Thanks to some sort of administrative SNAFU, the long-running David De Gea transfer ended in utter farce this week. In a rare (and let’s be honest) very funny outcome, everyone lost. De Gea didn’t get his dream move, Manchester United somehow couldn’t lose the staredown without looking even more inept, and Real Madrid finally paid the price for being insufferably arrogant. Given that they’re still in a working relationship purely by accident, what do Louis van Gaal and de Gea do now?
There’s an argument to be made that David de Gea should be forced to play out the rest of his contract in the reserves. Since he chose to let his contract run down in order to force a move to Real Madrid (weakening his current club’s negotiating power in the process), United should repay his disloyalty in kind and treat him as if he were as physically gone as he seems to be mentally. This, of course, is a monumentally stupid argument.
Here’s rule number one of being good at this sports management lark: play your best players. And de Gea is without question the best goalkeeper at United, no matter his questionable mental state. Victor Valdes is the closest to de Gea in quality, and who knows if his knees are any good, or what 18 months of next to no first-team football has done to his instincts. Sam Johnstone is just a baby, and the current first choice, Sergio Romero, is laughably, desperately, embarrassingly out of his depth.
On recent evidence (recent here meaning the length of Romero’s professional career), he found his true level at his last job as a reserve at Sampdoria. His hopeless over-promotion to tending the nets at Old Trafford was sort of weird half-measure by van Gaal. His signing only provided competition for de Gea in a nominal sense, as the two men are leagues apart in quality. A distracted and disappointed David de Gea is probably at worst the second best ‘keeper in the league. A motivated Sergio Romero in the form of his life is still rubbish.
Unless van Gaal decides to forgive Valdes for whatever sins left him without so much as a squad number, let alone an official club suit, de Gea is the only acceptable option in goal. It would be less painful for van Gaal to literally cut his nose off to spite his face than it would be for United fans to watch Romero kick another harmless back pass straight out of touch. With questions already being asked about van Gaal’s style of play (why is it so bloody awful?) and in-game management (why is he bringing on Antonio Valencia, ever?), the last thing he needs is another self-inflicted wound.
The weaknesses in United’s squad are glaring enough without having to add goalkeeper to the list. Upfront, Wayne Rooney is utterly and unquestionably washed up, and his only competition is a couple of green teenagers (Anthony Martial and James Wilson) and a swinging elbow specialist (Marouane Fellaini). Around Rooney, United’s attackers either have pace (Memphis Depay), creativity (Juan Mata), or neither (Ashley Young). Crucially, none have both. In defense, Daley Blind is as slow and weak as he is handsome – and he is quite handsome. Chris Smalling has been outstanding recently, but one injury or loss of form will mean that Phil Jones is back in contention.
As in any job, you don’t have to always be fond of everyone you work with, and sometimes you have to learn how to navigate awkwardness in the workplace. Awkwardness like “I know that you know that I really, really don’t want to be here right now,” and “sorry about publicly accusing you of refusing to fulfill the terms of your contract.” I don’t always like everyone that I work with, and I work alone at a home office. Van Gaal may be old and stubborn and prone to baffling decisions, but he’s not an idiot. Thawing relations with his best player is in everyone’s best interests, even if it only lasts one year.
For de Gea’s part, he has no choice but to knuckle down and try to win his place back in the team. Spain coach Vicente del Bosque has already said that de Gea will be unlikely to travel to Euro 2016 if he is not getting games at his club. Ordinarily, de Gea would have expected not only to be in the squad but to have finally cemented his place as the heir to Iker Casillas by next summer. There is nothing to be gained by spending the next year of his career as back-up to both Casillas and Romero; a has-been and a never-was, respectively. To avoid that unfortunate outcome, he needs to be starting for United.
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De Gea shouldn’t worry about the reaction from the Old Trafford crowd either. Even if the affection for him may have cooled, he will be welcomed back into the fold. He handled his (non-)exit with dignity, and the Reds are a forgiving bunch, especially if you’re exceptional at what you do. Just ask Cristiano Ronaldo. On top of that, he may well yet reconsider his desire to leave. The evidence so far points to Madrid being more culpable in the breakdown of the transfer. And he may be wondering why his future employers, who for months knew of his desire to join, waited until the last possible day to formally open negotiations. Suddenly, that fat new back-dated contract waiting for him in Manchester doesn’t look half bad.
So if van Gaal and De Gea have any sense about them, this season will end up being a marriage of convenience. Neither man got the outcome that he wanted from the sow ear’s of a transfer window, but they can still spin it into a silk purse of a season. As the saying goes: All’s well that ends well … in an extremely awkward but still salvageable situation.
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