It was towards the back end of last season that it really seemed like Dean Henderson was pushing to establish himself as the new number one at Manchester United. Unsurprisingly there has nearly always been great figures in between the sticks at Old Trafford, from Peter Schmeichel to Edwin van der Sar, the goalkeeper position has been in good hands over the years.
Over the last decade or so this position has been claimed and firmly cemented by Spaniard David De Gea, who has gained cult status amongst United supporters for his legendary performances and unwavering commitment to the club. De Gea has won the Player of the Year award four times during his tenure at the club, more than any United player ever.
However, when De Gea began faltering last season it looked inevitable that Henderson would take over the reigns as number one this term, but unfortunately for the Englishman, it’s not quite panned out that way.
Displacing the veteran De Gea was never going to be easy for Henderson, after all, De Gea has swatted away all challengers to his position over the years. There was once a case for Sergio Romero to get more game time, since whenever he filled in for De Gea it would be a competent and impressive goalkeeping display, affectionately earning him the unofficial title of ‘best backup goalkeeper in the world’ amongst United supporters.
Nevertheless, even with Romero’s impressive performances the enduring presence of De Gea remained, whenever there was a dip in form there was always a recovery, or a world class display somewhere around the corner to remind everybody of his number one status. Eventually Romero left United; far too good to be sitting on the bench for the club week in week out, Henderson does not want to suffer the same fate.
The United academy graduate has outlined his grand ambitions of being both number one for United and England, which doesn’t seem impossible considering the amount of talent Henderson naturally possesses. Still, the rate at which Henderson can achieve these objectives has to be called into question.
The goalkeeper certainly wouldn’t have expected to be starting nearly every game on the bench this year, making just the one appearance in the Carabao cup so far. As mentioned, last season there was far more rotation amongst the goalkeepers with De Gea’s unreliable form, Henderson ended up playing 26 times in all competitions and kept 13 clean sheets.
By the end of the season, talk of a rivalry between Henderson and De Gea was everywhere in the media, and it seemed very likely De Gea would be displaced after a poor performance in the Europa League final; capped off with a terrible saved penalty to confirm the defeat.
In contrast, De Gea has regained form this season and managed to hit incredible highs with some of his performances, while Henderson has had numerous setbacks. One such setback was a hip injury that forced Henderson to withdraw from England’s Euro squad, a disappointing development for someone with ambitions of being number one someday.
On top of this, Henderson then managed to pick up Covid in mid-July after returning from injury, further stifling his momentum and good form from last season. It was also around this time that De Gea decided to return from his summer break early, expressing his desire to regain form and cling onto his number one status.
All things considered, it worked for the Spaniard, as he is undoubtedly still number one and in his best form for years. It’s likely a combination of all the events mentioned previously were a factor in De Gea’s upturn, Henderson’s slump due to injury and Covid leaving the door open just wide enough for De Gea to prove himself once more.
So where does this all leave the 24-year-old now? Unquestionably the double whammy of an injury with Covid are going to have both a physical and mental effect on the goalkeeper, but the psychological implications are going to feel more severe since the number one spot was so close.
It’s important for Henderson not to get despondent, he is very young by a goalkeeper’s standards; but patience only extends so far after a while. Henderson is too good to be sitting on the bench, and while young, he is experienced enough to be starting for a top team.
A two-year loan spell at Sheffield United feels like an age ago now, a period in which Henderson was sensational, helping Sheffield to promotion and subsequent survival in the Premier League. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer ruled out the possibility of a loan this year, although there was speculation recently that Henderson may seek to return to Sheffield in January if his playing time doesn’t improve.
Looking forward, Henderson needs more game time if he is to carry on progressing into one of the top goalkeepers of the world. Sadly, it appears as though this season Henderson will stagnate more than progress, as even if afforded a little game time there comes a period where regular playing time is necessary to reach a higher level.
This being said, the Englishman needs to show off his credentials when afforded the chance to play, hopefully not letting the less-than-ideal situation affect his form.
In the long-term, a solution must be found for Henderson where he is playing every single game. United cannot sustainably hold onto two world class talents and not play one of them, it’s unfair if not detrimental to the mindset of both players.
Yes, pressure and competition are good, however the goalkeeper role is arguably one position you want clear stability in considering the importance of the position. Despite all this, Henderson’s mentality and ability are there for all to see, there is little doubt that the 24-year-old will be playing in some of the biggest matches in the future of his career.
The only question that is unanswered is whether that will be for United or somebody else, both seemingly equal possible outcomes at this moment in time.
Written by Sam Wilson