What happened to David de Gea? The Golden Glove winner who cannot find a team

David De Gea of Manchester United celebrates their side's second goal scored by Alejandro Garnacho (not pictured) during the Emirates FA Cup Fifth Round match between Manchester United and West Ham United at Old Trafford on March 01, 2023 in Manchester, England
David de Gea's next landing spot remains unclear - Getty Images/Marc Atkins

In the 10 months since David de Gea left Manchester United, the most high-profile free agent on the market has actually worn kit for a different club. The red shirt, however, was that of his esports team Rebels, rather than pulling on a No 1 jersey in the Premier League.

The Spaniard, 33, has been active in running his gaming team, who are “united by our rebellious and non-conformist spirit” according to their mission statement. De Gea has rebelled against the notion that players without a contract should jump on the first opportunity. He is set to sit out an entire season and where he next ends up is looking increasingly complex.

He spent Easter in Barbados with his pop star wife Edurne, to whom he married last summer after leaving United. De Gea played tennis and he spent time on the beaches of the Caribbean island, which was about as far removed as possible from the usual matches ahead of the business end of the football season.

De Gea’s gap-year is a modern football parable of a player who went from being the highest paid goalkeeper in the world to training on his own with a personal coach, cones and mini-hurdles for his solo drills.

Since playing in the FA Cup final last June, there appeared to be opportunities for clubs to explore landing an excellent Bosman free transfer. De Gea is the current holder of the Golden Glove award in the Premier League and will hold that title for another five weeks.

Even on the eve of the January transfer window closing, there was a chance of signing for Nottingham Forest. It looked like the perfect storm. Forest wanted a goalkeeper for the second half of the season and De Gea’s situation meant they would not have to pay a transfer fee, which would be healthy on the balance sheet. De Gea would get the platform to put himself in full view of potential clubs for next season.

But according to Forest sources, it never got close to getting done. Their search for a keeper went to deadline day and they moved for Matz Sels from Strasbourg, which cost them a £5 million.

Earlier in the campaign, De Gea was discussed at Newcastle when Nick Pope suffered an injury that would rule him out for most of the season. Eddie Howe ended up sticking with Martin Dubravka as cover. De Gea was earning around £375,000 a week at United when they were in the Champions League, while Newcastle’s spending plans were later revealed in the January window. They did not sign a first-team player.

Away from the Premier League, Real Madrid looked like the first obvious route back for De Gea when Thibaut Courtois ruptured an anterior cruciate ligament. De Gea used to play for rivals Atlético Madrid but this would have been no Sol Campbell situation. They were almost expected to make an approach, albeit a smoother one than 2015 when a faulty fax machine prevented paperwork going through on a deal.

The call from Real never came. They went for the loan of Kepa Arrizabalaga, who has since lost his place to Andriy Lunin. Real will be in the market for another goalkeeper again this summer when Kepa returns to Chelsea but, as De Gea has found, this is a crowded market where there are not enough No 1 slots for the international goalkeepers available.

While De Gea is a free transfer, he would still cost a significant amount in wages to even pick up half of the salary he commanded at United. Money has not been an issue for the Saudi Pro League, although their priority has been on attacking players to get eyes on their competition. They bid for Mohamed Salah last summer after landing Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar and Karim Benzema.

Edouard Mendy and Bono have moved to Saudi Pro League for relatively modest fees compared to outfield players, then during the January window there was barely any spending at all in any position, let alone goalkeeper. They are ready to spend big in the summer again and budgets are being drawn up, although it remains to be seen if goalkeeper is an area of importance.

MLS has been seen as a viable option for players leaving the Premier League, with the lifestyle of America appealing. Inter Miami, owned by David Beckham and with Lionel Messi driving subscriptions to Apple TV coverage, were linked with De Gea but it has been another move that has not materialised.

They have started the MLS season with Drake Callender, whose annual pay packet of $355,917 was less than De Gea’s weekly wage while at United. World Cup-winning captain Hugo Lloris made the move across the Atlantic, where his annual salary at Los Angeles FC is £277,000.

With the summer window approaching, De Gea will need the following: a team requiring a goalkeeper, who have a decent budget for wages and also match his own ambition. It is a checklist that is complicated by other goalkeepers on the market. Australia international Mat Ryan will be in it, along with Belgium international Koen Casteels when his contract runs out at Wolfsburg. Both of those would be cheaper free transfers than De Gea.

David de Gea of Manchester United reacts after losing the Emirates FA Cup Final between Manchester City and Manchester United at Wembley Stadium on June 03, 2023 in London, England
De Gea has not played since last season's FA Cup final - Visionhaus/Getty Images

There are others who could be looking for regular first-team games, such as Aaron Ramsdale at Arsenal. And others are threatened by relegation. Of those in the last England squad, Jordan Pickford and James Trafford could end up relegated.

It is rare for a player to have a sabbatical and return to the highest level. Not unheard of, but rare. De Gea will be competing against keepers who have been training in squads for the last year, with many playing regularly too. De Gea has had a year out. He has got married, played plenty of padel and tennis and took in a United Women’s game when they played Paris St-Germain Feminines back in October.

In years to come it will be a pub quiz question: name the goalkeeper who won the Golden Glove only to spend the next year as a free agent. The answer is David de Gea. The answer to where he will play next is yet to be decided.