Even while Real Madrid were focused on the historic achievement of collecting consecutive Champions League titles and three in four years, their efforts to sign David De Gea were ongoing.
Manchester United claim that their goalkeeper has shown no indication he wishes to leave Old Trafford but few would be surprised if he turns out for Madrid against the Old Trafford club when the UEFA Super Cup is played in Macedonia on Aug. 8.
De Gea was within a broken fax machine on transfer deadline day of joining Real in 2015, only to later sign a new United contract until 2019. Now, though, the Bernabeu club appears to be stepping up the strategies that, after a three-year courtship, won the signature of Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009 and there are echoes of that saga in the case of De Gea.
Planting the seeds for a move
Though some reports in Spain suggest that manager Zinedine Zidane and captain Sergio Ramos would prefer Keylor Navas to remain as goalkeeper, it will likely be the choice of club president Florentino Perez whether Real make a concerted effort for De Gea.
The Madrid press reported in late April that De Gea had asked to leave United and on May 31, officials at the Premier League club moved to deny reports from Spain and Sky TV that they had received a £60 million bid for the 26-year-old.
In Cardiff, as Real celebrated their European crown after beating Juventus, Perez left the issue open-ended: De Gea is a great goalkeeper who plays for United. I don’t know where he will play next season because I’m not a fortune teller.”
All of which provides a timely reminder to exercise caution when it comes to transfer speculation. For example, in April 2003 Perez responded to questions regarding whether Real would sign David Beckham from United: “Never… never… never. Nobody at Real Madrid has ever spoken about Beckham, and I do not want to say anything more about this matter myself.”
Beckham joined the Spanish club later that summer and so, six years later, did Ronaldo. That transfer came despite Sir Alex Ferguson having furiously ruled out any deal in December 2008, saying: “You don’t think we’d get into a contract with that mob, do you? Jesus Christ. I wouldn’t sell them a virus.” Perez returned as president in June 2009 and got the Ronaldo deal done the following month for a then-world record £80m.
Real’s irresistible pull
Beckham joined Real that summer of 2003 and that pathway would become common, with Ruud van Nistelrooy following in 2006 and Gabriel Heinze the year after. Both were players on whom Sir Alex Ferguson was happy to cash in but Ronaldo, in July 2009, was the most reluctant sale of the United manager’s career, if also his most lucrative.
Ronaldo moved after a lengthy courtship to, in his words, fulfil his “dream.” Real got their man, even if Ronaldo was actually joining what was an inferior team to that of Ferguson at the time. United, despite reaching the Champions League final of 2011, in which they lost 3-1 to a rampant Barcelona, were never quite the same without him.
Were De Gea to move this summer, he would be joining the best team in the world, leaving behind a club in transition and still in serious need of reshaping, despite winning the EFL Cup and Europa League this past season.
The De Gea-Mourinho dynamic
De Gea’s relationship with his current club boss is considered better than that which he had with Louis van Gaal — though it does not appear anything like the bond that Ferguson and Ronaldo still enjoy — but, despite goalkeeper and manager both having Jorge Mendes as their agent, the 26-year-old was not indispensable last season.
Mourinho persisted with Sergio Romero in the Europa League, even when the competition had become top priority for United, and was known to be unhappy with some of De Gea’s performances following March’s international break. Though not injured, De Gea also went unselected for United’s final two Premier League games against Southampton and Crystal Palace.
Is De Gea irreplaceable?
There was little question that Ferguson could ever find another Ronaldo and, indeed, he never really tried, instead making the move of restoring Wayne Rooney to a centre-forward role and buying Antonio Valencia from Wigan Athletic to provide a supply line of crosses from the right wing.
But, despite his praise for Romero, it seems likely that Mourinho will want a top-grade goalkeeper, should De Gea move on. That ought to be more achievable than finding Ronaldo’s like-for-like replacement and, with a reported value of £66m — almost double the £35m outlay Manchester City are set to pay Benfica for Ederson — United should be able to land a keeper of note and have change to spare.
Atletico Madrid’s Jan Oblak will be difficult to get, considering the Spanish club’s transfer ban has already blocked off a move for Antoine Griezmann, but Mourinho may fancy someone like Leicester’s Kasper Schmeichel, who has Premier League experience and is gettable for the right price. Joe Hart is another, whose name has been mentioned in the gossip columns.
What happens now?
If Perez gets his way on De Gea, then Real Madrid will keep to the formula that serves them so well in attracting top talent. Even Ferguson could not resist the whispering campaign and De Gea would be joining a club he was happy to sign for in 2015.
As the Ronaldo saga showed, Real are prepared to be patient, but will always remain persistent in the task of eventually landing their target.