MANCHESTER, England — As he walked off the pitch at the end of Manchester United’s 1-1 draw against Chelsea at Old Trafford, David De Gea threw his gloves into the crowd and headed up the players’ tunnel.
After making yet another costly mistake that led to his team conceding a goal — this one, scored by Marcos Alonso, is likely to have cost United a place in next season’s Champions League — and some might suggest that the goalkeeper will not need his gloves again this season.
Whether that proves to be case rests with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. United’s manager was asked on Friday if he was considering dropping De Gea for this game and gave an emphatic “no” in response to the question, but he will undoubtedly be asked if he has changed his mind ahead of the trip to Huddersfield next Sunday.
However, in light of this latest howler, there is a sense that dropping his No. 1 for the final two league games of the season will be too little, too late. By spilling Antonio Rudiger‘s 35-yard shot late in the first half, De Gea gave Alonso an unexpected chance to score from the rebound and the Chelsea defender netted a goal that altered the state of the race to finish in the Premier League’s top four.
United were leading at that point, thanks to Juan Mata‘s 11th-minute opener, and a win would have lifted them above Arsenal and level on points with Chelsea in the race for Champions League qualification. Instead, after a second half in which both sides cancelled each other out, Solskjaer’s men need to win their last two games and hope the sides above them implode.
De Gea has been a magnet for mistakes in recent weeks, since he misjudged a Granit Xhaka shot on March 10 during a 2-0 Premier League defeat at Arsenal, and this latest one followed error-strewn performances against Barcelona, Everton and Manchester City.
In Sergio Romero, United have a back-up experienced enough to have started a World Cup final for Argentina, but it is unlikely that he will get the call from Solskjaer, who is standing by his struggling first-choice, publicly at least.
“We are not in sixth position because of David De Gea,” Solskjaer said after Sunday’s game. “David has been unbelievable for this club and we do support each other. There is no chance anyone can blame him for losing points. He knows he could have had that shot but that is football.”
De Gea’s form slump has mirrored that of United, who have lost seven of 10 games since their unlikely Champions League win at Paris Saint-Germain, and the Chelsea gaffe was not even his worst when compared to the Lionel Messi shot he allowed to squirm through his grasp earlier this month.
But the 28-year-old has been at fault for nine goals in his last 11 appearances and there have been suggestions that his focus is being affected by speculation over his future; De Gea has refused to sign a new contract to replace his current deal, which expires at the end of next season.
It seems a fairly simplistic assessment — only he knows if he is losing sleep because his representatives are haggling over a rise from his £240,000-a-week deal to a new package that will pay him £400,000-a-week — but whatever the reason for his loss of form, which arguably began during last year’s World Cup with Spain, he is becoming a liability.
For so long, he was the only player whose place in the team was not under scrutiny. United might have been erratic and inconsistent for almost six years since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, but De Gea has been the one constant during that turbulent period; while many around him struggled, his displays meant he would walk into any other Premier League side.
He remains arguably the most naturally talented goalkeeper in the Premier League, maybe even the world, but De Gea has been eclipsed by the likes of Man City’s Ederson and Alisson Becker of Liverpool this season.
They also make key saves, but also command their penalty area, are decisive and bold when coming for crosses and think nothing of racing off their line to deal with through balls. De Gea, by contrast, is very much a six-yard box keeper and is beginning to look outdated as a result. Moreover, when his greatest asset — shot stopping — begins to fail him, he suddenly looks ordinary.
“Every single player has good and not so good moments,” Mata said after Sunday’s game. “He’s one of the best and obviously he’s disappointed with their goal, but he has been the best player for this club, he has my full support and the club’s full support and everyone who loves the club should give him their support. We must be with him; he has our full confidence.”
But the present version of De Gea is costing his club points that mean, most likely, they will not earn a place in the Champions League. At some point, United might begin to wonder whether it is worth breaking the bank to keep him.