Not long after the questions had started, they were answered unequivocally. “David is, for me, the best goalkeeper in the world.” Even though his goalkeeper's monumental error could have gifted Everton victory, that was all Ole Gunnar Solskjaer needed to say for those in the room at Goodison Park to know that David de Gea will be Manchester United's first-choice for the remainder of the current season and at the beginning of the next.
Solskjaer’s answers in press conferences are not always the most sincere, shall we say, but there is no reason to disbelieve him here. The United manager has never given any indication that he believes De Gea’s slight but noticeable decline over the last two years is terminal. In fact, he does not even acknowledge its existence. The closest he came to that on Sunday was when admitting that his goalkeeper went “through a difficult patch last season”.
You may remember that difficult patch. It began in Solskjaer’s first league defeat, away at the Emirates last March, when De Gea was wrong-footed by Granit Xhaka’s shot from distance. He then allowed a Leroy Sané attempt to pass through him in the Manchester derby in April and in United’s very next game, another error followed against Chelsea to effectively end Solskjaer’s hopes of qualifying for the Champions League.
Since then, there have been costly mistakes against Everton at home, away at Watford and now against Everton again on Sunday. Since the start of last season, no top-flight goalkeeper has made more errors which have led to goals. And all the while, Dean Henderson has continued to quietly impress as part of Chris Wilder’s remarkable set-up at Sheffield United, reminding everyone of Old Trafford’s strength in goalkeeping depth.
But for now, one thing makes any talk of Henderson returning from loan this summer and usurping De Gea unrealistic. That same thing also insulates United’s first-choice goalkeeper from his gradually expanding portfolio of ‘rare errors’. We are talking, of course, about several sheets of paper that have a lot of zeros printed on them and De Gea’s signature scrawled at the bottom.
The Spaniard’s new, four-year contract at United was finally signed in September, with a wage of approximately £375,000-a-week making him the world’s best-paid goalkeeper. To say the negotiations were protracted would be polite. A year-and-a-half of talks is a conservative estimate, 21 months far more accurate. The first discussions began so long ago, it was when De Gea actually was considered the world’s best in his position.
It would be neatly symbolic of the post-Ferguson years if United had spent so long carrying out a good decision - like renewing De Gea’s contract - that it became a bad one. That is not the case, though. De Gea is still one of European football’s leading ‘keepers, capable of making a flurry of instinctive, split-second saves at close quarters which catch the eye as well as winning football matches.
But even his admirers would admit he has limitations which have been exposed as the sport changes around him. De Gea is not a modern goalkeeper. He has never been especially comfortable playing behind a high line, regularly coming out second-best in one-on-ones with opposition strikers. His distribution was average five years ago, before tactical shifts and actual rule changes made it essential for a goalkeeper to be comfortable with his feet. His passing range is now considerably limited when compared with day contemporaries like Alisson and Ederson.
And yet, United chose to pay him better than any other ‘keeper on the planet rather than lose him on a free transfer or for a discounted fee. They bet big on De Gea, agreeing to terms which are likely to cost near £100million, and when you bet big, you cannot be seen to lose. United already have one huge unwanted contract to oblige in the case of Alexis Sanchez. Dropping De Gea with any degree of permanence and throwing another albatross across their neck is the last thing they want to do.
Solskjaer says that if Henderson returns in the summer, he will arrive with every chance of ousting De Gea. “We want the best possible squad and Dean is our player,” he claimed. “He is doing really well at the moment and the day he comes back, he is fighting to play.” But any clamour for Henderson to be given an opportunity ignores how he too would be harshly scrutinised if he were to make the same mistake De Gea did on Sunday. He would not have nine years of generally excellent service to fall back upon, either.
And the reality for Henderson is that De Gea is likely to be respected enough, important enough and - crucially - good enough to avoid forcing any difficult decisions on United for a few years yet. An error by the first-choice here or there will be tolerated - Solskjaer did not even remember the mistake against Everton at Old Trafford in December when running De Gea’s ricks through this season - and he will be given every chance to get back to his very best. That is the status and position De Gea has earned at Old Trafford and it will take a lot to prise it from his gloves.
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