The gossip columns have been linking Manchester United with some of the world’s finest attackers, but reports also suggest Jose Mourinho could have an equally important decision to make on who to sign as his next No.1.
There is no question that Real Madrid want to take David de Gea back to his hometown. Nobody disputes that.
We do not know, however, whether De Gea really has informed United of his desire to make the move, as the Spanish press have reported, or that the Red Devils have reluctantly accepted they will lose the Spaniard this summer, as whispers closer to home have suggested.
If the rumours are true, it would come as no surprise to any United fans.
Even during De Gea’s early struggles as a waif-like teenager in a United jersey that appeared at least one size too big, it always seemed likely that one of La Liga’s big two would come calling at some point.
De Gea nearly returned to Madrid in 2015, of course, but thanks to some bungled administration and a shonky fax machine, the Red Devils have had two ‘bonus’ years of his services.
During that time, De Gea has continued the form that made him so appealing to Real Madrid in the first place, adding another club Player of the Year award to the two he had already won.
When he does finally leave Old Trafford, no amount of PR spin can alter the fact that United will almost certainly be worse off in the absence of their No.1 for the last six seasons.
After a ropey start to life in the Premier League, De Gea has established himself as one of the world’s top three goalkeepers and arguably the finest all-round stopper of them all.
Manuel Neuer is widely hailed as the game’s best keeper and a pioneer. But the German’s style is tailor-made for Bayern Munich and their philosophy.
As a goalkeeping libero, and a first line of attack, there are none better, but would Neuer drop seamlessly into Manchester United’s team – or any other for that matter? Probably not. Not every coach wishes to play the same game as Bayern, primarily, of course, because few are able to.
There likely isn’t a manager on the planet, though, that wouldn’t take De Gea if given the opportunity.
As well as an ice-cool temperament and flawless decision-making skills, he combines all the technical and physical attributes of the old school with the vision and range expected of the modern, proactive goalkeeper.
He brings a calmness and reliability to United’s defence that Mourinho may find impossible to immediately replace.
The closest candidate to a sure-thing would be Hugo Lloris. The Tottenham and France captain sits with De Gea and Neuer at goalkeeping’s top table, and having played in England for five years, there are no doubts about Lloris’s suitability for the Premier League or his capability to cope with the spotlight at Old Trafford.
But the 30-year-old is almost certainly unattainable. It would take a catastrophic turn of events at White Hart Lane to make him a realistic option.
Unfortunately for United and Mourinho then, they are likely to be trading down, in the short-term at least, if they are forced to replace De Gea this summer.
And if Mourinho wants Premier League experience, the talent pool is more of a puddle.
Kasper Schmeichel has been one of the few Leicester City players to maintain his standards this season following their title-winning heroics.
As well as a Premier League medal and Champions League experience, the 30-year-old has an impressive body of work from three seasons in the top flight – and could potentially be available for the right price.
There is little else for Schmeichel to achieve at Leicester, and the ambitious streak in him would surely make the opportunity to follow in his father’s footsteps at Old Trafford too great to resist.
Schmeichels Senior and Junior were in attendance when United eventually overcame Anderlecht to reach the Europa League semi-finals.
Joe Hart is certainly available, though how available City would make him to United is unclear.
Following reports in Marca on Friday that Mourinho had identified Hart as De Gea’s replacement, it seems the England No.1’s camp were briefing to stress he would indeed be interested in crossing Manchester’s derby divide if the opportunity presented itself.
Axed by Pep Guardiola to make way for Claudio Bravo, Hart is keen to prove the City manager wrong – and there would be no better place to do that.
Many United fans, though, are rather less enthused at the prospect of Hart keeping their goal. Aside from his decade-long association with their derby rivals, inconsistent form and some high-profile mistakes, most notably for England at Euro 2016 have seen many take a dim view of the 30-year-old.
While he has been in Italy, Hart has had the opportunity to get a close up look at goalkeeping’s next big thing – Gianluigi Donnarumma.
The 18-year-old shares a christian name with the great Gianluigi Buffon, and he appears to be destined for similar greatness. He has made 64 consecutive Serie A appearances since being handed his debut as a 16-year-old, and won his first Italy cap 177 days short of his 18th birthday in February.
Everything about Donnarumma, from his physique to his temperament, suggests there must have been a clerical error on his birth certificate.
Comparisons with Buffon are as inevitable as they are perhaps unhelpful, but it is difficult to avoid being taken in by the hype around the boy who will be king of Italy’s penalty box as soon as Buffon abdicates.
Donnarumma employs Mino Raiola, the ‘super agent’ who took Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan to Old Trafford last summer, and Raiola has already laid down the gauntlet to Milan over what he expects the young goalkeeper to be paid.
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A pay packet of £165,000 a week would be no problem for United, but despite his incredible performances in Serie A, where he has taken more crosses than any other keeper, Mourinho may be reluctant to throw the teenager into the rough and tumble of the Premier League.
It is a unforgiving environment for a young foreign stopper, as De Gea discovered when he arrived in Manchester aged 21.
His first season was nightmare, with Edwin van der Sar’s replacement directly responsible for six goals and perhaps culpable for a few more. United lost the title that season to City on goal difference.
If Donnarumma needs even half the time to settle that De Gea took, perhaps he isn’t the boy for Mourinho just yet.
Jordan Pickford, meanwhile, is five years Donnarumma’s senior, but the step from Sunderland’s goalmouth to Manchester United is perhaps one too great for a fantastic prospect at the end of his first full season in the Premier League.
Furthermore, given the kind of money United supposedly have to spend this summer – with ‘reports’ guessing at anything from £200-400million – Mourinho is clearly targeting the title next term. He needs a goalkeeper worthy of a Championship-winning team, not a project.
United are sure to have an interest in Atletico Madrid stopper Jan Oblak too, with one report claiming the Slovenia stopper’s agent had been in Manchester for talks with the Red Devils.
Oblak has kept 66 clean sheets in 113 appearances for Atletico, though that has as much to do with Simeone’s supremely-drilled defence as anything the keeper may be doing.
But when Atletico need him, the 24-year-old has been as reliable as they come for the past two seasons.
Oblak, however, would be the most expensive of Mourinho’s more viable targets, with his release clause currently a cool €100million, the same as Antoine Griezmann. United would surely look to negotiate on that starting figure.
Following in De Gea and Thibaut Courtois’ footsteps at Atletico, Oblak is a goalkeeper with similar technical and psychological traits.
He wouldn’t come cheap, but United know from experience how crucial a top-class goalkeeper is to trophy-hunting sides.
The days of top keepers being considerably cheaper than their outfield peers appear to have passed, and a large chunk, if not all, of what they receive for De Gea will have to be re-invested in his replacement if Mourinho’s back line is not to suffer too greatly from the Spaniard’s absence.
By Ian Watson
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