Erik ten Hag should consider transfer wildcard for long-term Manchester United solution – Liam Wood

Having served the club with distinction for 11 coming up 12 seasons, the Spaniard totted-up his 511th appearance during the FA Cup win over Everton at Old Trafford on Friday night. He was imperious in the preceding victories against Bournemouth and Wolves and yet, bizarrely, he effectively finds himself on trial under Erik ten Hag.

But that has nothing to do with his ability. Withstanding some question marks along the way and a prolonged dip which he addressed last season, De Gea has been up there among the best goalkeepers on the planet throughout his Premier League journey.

Despite triggering one-year options with four players in a similar position contract-wise, United have yet to follow suit with De Gea as they plan the best route moving forward. That (non) decision has enough to do with the wages he agreed to as part of a contract extension that was negotiated in 2019 and De Gea told the MEN he is confident there will be a &aposgood&apos outcome.

Very few goalkeepers are top earners at their clubs and that is even rarer at the top level. However, now Cristiano Ronaldo has departed Old Trafford for the second time – and for reasons best left ignored – that is the position that De Gea finds himself in.

United are not dragging their heels, as such, but there is a simple three-way call to make. Do they extend a deal for the tried and tested, sign a new number one to replace De Gea or tie him down on reduced terms as a compromise while, at 32, he still has several years at his peak.

Even after 394 games in the Premier League – with 138 clean sheets to boot – there&aposs no definitive answer for those who ponder that question. Ten Hag might already know, but with several factors including a proposed return to the Champions League at play, there is still scope for mind-changing.

It will be business as usual for De Gea from this moment on. He understands the unique situation and will continue to do his utmost no matter what happens but he does hope – and expect – to stay at the club.

Elsewhere, the scouts are out across Europe and beyond to discover and settle on a would-be long-term replacement for De Gea. United rather infamously took a while to adequately fill the void left by Peter Schmeichel in 1999 and Ten Hag will be gunning to avoid making the same mistake.

It was a rare one from Sir Alex Ferguson at that time. As the legendary Scot would admit, it was up there with one of the biggest decisions he had to make in his tenure – and the same goes for Ten Hag – but one “wildcard” solution should be considered.

Jordan Pickford continues to divide opinion, in some quarters, but there are few candidates to succeed De Gea who tick as many boxes. His form at Goodison Park has been up and down, but the 28-year-old has never let his country down. He has been the go-to man for Gareth Southgate at three major tournaments (and in between) and coped impressively with the intense pressure and scrutiny that has come his way both on and off the pitch.

Nobody goes under the microscope quite like an England goalkeeper and it is, arguably, only at Old Trafford were such judgement is comparable – and that tells you more about Pickford and his credentials to replace De Gea than any statistic or clean sheet tally could.

A fantastic shot-shopper and productive with his feet, the Sunderland product is very much in the Ten Hag mould and would represent an upgrade on De Gea on that second attribute. He would command a lower wage and, given that his contract is due to expire in 2024, his transfer fee would not be bank-breaking, either.

“Everyone hates you, for some reason,” said Pickford in 2020 when addressing his critics, of which there are still far too many given his international performances and rejuvenated Everton form. “I just get on with it. You have got to live with it, I know what I&aposm capable of and I know what I&aposm good at.”