David de Gea is a Man Utd legend but it's time to say goodbye - the Sevilla debacle should be the final straw for Erik ten Hag
What do Manchester United do with a problem like David de Gea? The Spaniard is the club's most loyal player and their most consistent performer over the past decade. He has clawed the team out of numerous tricky situations and been named Player of the Year a joint-record four times.
He has made a remarkable transformation since arriving in Manchester aged 20 sporting a quiff and looking visibly frightened of Rory Delap's long throws and the rough treatment he would receive from crosses.
He bulked up and grew up into one of the team's leaders, a role model to younger players and a great ambassador for the club.
In a troubled decade since Sir Alex Ferguson's departure, De Gea's jaw-dropping saves with his feet and hands have been the one thing the club could always rely on. So often, the heavy metal fan from Madrid has been United's shelter from the storm.
But United cannot and should not ignore the elephant in the room.
- Nigeria Africa Cup of Nations squad: Super Eagles Power Ranking
- Show Inter some respect! Simone Inzaghi's mentality monsters fully deserve to be in the Champions League final
- World-class or overhyped: What makes Declan Rice a £100m+ player?
- Cristiano Ronaldo's interview, Ben Foster's penalty save and the 21 craziest moments of the season
A long-running issue that keeps rearing its head
For all his strengths and his ability to make logic-defying saves, De Gea has a real flaw in his game which is getting exposed ever more frequently.
His lack of ability in playing out from the back is becoming a real concern and the only solution is for him to depart the club this summer.
De Gea was never comfortable with the ball at his feet, but it has only become a truly pressing issue in the last year since Erik ten Hag took charge and tried to get United to play the ball out from the back.
Ferguson, David Moyes, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Jose Mourinho were happy for De Gea to kick long most of the time, but more often than not it ended up handing possession straight back to the opponent. And in today's game, possession is harder and harder to recover.
The way the game has developed in the last 10 years, ball-playing goalkeepers have become the norm rather than the exception.
Players like Ederson, Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Manuel Neuer no longer look like outliers, and instead it is goalkeepers who are uncomfortable on the ball that look increasingly isolated.
The Brentford horror-show
The fact that De Gea's limitations on the ball could become a problem for Ten Hag was discussed in pre-season, but it was not until the trip to Brentford in August that the size of the issue was laid bare.
De Gea's confidence was already low after spilling a shot from Josh Dasilva into the net, and only eight minutes later he played a soft pass to Christian Eriksen, one that Mathias Jensen pounced on in an instant to rob possession and calmly slot the second goal in the shock 4-0 thrashing.
United quickly abandoned their plans to play out from their goalkeeper and turned results around by reverting to a counter-attacking style.
- Getty Images
Betis set the alarm bells ringing again
De Gea's shortcomings with kicking had largely been forgotten about by March, even after the 7-0 thumping by Liverpool.
But the Europa League last-16 first leg against Real Betis was a stark reminder of the Spaniard's weakness on the ball, as a bad pass by the goalkeeper straight to Juanmi almost led to the visitors taking a 2-1 lead at Old Trafford.
United eventually won 4-1, but Ten Hag was asked about De Gea's performance and gave a surprisingly blunt and honest response. "I can't ignore it," said the Dutchman.
He did, in fairness, also defended his goalkeeper, insisting that De Gea had improved a lot on the ball this season, notwithstanding that shaky display.
Newcastle ruthlessly target him
Newcastle seemed to have done their homework on De Gea, and every time he got a goal kick during the game, Eddie Howe's side lined up three players directly across his box, blocking passing lanes.
The Spaniard really struggled under the pressure and, after a few near-misses, he reverted to punting the ball long, giving possession straight back to Newcastle.
His struggles were scrutinised by the BBC's Match of the Day 2 team. "Play out from the back like that your goalkeeper needs to be the extra man on the ball," said presenter Mark Chapman. "He's not comfortable," added Alan Shearer.
"There's no way that David de Gea is comfortable doing that, he doesn't want to do that and teams are quite happy to let him have the ball because they understand that's a problem for Manchester United."
- Getty Images
The nadir: a nightmare in Seville
This could well be the display that seals De Gea's fate.
Having thrown away a two-goal lead in the first leg of their Europa League quarter-final, Man Utd travelled to Seville with a job on their hands - although it was one they were expected to get done against opponents languishing in lower mid-table in La Liga.
However, De Gea and Harry Maguire combined calamitously to make the task far more difficult inside 10 minutes. The goalkeeper played an awkward pass to his centre-back, who was swiftly surrounded by three Sevilla players and gave the ball away, with Youssuf En-Nesyri pouncing to open the scoring and make the atmosphere even more hostile.
After the Andalusian side doubled their lead early in the second half, De Gea handed them the tie on a plate with ten minutes to go - rushing out of his goal and woefully mis-controlling a long ball, with En-Nesyri on hand to capitalise again as he curled the ball around the stranded keeper and into the open net.
Lagging behind their rivals
How many other teams will follow Newcastle's example and explicitly look to exploit De Gea's kicking?
Even if he manages to see out the season without making any more costly blunders, his kicking will always be a potential target for opponents in the future.
And even leaving aside any hypothetical mistakes, United are surely not maximising their overall attacking potential with a goalkeeper of De Gea's distribution abilities.
Manchester City 'keeper Ederson and Liverpool's Alisson are both renowned for their skill on the ball and their capacity to start attacking moves, while Aaron Ramsdale's kicking ability has helped fuel Arsenal's title charge.
Brentford's rise, meanwhile, has been helped by David Raya's aptitude on the ball.
While United continue to have a goalkeeper unable and unwilling to take risks with the ball, they risk lagging behind their rivals.
- Getty Images
Take inspiration from Ferguson and Guardiola
United have always valued loyal servants but lately the club has been slow to spot a player in decline and been too afraid to move them on.
Look how long the likes of Juan Mata, Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young and Marcos Rojo remained at the club despite being long past their best.
Keeping a squad refreshed and revitalised is vital to success, and Ferguson was the best exponent of that, often ruthlessly cutting ties with popular players as he could see they were beyond their peak. Take what he did with Roy Keane, Paul Ince, Andrei Kanchelskis, Jaap Stam and Ruud van Nistelrooy as examples.
And look at Pep Guardiola's treatment of Joe Hart, Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko.
Guardiola and Ferguson were able to cut influential players loose because they were always planning for the future, something United have been very bad at doing since Ferguson's departure.
And planning for the future means looking for a goalkeeper who can copes with the demands of the modern game. Unfortunately, that means parting ways with De Gea.
- Getty Images
End the new contract talks and say goodbye
The good news for United is that parting ways with De Gea could not be easier.
His contract, worth an astonishing £375,000 per week according to reports, runs out at the end of June, though the club are currently looking to negotiate a new deal with him on reduced wages.
At the age of 32 and given his widely-publicised shortcomings in such a crucial aspect of modern elite football, he is unlikely to have many suitors, so United hold the cards.
But the best solution for the club's long-term future is to thank De Gea for his 12 years of service, bid him farewell and recruit a top, young goalkeeper who can help take the team in the direction Ten Hag wants them to go.