As soon as Louis van Gaal announced last Friday that David de Gea would play no part in the following day’s season opener against Tottenham, the narrative was set.
The game of brinkmanship between player and manager had taken a new turn and the rest of the club has been caught in the middle. With three weeks remaining of this transfer window, this could finally be nearing the endgame.
Saturday gave us the peculiar sight of three experienced goalkeepers in De Gea, Víctor Valdés and Anders Lindegaard (who I’ll admit I forgot was still at the club) in the stands while Sergio Romero and Sam Johnstone, who between them had played precisely zero competitive minutes at Old Trafford, were selected in the squad.
As adequately as Romero performed on the day, it was still hardly an ideal situation to have two far superior goalkeepers in Valdés and De Gea, who for all intents and purposes were fit to play, banished to the stands in a typical Louis van Gaal power play.
There’s a very intriguing game at work here. It’s not so much whether or not De Gea will sign for Real Madrid, as it’s highly likely he will, it’s more on whose terms the transfer will be carried out. Both clubs want to be seen as saving face in this story.
Van Gaal has already set some wheels in motion. He said on Friday:
“I am the victim, the fellow players are the victims, the club is the victim…Do you think the coach wants him to leave? I don’t think so. The player still has to manage this situation.”
By painting himself and the club as the wronged party in all of this, the groundwork is laid for if and when De Gea does leave – the player and Real would apparently have pushed for it and if his head is turned then there is nothing Man United can do.
Van Gaal has craftily placed De Gea in a difficult position here. By intimating that his head isn’t the game it calls into question the professionalism that De Gea has hitherto been lauded for by just about everybody, which could in turn erode some of that goodwill towards the player as a result.
A major issue with this is that nobody (on the outside at least) is really sure to what extent De Gea’s head has actually been turned. The fact that he has thus far not signed a contract extension, combined with the his manager’s assertion that he was mentally not fit to play on Saturday, does suggest that the story is only heading towards one logical conclusion, but a certain amount of ambiguity remains.
De Gea’s lack of a public profile is both a help and a hindrance to him here. Had he been decisive one way or the other the saga would already be over. Even now if he pushed hard enough he would be in Madrid by the end of the week. He has kept the fans onside by not publicly demanding a transfer, but likewise he has remained wholly noncommittal to the idea of staying at the club.
Instead this has dragged on and even in the unlikely event that he does stay for this season, to what degree will he be as committed to his performances for Man United, knowing at the back of his mind that he will probably be leaving on a free transfer the following summer? It’s a distraction that van Gaal could do without.
Ed Woodward has been saying all of the right things in public in relation to Man United not being bullied by Real (including the apparent insistence in Sergio Ramos being part of any deal), but the unfortunate truth is that that’s just not how this game works. A food chain exists within the game and Real Madrid, along with Barcelona, are undisputedly at the top of that chain. Be it this summer, or 2016, if they want him badly enough, they will get him, which makes this saga all the more tedious.
Lowballing Man United with bids of under £20 million is just wasting everybody’s time. Lodging “final offers” with three weeks of the window is another pointless exercise – Man United are far too financially powerful to be threatened with losing the player for nothing next year. The potential loss of £20 million won’t particularly trouble them too much if it means keeping their best player for an extra year.
Florentino Pérez is another one who could theoretically end this ordeal in an instant if he wanted to. It’s not even a question of unsettling the player – that has already been achieved (albeit privately) – but as he showed with Gareth Bale two years ago, he is quite prepared to wait right up until deadline day if he has to. He, like Woodward, wants to be seen as the one calling the shots.
If this does indeed go to the wire, then Man United might be in trouble. Sergio Romero, while decent, is not a viable replacement for a goalkeeper who has been their best player for two seasons running.
Signing a top-class keeper this late in the day would be massively tricky as even though they would have the funds, who would realistically be available? Hugo Lloris remains an option but Daniel Levy is a notoriously tough negotiator and is unlikely to welcome bids at this late stage of the window. Jasper Cillessen meanwhile, is just plainly not good enough.
In that respect, keeping a potentially upset and half-interested De Gea might be in the club’s, if not the player’s, best interests. A half-motivated De Gea is still leagues ahead of a fully-motivated Sergio Romero, plus the extra months would give the club an adequate period to source a suitable replacement.
This particular war of attrition is likely to run a bit longer. Regardless, Man United are set to lose their best player and another of the Premier League’s brightest talents is to be lost to the lure of Real Madrid or Barcelona.
Plus ça change.
Simon O’Keeffe, Pundit Arena
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