That little notebook into which Louis van Gaal constantly scribbles while he’s on the bench during a match has become infamous – iconic of the irascible, eccentric but successful Dutchman.
Because we’re amongst friends, and this’ll remain hush-hush and strictly off the record, I’ll share with you what he was frantically jotting down on Tuesday night at about 9.35pm just after Manchester United scraped past Stoke.
(NB: Just like the very best method actors van Gaal insists on getting ‘into character’ so he writes in English now)
It went like this: Memo to Self
Tomorrow Morning: Phone José de Gea and thank him for travelling 100km per day to and from Atlético’s training ground when his kid was living in Illascas south of Madrid without which David would never have made it as a professional.
Next: Phone Martin Ferguson and praise him for spotting de Gea, with the Spanish youth set up as well as Atletico’s reserves, and identifying above all that this guy would become ‘a world class shot-stopper’.
Then: Fish out Eric Steele’s number and tell him he’s a ‘shtand-up fellow’ for insisting that despite de Gea’s lack of excellence [and physical power] in dealing with crosses – even in Spain, not just in Premier League terms – that ‘it’ll be fine, we can improve that aspect no problem. Tell the manager to sign him’.
Also: Have a quiet word with Giggshy who’s the guy that has ‘most surprised’ and deeply impressed de Gea since he arrived and who he still calls ‘the Number One!’ Get him to tell the boy we want more of the same.
Finally – FIX MEETING WITH ED WOODWARD. Subject: DE GEA NEW CONTRACT.
There you have it. It’s not always about Zonal Marking.
Van Gaal then donned his ‘stone-face’ in the press room and trotted out some stuff about ‘De CHHHHHHEaaa’ not doing too badly. But that didn’t cover the debt he and United owe the Spaniard.
De Gea is now, in relative terms, almost precisely where he was with Atletico Madrid in mid 2011. Glitteringly good, a stand-out amongst the club’s assets, immensely popular with the paying punters and fellow players – but also in need of being challenged by ‘the next step’.
Which does not mean, automatically, that his next step in this phase of his career either requires to be, or is going to be, departing for a new challenge. Not at all.
Back in 2011 de Gea was part of an Atlético which was on the rise. Europa League and Uefa Supercup winners but surrounded by a third of a team which would survive and thrive, and another two thirds which would be moved on.
A bright future for Diego Godín, Diego Costa, Koke, Raúl García and Juanfran but lights out for Tomas Ujfalusi, Jorge Pulido, José Antonio Reyes, Antonio López, Quique Sanchez Flores, Elias, Paulo Assunção and Juan Valera.
United-watchers can choose whether Rafael, Antonio Valencia, Jonny Evans, Anders Lindegaard, Anderson, Ashley Young, Marouane Fellaini, Phil Jones, and Radamel Falcao fit into the ‘bright future/lights out’ categories.
But de Gea is right up there with the current United equivalent versions of Diego Costa, Koke and Diego Godín in 2011.
This shot from Oviedo & the save from David De Gea is the best save of the season so far; pic.twitter.com/S6k7fTvrMB
— Han✌ (@Hannah_Downey19) December 3, 2014
Just as they were then, United’s Spanish keeper is on the brink of a handful of very special years. Already a trophy-winner, already of proven quality, he nevertheless has what van Gaal calls ‘room for improvement’ but is also on the verge of stepping up and dominating completely.
De Gea’s soft underbelly when he arrived – concentration, upper body strength, speed of English-learning, diet, cutting-edge attitude – is well enough known and understood not to need re-hashing here.
José De Gea admits: “We had no idea of the size and grandeur of United. “Everyone tells you it’s ‘not just any club’ but until you arrive and see how they work, how they manage their football, you’ve got no real idea of the scale of it.”
Suffice to say, you can choose your iconic moment which best signifies his son’s subsequent excellence.
Freeze frame of the save from Mame Diouf against Stoke?
Marcos Rojo lunging into his arms to embrace him for saving those points?
De Gea ecstatically lifting the 2013 Premier League trophy? [His dad, Joel, still calls it ‘winning La Barclays]
Or him being handed trophies for being in the Premier League best XI and after being awarded the United player of the season vote?
Twitter chose mocked-up images of de Gea from the Matrix, de Gea as Superman, de Gea as the son of god after the Stoke game. They get excited on Twitter.
If Ed Woodward were to allow fans and sponsors an ‘open day’ at his office they’d probably come to an understanding that while de Gea’s new deal hasn’t been ‘put off’ [he’s out of contract in summer 2016] such has been the flurry of buying, selling and sacking at the club, the Spaniard has moved into a holding pattern.
If once Sir Alex Ferguson was seriously mulling over a bid to either challenge, or replace, De Gea with Asmir Begovic, then United are totally clear that they are now not seeking a new No1 keeper. A right back, a central defender and a winger, yes.
Along with what’s on offer to de Gea financially if he renews [which I believe he will do] is the promise from United’s most important figures – board, executives, coaching staff – that next summer’s push will be to put them on a par, quality-wise, in terms of squad depth and in terms of trophy aspirations, with Real Madrid and Carlo Ancelotti (above).
That would signify the equivalent surge forward which de Gea is now ready to take in personal, physical, psychological and professional terms. Just turned 24, for all his quite-evident excellence de Gea remains a footballer who thrives best under pressure.
The pressure of being prodded, cajoled and bullied [in a good sense] into adopting new standards by ex keeper coach Eric Steele. The pressure of impressing and winning the trust of Ferguson, particularly while being rotated with Lindegaard. The pressure of having lots of work to do during games. Perhaps even the pressure of having Victor Valdés around the training ground too.
It wouldn’t surprise me if the Catalan’s training/rehab spell at Carrington may have both troubled his international team mate – and driven him on to still greater effort.
De Gea always admired Edwin van der Sar, Iker Casillas and Peter Schmeichel but was most inspired, most influenced by Valdés, his football skills, his ferocity of attitude and his ability to deal with a defence playing as much as 30 metres higher up the pitch than him.
That the former Barça man is free, looking for a place to thrive in the Premier League and developed under van Gaal at the Camp Nou must have been unsettling. Typically, de Gea’s form has, if anything, improved.
I said to dave : “What’s that you’re carrying there Dave?” De gea: “Three points Boss” pic.twitter.com/C0HPBrhUpb
— Louis Van Gaal. (@DutchVanGaal) December 2, 2014
Some keepers, like Valdés, thrive equally if they are making constant saves and interventions or if they have huge periods of inactivity then two or three crucial saves.
De Gea is beginning to emerge into that category – but United are not, yet, the team to take him there.
During this turbulent Van-Gaalization of the team and while the defending remains extremely raw the Spaniard will remain consistently occupied during matches.
But as/if the Woodward/Van Gaal revolution bears fruit United will once again dominate matches and de Gea will benefit from having his concentration tested differently.
— Juan Mata García (@juanmata8) November 28, 2014
The Spaniard is, if not timid, a quiet, home-loving, intensely serious and intense young man. He’s been fundamental in making sure that Ander Herrera settles in and is happy at United – the two of them and Juan Mata live within a stone’s throw of each other and they are the central core of the Spanish-society at United.
His sister and parents often come to stay with him in England, bringing Spanish food with them, and if anyone tells you that de Gea is in love with the climate of North Western England then challenge them on that assertion. The strategic question for de Gea and his representatives is whether United as a club, and as a squad, are in step with him – both now and over the next four years? Are they about to move up and become dominant?
The word on the training ground is that de Gea feels aware that ‘something is beginning to happen’ at the club. That the quality of signings is rising, that van Gaal is demanding in a way which will benefit those who wish to play and train as de Gea does.
Would Real Madrid love to have him? Yes.
With Iker Casillas on a mind-blowingly good contract for several more years and no more keen to hand over to de Gea at club than at Spain level would this coming summer be the time to succumb to that temptation rather than continue to develop, thrive and earn experience in the Premier League? No, probably not. Euro 2016 is at least a winnable tournament for Spain.
If de Gea wishes to be Vicente Del Bosque’s first-choice then better to be at a club where he is [while on form] guaranteed number one rather than take the huge risk of coping with the ire from fans of the club he supports [Atletico] and locking horns with Casillas at Madrid.
In order of priority Ed Woodward needs to convince de Gea that he’s at the right club, at the right time and renew his deal. Then de Gea must emerge into the category of Manuel Neuer and Thibault Courtois and Gigi Buffon – superb keepers but team leaders, intimidating rather than being simply impressive and must become a founding stone in the successful re-building of United.
Finally, if he has not already unseated him, he must be fully ready to take over from Iker Casillas in 18 months time as Spain’s number one.
Graham Hunter is the author of ‘Spain: The Inside Story of La Roja’s Historic Treble’ and ‘Barca’. You can follow him on Twitter here