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Sunday, June 16, 2024

David de Gea wasn’t tempted by Forest but returning to the top will only get tougher

“New year, new challenges,” wrote David de Gea on Instagram on January 8 and, as the reel started, you were briefly left wondering whether, six months on from leaving Manchester United, one of the most talented goalkeepers of his generation had found a new club at last.

But no, the new challenge in question related to the esports franchise he owns. To do with the upcoming League of Legends apparently. Or possibly Counter-Strike 2. Various sources, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect their reputation, have assured The Athletic this is a moderately big deal if you are into that kind of thing.

Nothing wrong with that. Nothing wrong with professional athletes having interests and business ventures outside what has, at times, been a very narrow focus. Nothing wrong with stepping away from the treadmill of professional sport if it has left you feeling jaded or worse.

But when he left Manchester United at the end of the season, after the club pulled out of contract negotiations so they could sign Andre Onana from Inter Milan as his replacement, De Gea said it was “the right time to undertake a new challenge, to push myself again in new surroundings”. A season without playing football was not what he had in mind.

He was left with under two months to find a club before the summer transfer window closed, which was far from ideal for a goalkeeper accustomed to playing at elite level, but various options came and went without really capturing his imagination. As well as the inevitable interest from Saudi Arabia, there was a possibility of replacing Onana at Inter but, with De Gea no more than lukewarm about the prospect, the Italian club signed Yann Sommer from Bayern Munich instead.

More on this year’s January transfer window…

As a free agent, De Gea could still have signed for a new club after the summer transfer window had closed, but nothing grabbed him. There was talk of Newcastle United, as stand-in for the injured Nick Pope, but nothing materialised. Then, after the January transfer window opened, there were more serious discussions with Saudi Pro League club Al Shabab and, in the final week before the deadline, Nottingham Forest. Again, neither option progressed far.

The intriguing thing about the Forest approach is that intermediaries tried to convince De Gea of the benefits of the move, telling him a short-term deal with a Premier League club offered the perfect “shop window” in which to remind the football world of his talents and attract suitors for a more high-profile transfer in the summer.

But De Gea was not moved.

And so, while more options will arise, a second transfer window has closed without De Gea finding a new club — or a new challenge that persuades him it is time to return to action and “push” himself “in new surroundings”.

De Gea takes in Manchester United Women vs Paris Saint-Germain Feminines at Leigh Sports Village on October 10 (Matt McNulty/Getty Images)

He is entitled to feel there must be more attractive gigs than Forest, two points above the Premier League’s relegation zone and haunted by the threat of a points deduction, and Al Shabab, 11th in the Saudi Pro League. Both would feel like quite a comedown for a goalkeeper who spent 12 years as Manchester United’s No 1, winning the club’s player of the year award four times, voted in the Premier League’s team of the season by his fellow players five times, even winning the league’s Golden Glove for most clean sheets last term as his Old Trafford career drifted towards an unsatisfactory conclusion.

But the longer he stays away, the harder it is to see him returning to the type of role — as No 1 goalkeeper at a leading club, capable of challenging for big prizes — and salary he might expect.

It is a complicated situation. Increasingly, over the past decade, leading clubs have prioritised goalkeepers who are adept at playing out from the back. De Gea, an extraordinary shot-stopper during his best period in Manchester, came to be seen as a reactive goalkeeper rather than a proactive, progressive type in the mould of Alisson, Ederson or Manuel Neuer — or Onana for that matter.

When Arsenal and Chelsea wanted new goalkeepers last August, they went for David Raya and Robert Sanchez. When Thibaut Courtois suffered a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in August, Real Madrid moved to sign Kepa Arrizabalaga on loan from Chelsea. Including Manchester United, that is four of the 10 richest clubs in world football looking beyond the potential free-transfer signing of De Gea to sign a goalkeeper better suited to a possession game.

In some ways, it resembles the situation Cristiano Ronaldo faced once he decided in the summer of 2022 that he wanted to leave Manchester United. The pool of European clubs who could afford his wages — and whom he might deem a stage suitable for his talents — was extremely small. Within that pool of clubs, it was hard to imagine any of them might be able to accommodate an ageing Ronaldo from a stylistic point of view, hence his move to Saudi Arabia to join Al Nassr and become the biggest fish in a much, much smaller pool in terms of talent and status.

At some point, De Gea might have to find himself having to lower his sights. Perhaps not as low as Forest or Al Shabab — perhaps — but feasibly to some way beyond the clubs he might initially have had in mind. Or perhaps he will appeal to one of European football’s heavyweights as a No 2 goalkeeper and back himself, given the opportunity, to emerge as No 1.

But it was put to him over the past few weeks that, to put himself in the shop window, he would benefit from signing a short-term deal with Forest. That he felt otherwise suggests either that his self-confidence is as high as ever or that his desire to play football might not be what it was.

It can be a lonely, brutal, unforgiving business, particularly for a goalkeeper. De Gea rarely looked like someone who was enjoying his football during his final years in Manchester. Not many of his team-mates did either. Indeed it is hard not to look at the downward trajectory that has continued for some of them since leaving Old Trafford, most notably Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard, and to wonder just how corrosive the Manchester United experience of recent years might have been.

De Gea is entitled to take a break and to make the most of it. In almost any other industry, someone so financially secure would be urged to take as long as they need to rest, recharge their batteries and rediscover the energy and the drive for the next challenge, whatever it might be.

But sabbaticals are rare in professional sport and much, much rarer in the higher echelons of professional football, where careers are short. Landon Donovan took a career break at the age of 30, citing mental and physical exhaustion, but his five-month sabbatical coincided with Major League Soccer’s off-season. Jens Lehmann was tempted out of retirement to re-sign for Arsenal in 2011, but that was at the age of 40 and it amounted to just one competitive appearance.

De Gea’s career break has come out by accident, not design. It might prove, in time, to be just what he needed. But there is also the danger that, having stepped off the treadmill, it becomes hard to get back on at anything like the pace he is accustomed to.  “New year, new challenges”? The longer he stays out, the harder it might become to get back in at the level he expects.

(Top photo: Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images)

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