FA Long Read: Will Dean Henderson Replace David Dea Gea at Manchester United?

David De Gea

The rise of Henderson, the fall of De Gea

One must wonder if David De Gea has kept his eye on Sheffield United’s exploits this season, especially considering they are only two points behind with a game in hand.

At Bramall Lane, Dean Henderson has staked his claim as one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League this season, whilst helping the Blades exceed all expectations and march towards the Champions League spots. The 23-year-old has put in several standout performances on loan from United, performing at arguably a higher level than his Manchester counterpart, De Gea.

Indeed, the Red Devils' number one has struggled the past 12 months and hasn't quite been his usual exceptional self since the 2018 World Cup. A number of high profile blunders have shone a light on him this season, leading to speculation regarding the Spaniard’s place in the team.

Bizarre, right? It was only four seasons ago that Old Trafford went into meltdown over a seemingly done deal to Real Madrid. But, #DaveStayes took over the United headlines once the window had shut.

Whether he truly wanted to depart, or if it was the peculiar fax machine that prevented it all will probably never be told. But, from 2014-2018 there can be very little debate that De Gea was the world's best and without question United's most valuable player, winning an unrivalled four Player of the Season awards.

Winning just one of these as a keeper is something special. Winning four is both ludicrous and simply magical. Now, after a year of slipping into his earlier days of errors and lack of confidence, the Spaniard has been called into question because of Henderson's rise in South Yorkshire.

It’s an interesting debate to be had, and one that would have crossed the minds of the United hierarchy on many occasions this season. Here, we look at why Henderson is being considered, and whether he deserves a shot at Old Trafford.

Where has it gone wrong for De Gea?

It’s not too long ago that De Gea was made the highest-paid goalkeeper in the world by United, signing a new deal until at least June 2023, reportedly worth £13.5 million a year. It became a regular occurrence for the ex-Atletico Madrid man to pull out the most incredible saves, and creating all but his own Save of the Season highlight reel.

Since 2018, however, with the rise of Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Jan Oblak and Alisson seems to have not just been caught up De Gea's 'world's best' claim, but blown it completely out the water. The weaknesses that he showed during his early days in Manchester have seemed to return, whilst the leaky defence at the club have far from been of any help.

After having performed at such a high level for so long, perhaps it was only a matter of time before De Gea showed a dip in form. After all, his form since 2014 truly has been unrivalled in most cases. From carrying the United through many, many clashes home and away, to his game-saving efforts week in, week out, you have to wonder if De Gea's performances have even surpassed that of the great Peter Schmeichel.

In truth, United’s number one hasn’t had a bad season by any means, and eight clean sheets in the league put him above the first-choice goalkeepers of all the London giants. Whilst he may make an error here or there, the Spaniard slightly redeems himself by pulling off a save most can only dream of.

But, this is the goalkeeper position. And whilst you can save 99% of shots in miraculous fashion, if 1% of them go in, effectively, you have failed. When you turn this around to the striker role, a player can miss 99 shots, but if one goes in and it's the winner, then he is a success. Unfair, yes, but very much the way in which this sport works.

So, for all the sensational saves De Gea continues to make, they are quickly overshadowed by one error, such as his blunder against Everton which resulted in a 1-1 draw, in a game United should have won. It's one of those where the 29-year-old could be having a Man of the Match performance, but if one slips through his gloves, it's over for him in this regard.

This is what has happened over recent times and it shows a decline in his game when you remember that Henderson has ten clean sheets in two fewer appearances than him.

Don't get it wrong, there is no doubt about De Gea’s talent. One season below expectations wouldn’t ordinarily be enough to get people questioning his position in the team. However, with Henderson performing so well, the questions have to be asked.

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Has Henderson done well enough at Sheffield United?

The United staff would have been delighted to see that their young goalkeeper would be gaining valuable premier league experience this season, after a fantastic year in the Championship.

Henderson was a key player for Sheffield United in their promotion route and it was clear that the Red Devils had a tremendous young goalkeeper on their books. A season in the Premier League would have been welcomed by the Manchester club, but they probably weren’t expecting the goalkeeper to cause such a headache in their selection options.

The Blades have exceeded all expectations in their first Premier League campaign since 2007, as has their young goalkeeper. Not only have the side competed for European qualification but United have only conceded 25 goals along the way - league leaders Liverpool are the one team to have conceded less. 

Granted, Chris Wilder’s defence deserves some credit. The back five he uses have been solid all season, but what is key is their confidence in the man behind them. Any time a player can create a chance against them, Henderson is there to diffuse any danger. The 23-year-old shot-stopper has made countless big saves all season long and kept his team in the race for an unprecedented European pursuit. 

Fans may not always trust statistics to tell the story, but they do indicate that Henderson has had a much better season than De Gea in terms of keeping the ball out the net. The Englishman has kept two more clean sheets, conceded eight fewer and caught three times the number of crosses than De Gea, all whilst playing two fewer games.

Henderson has impressed so much that he was being considered as a possible replacement for Jordan Pickford as England number one heading into Euro 2020, and was at the very least, guaranteed to be on the plane. Indeed, he has had a much better season than his Everton rival, showing a lot more reliability between the sticks.

So, surely if he is ready for England, he must be ready for Old Trafford, right? If it wasn't for De Gea, he'd probably already on the Old Trafford goalline.

Timing is key or United risk losing one of their elite keepers

It is difficult to argue against Henderson at the moment. If it wasn't for De Gea's astronomical seven years post-Sir Alex Ferguson, Henderson would slot in without question.

One thing that could end up influencing United’s decision is the team they are already building. With Marcus Rashford, plus the recent singings of Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, they are building a squad full of English talent. If Jadon Sancho is added in the summer, then it could make sense for Henderson to be the next piece of the puzzle, as an impressive English core would make United a very interesting side.

At the end of the day, Henderson is technically a Red Devil. It’s not as if United are trying to sign the Englishman, as he is already on their books and they can recall him immediately, should they please.

The issue is whether they take him now or later, as it all but seems inevitable that at just 23, Henderson will make the jump to the number one spot eventually. Most goalkeepers approaching their 30s will be hitting their peak, but it looks as if De Gea may have already cashed his best days in. Whilst many star keepers are improving, the United man isn't exactly doing that, or even plateauing within his greatness.

It could be possible that this past year has been a one-off for both goalkeepers. Henderson has had an outstanding season, off the back of a wonderful Championship campaign, but now is where he makes his name shine bright, or see it dimmer off. On the other hand, De Gea’s season could just be a minor blip, and he could very well return to the top soon. In truth, another campaign to assess the situation before making a decision probably wouldn’t hurt, especially considering De Gea's 'peak years' are arriving, whilst Henderson has only just turned 23 - but this timing is essentially the key.

United have the luxury of having two fantastic goalkeepers on their books, the question is, which one will we see between the sticks at Old Trafford next season? And, can United afford to make Henderson wait another year? No doubt, he's attracted a lot of attention and the club need to be careful with how they play this or risk losing one of Europe's brightest young keepers.

By Jak Richardson

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