Jhe key to the challenge of the buy-sell transfer market facing Erik ten Hag lies in the Manchester United manager’s loss of confidence in David de Gea. Illustrated, the riddle would portray the Dutchman as a juggler keeping his ability to sign Andre Onana (or another goalkeeper) in the air and a centre-forward only by offloading Harry Maguire, Fred, Anthony Elanga and, possibly , even more peripheral team members.
For what? Because Ten Hag’s budget is around £120m, of which £55m was spent on Mason Mount, meaning Maguire, Elanga and Fred are prime candidates to sell to raise the necessary funds .
De Gea’s fall in status triggered this and a clue came when the club triggered the one-year contract extensions of Luke Shaw, Fred, Diogo Dalot and Marcus Rashford in December, but not the Spaniard’s.
Onana is Ten Hag’s choice as the new No.1 and an improved offer of £43m has been lodged with Internazionale, but the Italian club’s valuation is closer to £51m, so a compromised at around £47m would leave less than £20m in the original prize pool: enough to buy just a leg or two of Atalanta’s Rasmus Højlund or any other targeted No.9.
Ten Hag made the right call for De Gea but the keeper’s free agent status baffles fans as to how a 12-year relationship with United reached this stage. De Gea is the last survivor of the latest title triumph who could possibly step into the shirt next season. At the moment he is the same as Phil Jones: a former United footballer whose release removes the last surviving members of Sir Alex Ferguson’s 2012-13 champion squad.
But will it turn out that way? Apparently, neither De Gea nor United know for sure. The plan is to resume face-to-face talks and if De Gea pushes to join he will be offered less money – and Ten Hag is ready to keep it. Alternatively, there will be a permanent parting and after 545 appearances and 190 clean sheets a farewell worthy of his ‘legend’ status.
The smart money is surely on his way out, but that would mean United would miss out on a potential future fee of £30-40million for De Gea, who, at 32, is in his peak years. This is a significant part of Onana’s price and would help Ten Hag grow stronger. How this happened is puzzling after United decided not to trigger De Gea’s extension to avoid paying their highest-earning footballer another year on his bumper salary.
A catalog of screamers, including in April’s 3-0 Europa League loss to Sevilla and last month’s 2-1 FA Cup final loss to Manchester City, surely influenced Ten Hag’s assessment . And, with the situation described as “fluid”, the manager deemed an upgrade was needed while the club worked on a new deal offering De Gea a pay cut. It is understood that the framework for this existed but no contract was drawn up and offered.
With the talks unsuccessful, De Gea’s terms ended along with any hopes of selling him. Discussions had been ongoing since the spring and it was admitted by CEO Richard Arnold that this invoked the ‘risk’ of losing De Gea for nothing.
At De Gea, United have a long-served A-lister whose messy start follows a line that includes Roy Keane (in 2005) and Ruud van Nistelrooy (the following year): all have stellar careers at United but all parts – including the club – would like a more dignified exit.
While the keeper may still have a second act, another player who can hope for a second phase at United is Mason Greenwood. If that were to happen, it would end Ten Hag’s quest for a centre-forward, although Greenwood’s situation is far more complex than De Gea’s.
Greenwood was arrested in January 2022 and charged the following October with attempted rape, controlling and coercive behavior and assault causing actual bodily harm. He denied the charges and these were dropped in February when the club launched an investigation into Greenwood’s conduct.
Any decision will not be influenced by Greenwood’s footballing ability, United stress, and if he is deemed capable of donning a club shirt again, the tricky summer of Ten Hag’s trade will be eased. Still, with United’s pre-season fixtures starting against Leeds in Oslo on Wednesday and the team flying to the United States on July 19 for the summer tour, there remains a lack of clarity regarding Greenwood.
Arnold is leading the club’s investigation to determine the next steps and given that the process has been going on for six months, his manager is surely hoping it will be resolved soon.
As with the possible sale of United which has dragged on into an eighth month, Ten Hag has little agency on what may happen, and that is one more factor in the task facing the manager this end of the season – another being how the salaries of Maguire and others in any fire sale have increased due to Champions League qualification, which may prevent them from agreeing to leave.
Ten Hag, however, intends his juggling act will not fail or United’s season could be affected.