Ten months ago things were rosy at Old Trafford. Arguably the best goalkeeper in world football had strolled out of one of the plush boardrooms with fresh ink drying on a long-term contract.
United had fended off the advances of some of Europe’s finest football clubs who wanted to lure David de Gea away from the Premier League, and instead had him committed to the cause for the next four years.
Making De Gea one of the highest-paid players in English football history was seen as a minor detail as United locked down the man who had on many occasions, literally, won matches with his hands.
An astonishing £375,000-per-week bumper deal was agreed, with United breathing a huge sigh of relief despite the battering their bank balance had just taken.
It wasn’t even questioned whether such a deal was worth it, but accepted as a necessity.
Yet now, at the end of the prolonged 2019-20 campaign, De Gea finds his future shrouded in uncertainty.
It wasn’t supposed to go this way. The Spaniard was to be the granite foundation on which the new-look United defence was built, following the world-record arrival of Harry Maguire.
Yet it has been a season of ups and downs for the Red Devils and, following his capitulation against Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-final and other mistakes in the final few weeks of the season, De Gea faces the very real possibility of losing his place altogether.
After letting the ball tamely slide beneath him for Olivier Giroud’s opener at Wembley, De Gea returned for the second half like a man stricken with worry, only to let Mason Mount’s long-range effort squirm into the bottom corner and all but kill off the tie and deny his side a cup final appearance.
He also let Steven Bergwijn’s effort go through him at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in United’s first match of Project Restart.
Whether or not De Gea does retain his position for the start of the next season, a wide debate will be opened up during the summer regarding the No 1 spot moving forward.
Sergio Romero has proven himself to be an accomplished deputy on numerous occasions, while Dean Henderson has been one of the division’s stand-out performers on loan with Sheffield United this season.
Henderson finished the Premier League season with the same clean sheet tally as De Gea, while playing in a considerably lesser star-studded side punching far above their weight.
Henderson has made no secret of his desire to return to Old Trafford and make a push to become the first-team regular, even if it meant somehow dislodging the imposing De Gea.
Yet the Spaniard seems to be doing the job for the youngster.
Statistics shows that De Gea made three errors leading directly to goals in the Premier League this season.
While this is currently down from last year (five), the 29-year-old is actually producing fewer saves.
This of course is largely due to United’s upturn in form since January, however Solskjaer’s side have been credited largely for their creativity and attacking impetus and new-found ability to score goals, as opposed to a watertight defence.
De Gea, and United therefore, find themselves in a sticky situation.
While most supporters will simply be hoping he returns to his imperious best, this is realistically the only thing United can pray for.
Other options, such as sparking a bidding war for his services, no longer remain a viable option.
The new contract means clubs would have to pay a premium for the stopper, while hardly any of Europe’s top sides would currently be willing to match weekly wages of almost £400,000 for a player so awkwardly out of form. The gamble is huge.
The market itself has also changed, quite rapidly. Whereas previously the likes of Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus and Real Madrid were hastily queuing up for slight chance of courting De Gea’s attention, all three now have concrete options in goal.
Thibaut Courtois, who was seen to have pipped De Gea to a move to the Bernabeu, was named LaLiga Player of the Month for January and has been sensational on their way to the title this season.
Perhaps Jose Mourinho called it when he questioned United’s willingness to hand De Gea the big figures. The former Old Trafford boss said De Gea was ‘lucky’ to get his lavish September deal, particularly given the doors which were closing across Europe.
‘De Gea? I think the moment when he signed his huge contract, is the moment I don’t think United needs to pay as much as that to have him,’ Mourinho told Sky Sports at the time.
‘One or two years ago he had the world after him, in this moment, the majority of the big doors were closed.
‘The Real Madrid door is closed, they don’t need a goalkeeper after [Thibaut] Courtois. Barcelona is closed with young and fantastic [Marc-Andre] ter Stegen and Paris Saint-Germain is closed too as they signed Keylor Navas who is a very good goalkeeper,’ he added.
De Gea then, it appears, must ride out the wave of bad form, impress in pre-season and retain his place. He has the added boost of knowing United cannot afford to have their joint top earner wallowing on the bench each week collecting rust, and will be mindful of avoiding a similar situation Arsenal currently find themselves in with Mesut Ozil.
Once the world’s top goalkeeper, he needs to ask some serious questions of himself in the coming months. Solskjaer, above all others, will be hoping he can provide the big answers.