Think back to a couple of months ago, and it all felt both straightforward and inevitable. David de Gea was off to Real Madrid, Manchester United were going to have to buy somebody else, and the only people who thought otherwise were children, fools, and the terminally optimistic.
You can decide for yourself which of the above categories Ed Woodward falls into. But we're getting on towards the end of July, and nothing's happened yet. Real Madrid have sent Iker Casillas on his way and bought a new goalkeeper, but not the one that matters. Manchester United, meanwhile, have taken De Gea on tour, and Louis van Gaal has delivered unto Victor Valdes an almighty (if metaphorical) kick in the balls. And the apparent unhappiness of Sergio Ramos has only confused things further ...
Man U current position: David De Gea will not be allowed to go if Ramos is not allowed to (De Gea wants to go and has agreement w RM). 6— Sid Lowe (@sidlowe) July 19, 2015
If you put a gun to the head of this particular aspect of the Busby Babe, you'd get the response: "Don't shoot your computer, you idiot. Guns don't work on websites. Now, did you have a question about David de Gea?" And then, if you put the gun away and asked, you'd get the answer: "...yeah. He'll probably go." Which is some change from definitely, and so we're at the point where it's worth considering what will happen if he does stay.
Short answer: Manchester United will have one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League (and, indeed, the world) for another season. Which is, obviously, a Good Thing.
But short and pleasing as that answer is, there's a couple of caveats. The first is that while De Gea generally appears not to be a particularly stroppy footballer, and also by all accounts quite likes living in Manchester and playing for United, he does want to go. Indeed, as Sid Lowe points out above, he already has an agreement.
You'd hope, of course, that personal pride, general professionalism and the fact that Euro 2016 is coming up would combine to keep De Gea's performance levels nice and high. But footballers are people and people (even the hardest, even the coldest) are delicate bundles of neuroses and ambition and dreams, and when such delicate bundles see their desired future postponed a year in an argument over a central defender ... well, that might have some kind of impact. Might. It's a risk.
Also a risk: since De Gea will be in the last year of his contract, he'll be able to sign a pre-contract agreement with Real Madrid (or any other non-English team) come January. So even if he does manage to keep his head straight all through autumn, come the second half of the season he could be somebody else's player. Again, questions of motivation and focus come into play. Again, you'd hope professionalism wins the day. Again, you'd be hoping.
But offsetting those risks are a couple of upsides, even in addition to the obvious Good Thing. Firstly, annoying Real Madrid is always a pleasure. Second, if Van Gaal gets the two further players he's been talking about, then over this and the last two transfer windows United will have brought twelve players into the first team squad. So keeping one of the side's more established professionals in situ for another year makes sense, on the basis that chaos should generally be minimised. Even if he does then need replacing next summer, the rest of the side should be more settled. Should
Then, of course, there's the tantalising possibility that he could be kept for longer than a year. September, October, November and December represent an opportunity for some extreme persuasion. Ed Woodward, Louis van Gaal and Ryan Giggs get four months to whisper sweet, sweet nothings into his ear, while Old Trafford get a few more games to sing "We want you to stay", for all the good that'll do.
Might that work? We'd be guessing. But if you made us to guess — put that gun away! — we'd say that it's possible. He does, after all, like the club, and much has been made in the press about his family having settled well in Manchester. We know that United are perfectly happy to pay him cash in Scrooge McDuck amounts. If United's new-look side starts the season well, and if "Rafa Benitez, Real Madrid manager" lives up to its comedic potential ... well, De Gea only has to sign on the dotted line once.
Ultimately, "Don't go and play for Real Madrid and live in your home city with your pop star girlfriend" is quite a hard sell, even when "Real Madrid" slump into a raging bonfire of ego, maladministration and fairly rubbish football. United getting an extra season of football, and a few extra months to try to make that sell, is probably worth the risk, and certainly worth whatever fee Real Madrid might reluctantly cough up. It might even be worth missing out on Ramos. And hey, if De Gea can't get his head right and starts throwing the ball into the net, then there's always Anders Lindegaard.