De Gea, who left United as a free agent in July, is minded to prolong his career only for a side that can compete for top honours. Yet when his predecessor, Edwin van der Sar, arrived at Old Trafford in 2005 he was two years older than De Gea is now and signed from a team whose closest dalliance with a trophy was losing the 1975 FA Cup final: Fulham, who Van der Sar moved to from Italy’s most storied club, Juventus, in 2001.
Van der Sar was 30 then. Going from La Vecchia Signora to the modest Cottagers suggested a career on the downturn, which he may have believed too. Except: four impressive seasons in west London attracted Sir Alex Ferguson, who took him to United, and in six years before hanging up his gloves Van der Sar collected a second Champions League winner’s medal (his save from Chelsea’s Nicolas Anelka in the penalty shootout of the 2008 final decisive), four Premier Leagues, two League Cups, and the Fifa World Club Cup.
Van der Sar’s mid-to-late-career curve shows how De Gea could fulfil his ambition to perform again for an elite side by first taking a step down. His deliberating over whether to call time raises eyebrows because to ponder walking away in a keeper’s prime years and forgo half a decade or more between the posts (Van der Sar was 40 on retirement) is a jolt, unless there are other, unknown factors at play.
As Frans Hoek, De Gea’s goalkeeping coach from 2014-16 when Louis van Gaal managed United, says: “It’s a loss for football in general and specifically goalkeeping if David would say: ‘Hey, I quit.’ But on the other side, we cannot look into his head. We cannot look into the way he feels, thinks.
“David was always very fit. His body weight was fantastic. The attitude in practice, I cannot complain at all; he was always there and never complained. He always did what he had to do and did it to a high level.
“Twelve years at United is playing at the absolute top. We know the pressure at a club like United – it’s fair to say that 12 years at United is maybe 16 or 18 years for any other club.”
De Gea departed United having claimed the Premier League, FA Cup, two League Cups and Europa League. He was twice a Premier League Golden Glove winner, including last season, was selected for the PFA team of the year five times, and won United’s Sir Matt Busby player of the year award (voted for by fans) in a record three consecutive seasons, and four times in total. At his first club, Atlético Madrid, there were triumphs in the 2009-10 Europa League and the subsequent Uefa Super Cup, and since his international debut of 2014, 45 caps have been accrued.
A rich man whose £375,000-a-week salary made him United’s highest earner, De Gea has rejected lucrative offers from Saudi Arabia to try to attract the big-name European club piloted by a coach who will put the proverbial arm around the shoulder and promise him he is the No 1.
In this wish to be valued De Gea is no different from any other employee. And the view there is unfinished business at elite level is also understandable: as United’s No 1 in the decade after Ferguson walked away De Gea faced constant bombardment so to be the fans’ player of the year four times shows his fierce determination to perform.
Hoek says: “He was very important for the team in winning a lot of points. I’ve never seen a goalkeeper at that level, every game.”
Van der Sar’s decision to join Fulham was counterintuitive because he arrived as the Netherlands’ first choice and one of Europe’s finest who, at Ajax, secured his first Champions League triumph (1995) and four Eredivisie titles. But doing so cleared the path to the bright lights of United and answered, too, any questions that might have nagged at him later in life regarding whether his ability had been maximised.
De Ge may be able do the same – if desired. Hoek identifies a man who is clear-minded when required, pointing to how De Gea shook off the disappointment of a move to Real Madrid collapsing in August 2015 because paperwork had not been filed in time.
“To return to your home town and it not happen – that was a very big disappointment for him,” Hoek says. But the goalkeeping coach was convinced a week later, watching Spain against North Macedonia, that De Gea was ready again. “He didn’t get a lot of work, but everything he did, and especially his decision-making, was excellent. That was the moment that I said to Louis: ‘David is back. He’s completely back. Decision-making was excellent. If you need him, he’s there.’ Louis decided to play him in the next game at Liverpool, and we won.”
What of the main charge against De Gea: that he is suspect playing out from the back? That is what convinced Erik ten Hag, United’s manager, to replace him.
Hoek says: “I never saw that he was weak or that he made a lot of mistakes. With us, he always needed to make the final decision himself. We did want to work and build up from the back, but if that was not possible because of the pressure of the opponent or because the defenders didn’t have enough space, he could always play long.”
Now, De Gea ruminates on whether to lengthen his stellar career. “It’s always very difficult – when to end,” Hoek says. “What is the right moment to do it? When should it be yes or no?”