Erik ten Hag has earned a reputation for making tough decisions as Manchester United manager this season, such as sanctioning the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo in November and dropping out-of-form captain Harry Maguire. But his ongoing faith in goalkeeper David de Gea could cost the club a place in next season’s Champions League.
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United have other areas of concern, such as scoring just three goals in their past six games. But, by failing to drop De Gea, Ten Hag risks allowing the club to fall back into the rut of rewarding mediocrity rather than displaying the ruthless streak that provides the backbone of every successful team.
Sunday’s error from De Gea during United’s 1-0 defeat at West Ham United, when he was beaten by a weak Said Benrahma shot from 20 yards, was the latest costly mistake that he has made in recent weeks. What was once a rarity is becoming the norm for the 32-year-old. Yet, despite his declining form, sources have told ESPN that United remain committed to extending De Gea’s stay at Old Trafford into a 13th season — although not necessarily as the club’s No. 1.
Only two goalkeepers — Gavin Bazunu and Alex McCarthy, who both play for bottom club Southampton — have a worse save percentage in the Premier League this season than De Gea’s 68%. And yet the United No. 1 is also leading the race to win the Golden Glove award for most clean sheets with 15 shutouts — two more than Alisson, Nick Pope and Aaron Ramsdale. Nothing quite sums up the enigma of De Gea than those two starkly contrasting statistics.
On the one hand he has become a liability in Ten Hag’s United team. The West Ham error came less than a month after the Europa League exit against Sevilla when three De Gea mistakes led to a 3-0 quarterfinal second-leg defeat. But De Gea can also produce moments of incredible agility and reflexes, making match-winning saves to support those who believe he is still one of the best goalkeepers in the world. Yet De Gea’s inconsistency is now the only consistent element of his game and United’s outfield players are performing without the reassurance that comes with having a goalkeeper at the top of his game.
There is no escaping the reality that De Gea’s poor distribution with the ball at his feet is a recurring problem for United. That was identified by former manager Louis van Gaal as far back as 2015, when Sergio Romero was signed to provide competition for De Gea, who almost completed a move to Real Madrid during the summer transfer window. It is also why De Gea has not played for Spain since October 2020, with former coach Luis Enrique not even taking him to Qatar as part of his 2022 World Cup squad due to reservations over his footwork and reliability.
At United, De Gea’s poor communication skills have led to misunderstandings with his defenders, while opponents now regularly target him at corners by crowding him out and exposing his reluctance to be assertive when the ball is in the air. It’s a throwback to how he struggled when he first arrived from Atletico Madrid in 2011, before toughening himself up against the more physical demands for a goalkeeper in the Premier League.
Ten Hag said that De Gea “has my full belief, no concerns,” following the West Ham defeat, but statistical evidence is mounting to suggest that the United manager is either in denial or protecting his goalkeeper in public while harbouring concerns over his reliability. During the past three Premier League seasons, 27 goalkeepers have played 30 games or more, and De Gea’s numbers within that group place him at the wrong end of most of the key categories.
He ranks 13th in terms of goals prevented, while only five keepers have conceded more goals than De Gea since the start of the 2020-21 season. He is seventh when it comes to Expected Goals Against, and only Leeds United‘s Illan Meslier has a worse save percentage (65.5%) over the last three seasons than De Gea (68%).
One positive for De Gea during that time frame is that he is a respectable sixth when it comes to clean sheets with 32 — Manchester City‘s Ederson is top with 49. He also broke Peter Schmeichel’s club-record 180 clean sheets in February, albeit having played 137 more games at the time than the Treble-winning keeper.
With De Gea’s contract due to expire at the end of this season, the club has assessed alternative options; Switzerland No. 1 Yann Sommer was considered in January before he left Borussia Monchengladbach for Bayern Munich following Manuel Neuer‘s season-ending leg injury.
A source close to De Gea told ESPN following the Sevilla defeat last month that, after 12 years at United, he was keen to return to Spain this summer. However, he accepted that he had no realistic option due to Real, Atletico and Barcelona all having settled goalkeepers and no other club in LaLiga able to come close to matching his £375,000-a-week salary.
De Gea also accepts that he will have to take a substantial pay cut to stay at Old Trafford, but sources have said an agreement between player and club is close to being concluded. It is not the most positive situation, though, for a contract to be signed due to the player having no alternative options and the club realising that it would be cheaper to keep him on reduced wages — even is he has been given no guarantees he will be first-choice next season.– than sign a new, more reliable goalkeeper.
Ten Hag’s squad is burdened with a number of players who signed new contracts despite a failure to justify them with their performances. It seems that history is about to repeat itself with De Gea. Unless, of course, Ten Hag displays the ruthless streak that accounted for Ronaldo and Maguire by drawing a line under the De Gea era.
Information from ESPN’s Stats & Information group was used in this report