As the summer transfer window rumour mill slowly kicks into life like a theme park attraction juddering into action after a period of inactivity, much of the talk surrounds the fates of two players tipped to travel in opposite directions: David De Gea and Gareth Bale.
The speculation that De Gea has already told United chiefs that he wants to return to his homeland with the Spanish giants refuses to go away. And after a tough end to the season in which he was roundly booed by his own supporters, it is rumoured that Bale is ready to call time on his Spanish expedition to return to England with Manchester United in a swap deal.
It’s a move the club has been dreading in many ways: De Gea was a key component in his side’s return to the top four in the Premier League with a number of outstanding displays; picking up the Red Devils’ Player of the Year trophy along the way. But often a world-class keeper only reveals themself when the defenders in front of him let him down.
With only a year left on his contract, the Spaniard could walk away for free in the summer of 2016 – and that is unthinkable for a player who could break the world record transfer fee for a goalkeeper should Louis Van Gaal decide to cash in while he can.
And that could lead very nicely to a potential swap deal involving the unsettled Gareth Bale.
If you believed everything that you read in the papers, you’d assume that Bale had done something unthinkable to the President’s daughter in Madrid judging by the media reaction to his efforts.
The truth is that his performances did tail off in quality towards the end of the 2014/15 campaign, and the Welshman was made something of a scapegoat for Real’s inability to win a single trophy.
But those accusations should not be taken in isolation from stats and reality: Bale contributed 13 goals in 30 La Liga games and had a hand in many more for a side that battered opponents mercilessly – and scored an incredible 118 goals in 38 league games (more than Barcelona).
They finished as runners up only to a Barca side that could happily sit as one of the best club units ever assembled. And but for a phenomenal performance from Juventus in the Champions League semi final second leg, they could have been strutting their stuff on European football’s biggest stage.
Regardless, Carlo Ancelotti has paid the price with his job – and now Bale could be set to follow.
De Gea vs Bale – Who Offers the Most?
Whilst it is irrational to directly compare a goalkeeper with an attacking player, it is possible to contrast who offers the most in terms of points creation.
Between the sticks De Gea has been a revelation during these past two seasons; incredible when you think back to his rocky start in English football. His shot-stopping prowess has saved his team countless points - particularly late in games.
And it’s a huge confidence boost for a much maligned back four to have a keeper of his stature prowling behind them.
But for all their ills defensively at the start of the season, you could argue that United’s ability to put the ball in the net was just as flawed.
They play in two different cultures of course, but the Old Trafford side scored approximately half the goals of Real Madrid in 38 league games (62 to 118). That stat is illuminating in itself, as is the fact that their top scorer, Wayne Rooney, only managed to find the net on 12 occasions.
The much vaunted trio of Angel Di Maria, Juan Mata and Ander Herrera contributed just 18 between them too. And as a club, the Red Devils scored three times in their last six Premier League games, firing consecutive blanks against Chelsea, Everton and West Brom; unthinkable during the Sir Alex Ferguson years.
And so Bale would bring an added goal threat – both himself directly and through his incisive attacking play for others, and that could be crucial in United’s quest to reassert themselves as both a genuine Premier League title contender and respectable Champions League competitor.
They have already signed another winger in Memphis Depay, and more star-studded talent is likely to follow the young Dutchman over the threshold. But it’s arguable that any of these signings would bring Bale’s level of creativity to the party.
A goalkeeper – albeit a world-class one – can be replaced: United have Victor Valdes on their books already, with Hugo Lloris tipped to follow should De Gea board that plane bound for Madrid.
But an attacking talent that can create chances and score goals seemingly out of nowhere cannot. With Manchester United aiming to challenge on four fronts next season, the signing of Gareth Bale could be just what the doctor ordered.