Roy Keane’s claim that he would have taken his fists to David De Gea this season were he still a part of the Old Trafford dressing room, were pretty much par for the course, but when a pundit as unquotable as Alan Shearer starts demanding change, then Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Manchester United have a serious problem.
Arguably, it is one that will define the Norwegian’s time in charge of the club and determine whether the 19-game unbeaten streak that came to an unceremonious end in Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final defeat to Chelsea was the end of a false dawn or a minor hiccup on United’s return to the top.
Now, say Shearer and most other pundits, is the time for Solskjaer to put loyalty to one side and replace the Spanish international goalkeeper whose form has clearly shown signs of deterioration over the past 18 months.
But here is the crux of Solskjaer’s problem. Having steadfastly defended the 29-year-old since taking charge of United, and more significantly since the restart, how can Solskjaer now jettison de Gea for, in the short term, Argentina international Sergio Romero or eventually for Dean Henderson, currently on loan at Sheffield United?
To do so would be to risk accusations of weakness, of caving in to the hysterical shrieking of pundits and fans on broadcasting outlets and social media.
Having said repeatedly over recent weeks that de Gea is the best goalkeeper in the world, what does that say about Solskjaer’s loyalty, and judgement, if he axes him for the crucial remaining two league fixtures or next month’s Europa League campaign?
Conversely, if those two horrendous errors against Chelsea are definitive proof that de Gea’s talents are not so much on the wane as in terminal decline, what happens to Solakjser, United and the player if a goalkeeping error in these remaining two fixtures cost United a top-four finish, place in the Champions League, and tens of millions in penalty clauses that the club will owe sponsors if they fail to qualify for Europe’s top competition for a second successive season?
Put simply, this is the most crucial single decision Solskjaer has faced since taking over — lest we forget, on a temporary basis — from Jose Mourinho 19 months ago.
His decision to offload malcontents Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez last summer, trusting in Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and unknown teenager Mason Greenwood for his goal production, was bold but one which supporters were always likely to back. It also proved brilliant.
Solskjaer’s next steps with de Gea are far more complicated and nuanced, not least because of the five-year, £375,000 a week contract the club handed him at the start of this season — a decision that raised a few eyebrows at the time but which now looks, even by United’s recent wasteful standard, an extraordinary own-goal.
The evidence is not good. The Chelsea errors were the costliest and reverberated loudest due to the size of the stage. But since lockdown alone, de Gea was badly at fault in the 1-1 draw at Tottenham and beaten embarrassingly at his near post in the win over Bournemouth.
Just before the league was suspended in March, his lazy clearance against Dominic Calvert-Lewin gifted Everton the lead in a draw, while he was also obviously at fault in a shock defeat at Watford before Christmas.
The variety of those errors is cause for concern in itself — it is not as if there is one specific weakness that de Gea and his coaching staff have to address — and there has been a general decline in his overall consistency and reliability.
Solskjaer’s desire to stand by a keeper who, for most of his decade at Old Trafford, has been outstanding, is natural but his mentor Alex Ferguson left behind him a long list of disgruntled number ones who could bear testimony to the former manager’s ruthless decision making when it came to the position.
The long-term solution will become more obvious if, as seems likely, the 23-year-old Henderson starts competing for a place as England’s first-choice goalkeeper when international football resumes in September. But has the time come to hand Henderson, impressive in his debut season of top-flight football, the job next season, adding him to an already impressive array of young, emerging talent in his first-team squad?
Where that would leave de Gea and his astronomical contract is a problem for Solskjaer to address. For now, with tomorrow’s game against West Ham and Sunday’s even more crucial visit to Leicester looming, he has to make a decision that could have major ramifications for his entire reign as United manager.