Cup Final and the Champions League Final might have changed everything.

On Saturday, David de Gea announced his departure from Manchester United.

I would like to express my unwavering gratitude and appreciation for the love from the last 12 years. We’ve achieved a lot since my dear Sir Alex Ferguson brought me to this club. I took incredible pride everytime I pulled on this shirt, to lead the team, to represent this institution, the biggest club in the world was an honour only bestows upon a few lucky footballers.

We’ve seen it all. 🤘🏼❤️

David de Gea, farewell statement, July 8, 2023

We certainly have. Good times. Bad times. And lots in between. Plus, a pretty stunning turn of events that effectively sealed his fate.

First, de Gea turned in a poor performance in the FA Cup Final, failing to stop what seemed like a savable shot from İlkay Gündoğan that ended up clinching a 2-1 victory for Manchester City.

Worse, his distribution was terrible, completing slightly less than half of his passes compared to nearly 90% from his counterpart, City’s backup keeper Stefan Ortega. Oftentimes, he simply hoofed it downfield — a tactic City was more than ready for since they won nearly every long ball.

Then, in the buildup to the Champions League Final the following week, City manager Pep Guardiola rubbed salt in the wound by talking about how much more difficult it was to prepare for Inter Milan’s sweeper keeper Andre Onana.

Inter is not just the strikers and five at the back – the keeper for a long time we didn’t see something like this with Onana.

It’s difficult when you have that keeper to high press properly. If you are man-to-man they link to the striker with [Romelu] Lukaku, Lautaro [Martinez] and [Edin] Dzeko, they are masters of keeping the ball.

With United, for example, it’s long ball, with Rashford and the other one, they don’t keep it. These guys [Inter] they keep it. And after they link it they run. That’s why you’ve got to think about what to do.

With the ball, wow, they [Inter] are really, really, really good, that is why they are in the Champions League final.

Pep Guardiola, pre-Champions League Final interview

Of course, like a Bond villain not knowing when to keep quiet, Erik ten Hag and the United brass seemed to take the advice to heart.

With the kind of ruthlessness not seen at the club in a while, United withdrew its offer to de Gea, allowing him to become a free agent on the same weekend as his wedding. Reportedly, the club even asked de Gea not to sign anywhere else — at least until United works out its keeper problem.

Then United entered into negotiations with Inter to buy Onana, the Cameroonian who played for ten Hag at Ajax. With the clubs reportedly nearing a compromise, it seems only a matter of time before Onana is unveiled as United’s new #1. (With the club linked to Zion Suzuki of Urawa Reds to be the new #2, any possibility de Gea might have accepted being a backup seemingly became moot.)

From a pure footballing perspective, there’s a lot to like about Onana. For one thing, he is the type of modern, ball-playing goalkeeper that so many top teams want now. After watching his display against City in the Champions League Final, it’s clear why Guardiola was so concerned about him. He repeatedly played through the City press and connected on long passes to his teammates. With better playmakers and finishers, he might have been able to steal one or even two goals for his club.

Indeed, that’s the biggest difference between him and de Gea. The former can generate goals while the latter is great at preventing them.

De Gea’s strength has always been shot stopping — for my money, he’s one of the best natural shot stoppers of all time. However, that skill has been fading, as of late, and he’s let more than his usual share of soft ones through. Without his best weapon at his disposal, he becomes an average goalkeeper, at best, and a liability, at worst. It was only a matter of before he was shown the door.

But that doesn’t mean the club needed to treat de Gea as badly as they did. Since he arrived in 2011 from Atletico Madrid to fulfill the tall task of replacing club legend Edwin van der Sar, de Gea has been a model professional who seemed to genuinely love playing at the club (his near-move to Real Madrid in 2015 notwithstanding).

For much of the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era, de Gea has been our best player, single-handedly saving us points and matches and carrying some pretty bad teams. No one has won as many Sir Matt Busby and Player’s Player of the Year Awards than de Gea, and during a four-season stretch from 2014-15 to 2017-18, he held down the goalkeeper’s spot in the Premier League Team of the Season — as the only United representative each year.

“Big players have left the club feeling like they’ve not been treated well,” Rio Ferdinand said on his YouTube show. “No one has the divine right to leave a club on their own terms but you want your players – especially the ones that have been there a long time and served the club well – to leave with a nice taste in their mouth.”

Indeed, de Gea, he can sympathize with the likes of Ferdinand, Roy Keane, David Beckham, Paul Ince, Jaap Stam, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Carlos Tevez, Robin van Persie, Angel Di Maria, Alexis Sanchez, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Romelu Lukaku, Paul Pogba and most recently, Cristiano Ronaldo — all top players who left Old Trafford on less than stellar terms. Maybe he and Ronaldo can swap stories if the former signs for Al Nassr, as rumored.

As for Onana, he doesn’t come without some baggage of his own. According to reports, he and ten Hag fell out towards the end of the former’s tenure at Ajax over fitness and consistency issues.

There’s also the issue of a failed drug test in 2020. According to him, he took what he thought was a pill to help him with a headache but turned out to be Furosemide, a drug that had been prescribed to his wife after giving birth which happened to be on the banned substances list. He was banned for one year, but the Court of Arbitration for Sport reduced it to (ironically enough) nine months.

Nevertheless, football is all about what you’ve done lately, and Onana’s stock has never been higher. At the same time, de Gea’s has never been lower, making this move look like a no-brainer. It may not be a classy move, but it definitely makes sense from a footballing perspective.

Welcome Andre. And thanks for the memories, David. Sorry we couldn’t get you more silverware for your trophy case.

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