In the space of just a few weeks, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was faced with the reality of Manchester United’s looming goalkeeping conundrum.
Dean Henderson, on loan at Sheffield United, had already been one of the breakthrough stars of the Premier League season, but his best performance to date came on a Tuesday night in January, making a number of stunning saves in a 1-0 defeat to Manchester City.
Just over a month later on March 1, a howler from David de Gea gifted Everton an opener after just three minutes. Man Utd could only recover to claim a 1-1 draw. With the race for the Premier League’s top four so tight this season those two dropped points could ultimately have a big impact on the success or failure of the Old Trafford outfit in 2019/20.
This certainly wasn’t the first gaffe De Gea had made this season. In fact, the Spaniard has been prone to blunders for quite some time. Once considered the best goalkeeper on the planet, De Gea hasn’t been the same since the 2018 World Cup when a number of bad mistakes cost Spain dearly.
Until now, though, De Gea hasn’t had any real reason to worry about his position. Henderson’s emergence has changed this.
From this summer, Solskjaer will have a decision to make - does he stick with De Gea in the belief that the errors will be ironed out from his game? Or does he give Henderson a chance to prove he is capable of being Man Utd’s number one goalkeeper?
“That’s Man Utd,” Solskjaer responded when asked whether Henderson could be given game time at Old Trafford next season. “You should have a nice problem, you should have two or three challenging for the same positions. That’s what we are trying to get to.”
The problem for Solskjaer is that Henderson is an unashamedly ambitious character. He is very open about his targets of one day being England number one. There’s an argument to be made that he should already be England’s number one, with Jordan Pickford suffering a season to forget.
Henderson won’t stick around at Man Utd as De Gea’s understudy. He is good enough to play for an elite level team and so Solskjaer’s remarks about having two or three players competing for each position doesn’t really stick in this regard. If Henderson isn’t going to be United’s first choice, he’ll make sure he is first choice somewhere else.
This is what Chelsea are counting on according to recent reports. The Blues are suffering their own goalkeeping dilemma with Frank Lampard losing faith in Kepa Arrizabalaga and so it’s widely believed that Henderson could be on their radar this summer. The Mirror claim Chelsea could even pay as much as £50 million to poach the 23-year-old.
If Henderson has his heart set on one day becoming Manchester United number one it might be best for him to stay another season out on loan at Sheffield United. The Blades have enjoyed an exceptional season back in the Premier League and are on course to qualify for the Europa League, if not the Champions League. Henderson can stay at Bramall Lane, at least for the time being, and improve further.
The situation is complicated by the new six-year contract signed by De Gea last summer. This deal made the Spaniard the highest paid goalkeeper in the game, but his recent performances have done little to justify this outlay. Having spent years trying to keep hold of De Gea, Man Utd might now regret their inability to tout him around in the transfer market.
Of course, De Gea is far from a lost cause. While errors have undoubtedly crept into his game, few are as capable in keeping the ball out of the net as the Spaniard. Man Utd have kept 13 clean sheets in their last 15 games and De Gea has more than played his part in this impressive run of defensive resolution.
But so much of Solskjaer’s reign as Man Utd manager has been about building a team for the future and it’s difficult to make a case that De Gea aligns with this. Henderson, on the other hand, is one of the brightest young goalkeepers in European football right now. He is proven at Premier League level and looks ready to take the step up to the elite level. The only thing left to be decided is whether he does that at Old Trafford or somewhere else.
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