Reports in the Spanish media in recent weeks have suggested that a summer move to Real Madrid for David de Gea is now an inevitability, which, as the club’s player of the year for the last three seasons, has understandably worried many Manchester United fans.
The 26-year-old goalkeeper came within a whisker of joining Los Blancos two years ago, only for the deal, which would have seen Keylor Navas move in the opposite direction, to break down due to a failure to submit the relevant paperwork before the transfer deadline passed.
But, born in Madrid and still with many ties to the city, the feeling that de Gea would eventually return to the Spanish capital never really went away.
What should be more worrying to United fans than the former Atlético Madrid keeper’s potential exit, however, are the widely reported rumours of who manager José Mourinho is lining up to replace the Spaniard.
Italian outlet Tuttosport reported last week that United are “desperate” to replace de Gea with Manchester City’s loaned-out England international Joe Hart — a story that has since been picked up by the English press – while Sky Sports claim that the Red Devils are leading the chase to sign Kasper Schmeichel from Leicester City.
Hart of the problem
Hart, an England regular since 2010, was deemed surplus to requirements at the Etihad last summer when new manager Pep Guardiola arrived. The Catalan tactician evaluated the Three Lions No.1’s skill set and noted that his inability to act as a sweeper-keeper, to anticipate the progression of opposition attacks and rush from goal to clear up behind a high defensive line, made him an ill fit for the system the former Barcelona coach was looking to implement.
Furthermore, Hart’s sub-standard passing technique would have seen him struggle in a Guardiola team, where the goalkeeper is asked to contribute to play by making himself available as a passing option.
This is not to say that Hart is a terrible keeper, he certainly has his virtues. For the most part, he is sound shot-stopper — aside from a weakness when it comes to shots low to his left — and is capable of truly spectacular reaction saves. However, putting the stylistic issues that saw him jettisoned from City to one side, he is too error-prone to be considered an elite-level custodian.
Loaned to Serie A side Torino for the season, Hart was rightly commended for broadening his horizons in a foreign league when most English players prefer to sit in their Premier League comfort zone. But his form with Il Toro this term has highlighted the Jekyll & Hyde nature of his game.
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There have been instances of some truly jaw-dropping saves from Hart in Serie A, but there have also been far too many gaffes, whether it’s spilling crosses, fumbling routine catches or conceding goals that he should easily have prevented.
Inter Milan’s visit to the Stadio Olimpico Grande Torino in March perfectly encapsulated Hart’s season as a whole. The 30-year-old juxtaposed stunning saves to deny Mauro Icardi and Éder with the inexplicable concession of a soft Geoffrey Kondogbia shot, before completely misjudging the flight of a cross, allowing Antonio Candreva to score. The game finished 2-2 and the goalkeeper played a part in both keeping Torino in the tie and turning a victory into a draw.
Torino have shipped more goals than all but four Serie A teams (54) in 2016/17, but Hart cannot be held solely accountable for this as the ninth-placed club sold three of their first-choice back four in the summer, causing a chronic defensive fragility that the on-loan goalkeeper is unfortunate to be behind.
However, Hart’s personal stats do not make for encouraging reading for United fans. The City man pales in comparison to de Gea when it comes to saves per goal (1.6 to 2.21), and how often he elects to punch the ball clear rather than catch it (38 per cent to nine per cent).
Hart, who is also believed to be a Liverpool transfer target, does make more saves per game than de Gea (2.5 to 1.61), but this is by virtue of the fact he faces far more shots at Torino than the Spaniard does with United.
Following in father’s footsteps?
Schmeichel, too, would be a massive qualitative downgrade should the Red Devils pursue him to fill de Gea’s gloves. Of course his father, Peter, was an outstanding keeper for United during the 1990s, and there is a degree of romance to the idea that Leicester City man could follow in the Great Dane’s footsteps. But the former Manchester City youngster cannot be considered to be of a comparable calibre to the current Old Trafford No.1.
Granted, Schmeichel was excellent in Leicester’s miraculous title run last term, and has been one of few bright sparks at the club this season too. And he even marginally tops de Gea statistically when it comes to saves per goal (2.37) and claim success (97 per cent to 96 oer cent). But he does not share the Spaniard’s outstanding reflexes, something that is hard to quantify, nor is his kicking up to standard, with a 42 per cent distribution success rate to the Spain international’s 64 per cent.
At 30 years old, both Hart and Schmeichel are four years de Gea’s senior, so not only will United be suffering a drop-off in the general quality of their goalkeeper should they sign either man, the pair also have a shorter shelf life.
United should spare no expense on de Gea replacement
If United lose their three-time player of the year this summer – something which is not yet a certainty – Mourinho must look to the likes of Atlético Madrid’s Jan Oblak or AC Milan’s teenage sensation Gianluigi Donnarumma.
These would of course be more difficult acquisitions to pull off as one is playing for a side regularly competing in the latter stages of the Champions Legue, and the other represents one of the game’s most prestigious clubs, and indeed the team he has supported all of his life.
Both Milan and Atléti are determined to hold onto their outstanding young goalkeepers, but neither deal would be impossible to execute. Oblak has a release clause in his contract – albeit a lofty £84million one – which, if triggered, would mean only the player would need convincing of the move; Donnarumma only has one year left of his current deal and his agent, Mino Raiola, has a strong working relationship with United after taking Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimović and Henrikh Mkhitaryan to Old Trafford last summer.
De Gea’s mooted departure would be a monumental blow for United. But, if he does go, they must aspire to replace him with a goalkeeper of equal or, arguably in Oblak’s case, better quality. Signing Hart or Schmeichel would be a compromise the world’s richest club does not need to make.