David de Gea's £375,000-a-week Manchester United contract expires at midnight on Friday. Only Cristiano Ronaldo has earned a greater salary at Old Trafford than the former Spain No. 1 since he signed his deal in 2019, and United's attempts to negotiate a vastly reduced pay packet in order to retain De Gea's services suggests they don't feel they've got value for money.
As the club appears to be enduring yet another summer of frustration in the transfer market -- July is about to start and United have only just agreed on one deal, to sign Mason Mount from Chelsea -- the De Gea situation (it has now become a saga, in typical United fashion) sums up why United find themselves in this predicament. It is a tale of excess, in terms of player wages, contract lengths and transfer fees, that has left manager Erik ten Hag needing to offload as many as six players in order to raise the funds required to add the three priority signings.
Sources have told ESPN that without a resolution to the ongoing takeover process at the club, it could take United three years to untangle the mess that Ten Hag and football director John Murtough inherited from the previous regime, headed by former executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward.
No player embodies United's misguided approach to recruitment and remuneration more than De Gea. When he signed his last contract in September 2019, his performances had already started to slide following a poor 2018 World Cup with Spain in Russia, but United made him the highest-paid player at the club regardless. There was no clamour from rival clubs to sign him, but De Gea was still given a huge salary by Woodward -- a decision backed by then-manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
During the same period, United made Harry Maguire the world's most expensive defender by paying £80 million for the Leicester centre-half, having opened the bidding at £45m. In 2021, Jadon Sancho made a £73m move from Borussia Dortmund on a five-year contract, with United paying the high fee for the player despite a lack of competition for his signature.
Sources have told ESPN that United will listen to offers for both players this summer, but interest is limited because of the financial cost of taking either Maguire or Sancho from Old Trafford. They are, like De Gea, playing so far below expectations that nobody is prepared to gamble on them unless United cut their losses simply to get them off the wage bill.
ESPN has been told of a Premier League club that enquired about a loan move for Scott McTominay last year, only to quickly look elsewhere when told they would have to cover the Scotland midfielder's six-figure weekly salary. Again, United's decision to pay such a high wage to a player of limited ability left them unable to move him on.
The clear-out process at United started 12 months ago with Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata, Edinson Cavani and Nemanja Matic all released at the end of their contracts. None of those who left Old Trafford last year subsequently performed to a level that suggested United made a mistake in letting them go, although the error may have been in keeping them for so long.
But all of the mistakes add up and Ten Hag is the one who is beginning to pay the price of them.
A source has told ESPN that, in an ideal scenario of funds being available and certainty of ownership, Ten Hag would sign three players this summer -- a new goalkeeper (Andre Onana), a midfielder (Mason Mount) and a centre-forward (ideally, Harry Kane). But the financial constraints that have left United needing to raise funds through player exits mean that Ten Hag only has a budget for two of those three key targets.
It is why United have attempted to thrash out a reduced salary with De Gea, because keeping him on a smaller wage is less expensive than signing a new goalkeeper and leaves more for Ten Hag to spend on a forward and midfielder.
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If De Gea leaves as a free agent, a move for Inter Milan's Onana is likely, but sources have said that even at £40m, a deal for the former Ajax keeper would drain resources without the departures of a number of high-earners.
Sources have said that Maguire (contract expires 2025), Sancho (2026), McTominay (2025), Donny van de Beek (2025), Anthony Martial (2024), Alex Telles (2024), Anthony Elanga (2026), Eric Bailly (2024) and Brandon Williams (2024) are all available for transfer this summer, but the mistakes of the past will take time to rectify.
It's why De Gea may yet remain at United next season, despite the stand-off over his contract. Had he not been given such a huge contract in 2019, he and United might already have moved on to better things. That same summer, Phil Jones was given a new four-year contract reportedly worth £110,000-a-week, and played just 21 games before being released at the end of June.
If Ten Hag was able to rely on the clarity and decisiveness that has seen rivals Manchester City, Liverpool and Arsenal all make significant additions to their squad since the end of last season, he would now be preparing for the start of preseason training in early July with his rebuilding programme already under way.
But this is Manchester United and Ten Hag is discovering, like his many predecessors, that the summer only brings problems and few solutions.