When David de Gea sat and watched Sergio Romero keep a clean sheet in the 1-0 win against Celta Vigo on Thursday it was the 15th time this season the Spaniard had been left looking on from the bench, the stand or the sofa. Not since his difficult first season in England has he missed that many games.
De Gea’s position as Manchester United’s undisputed first-choice goalkeeper has never been in any doubt, but his status as the club’s untouchable number one has certainly lost some of its veneer under Jose Mourinho. They have missed him a lot less than people thought they would.
The idea of goalkeepers needing regular rest would have some former professionals laughing aloud, but in a modern game which is conscious of the mental fatigue involved in keeping goal every three days De Gea is the latest shot-stopper to find himself regularly overlooked despite remaining the go-to guy between the sticks.
It is noticeable that De Gea has been judged as needing a mental break more often than in other seasons at a time when the prospect of him once again being lured towards Real Madrid grows by the day. The rumours have provided extensive background noise behind any conversation regarding the Old Trafford goalkeeping situation.
Perhaps it is to Romero’s credit that there has not been quite the level of panic regarding De Gea potentially leaving that there might otherwise have been. The Argentine has kept 16 clean sheets in his 25 United games since joining the club in the summer of 2015 to replace the estranged Victor Valdes as De Gea’s back-up, and while there have been moments of panic, he has largely provided competent cover.
The run to the final four of the Europa League has allowed Mourinho to use Romero more often and the former Sampdoria and Monaco man has responded well. All of a sudden it is he who is lining up with the first-choice starting XI on Thursday nights and De Gea who will be sent out with the back-ups for Sunday’s clash with Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium.
De Gea remains the man likely to line up in goal for the Europa League final if United finish the job against Celta, but Mourinho told Goal in his press conference ahead of the trip to Arsenal that there is no set formula behind who plays when.
“I don’t like to say this competition is for one goalkeeper, that competition is for another one. Sergio played one match in the Premier League, David played two matches in the Europa League against Fenerbahce and against Feyenoord. Sergio played also one match in the League Cup, David played the other matches and played the final. I don’t like that complete separation,” he said.
“But on Sunday, David plays. We have two fantastic goalkeepers, we have a third goalkeeper [Joel Pereira] that I think will be the best Portuguese goalkeeper of the next generation. We have great goalkeepers, and anyone in goal I trust completely.”
Yet while he answered that particular question, there was a rebuttal at the very idea of addressing a potential switch to Madrid for De Gea. Where other clubs and managers might enjoy the possibility to put an end to speculation, United have not wanted to go near the subject of the 26-year-old’s future.
With two years left on the deal he famously signed shortly after a dodgy fax machine halted his previous near-move to the Bernabeu, this summer is almost certainly decision time, and United have yet to come out and really nail De Gea’s colours to the club mast. There is normally a good reason for such apprehension.
The list of potential replacements is extensive, and there is an air of resignation around Manchester when it comes to the De Gea-Madrid talk currently filling the airwaves. Judging by the present vibe the only way the Europa League final won’t be De Gea’s last game for Manchester United is if Romero is picked instead of him.