In a summer where change has been promised by Manchester United’s villainous owners on and off the pitch, what has unfolded before our eyes, coming up to a month after the fans’ forum, has been nothing but inactivity and empty promises.
That, almost undoubtedly, has to change in what one anticipates will be a busy July, post European Championships. Amongst the carnage of outstanding tasks needing resolution, (selling the streams of deadwood, what to do with Paul Pogba, getting Jadon Sancho belatedly over the line, signing a centre back and hopefully a CDM), quite possibly one of the most pressing issues for Manchester United is their goalkeeping conundrum, which remains a real headache with no compelling evidence as to what direction United will take.
Dean Henderson was trialled in the closing league matches of last season, only for David de Gea, in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first final as manager, to be restored in goal for the crushing penalty shootout defeat to Villarreal in which he missed the decisive kick. It typified the uncertainty of the situation, both see themselves as first choice but it is clear that the rotational policy is not sustainable. We knew this scenario would rear its head at some point, it’s got to the stage now where something has to give, but are we any clearer on who Solskjaer will back next season?
De Gea was predominantly Solskjaer’s preferred man, certainly in the first half of last season, featuring 26 times in the league, conceding over a goal a game (32) and kept 9 clean sheets. Notable errors occurred at Southampton away, injuring himself against the post in weakly conceding a James Ward-Prowse free-kick and not coming out for a corner headed in by Jan Bednarek. This perhaps contributed to United’s frailty from set-pieces all season, De Gea has never been commanding of his box and this was highlighted further in the disastrous 3-3 draw with Everton- De Gea tamely parried a cross straight to Abdoulaye Doucouré to start the comeback, then half-heartedly closed down Dominic Calvert-Lewin who slid in a stoppage time equaliser, to all but kill the scant hopes of a title challenge.
If we are being brutally honest, David de Gea has not been the same goalkeeper since the criticism he took at the 2018 World Cup but, to paraphrase the old saying, the 19 million question is how do Manchester United get him off the books besides doing an Alexis Sanchez style subsidised loan? United made De Gea the world’s costliest keeper, earning £375,000 weekly and, in this COVID climate, who is matching that unless De Gea takes a substantial pay cut? PSG have closed off that possibility by adding Donnarumma to the world class Keylor Navas, Real Madrid are happy with Courtois, Atletico have just won La Liga with arguably the world’s best in Jan Oblak. Talk of Roma, and an unlikely reunion with José Mourinho, was quickly quashed. Talking of a Sanchez type loan, United have fallen foul of this situation so many times, giving millions to players who haven’t featured and it has been symbolic of the painful footballing strategy oversaw by Ed Woodward and Matt Judge previously. In the past year, we turned down £4M from Everton (somehow seen as a potential rival who finished 10th) for Sergio Romero , all for him to leave on a free transfer. Phil Jones virtually missed the entirety of the season. Lee Grant was paid £30,000 a week with his most telling contribution holding up the substitute’s board in one of the matches, with even talk of his deal being extended! I digress, but the point is that contract given to De Gea was absurd, not justified by form and United could well be stuck with him. The Europa League final felt like a solemn way to end, but it is not clear whether that is the case.
Does De Gea’s obscene wages, payable until June 2023, mean that United might have to begrudgingly cash in on Dean Henderson? His stats, albeit smaller sample size, bettered De Gea’s (13 league appearances, 12 conceded and 5 clean sheets) and a show of faith from Solskjaer saw Henderson given a new contract until 2025 with more than one eye on the future. Henderson largely impressed when given his chance but without fully banging the door down – having erratic spells in trying to be the opposite to De Gea in commanding his area and had a real bad night, as the collective did, with the world watching in the 4-2 home defeat to Liverpool.
Whilst De Gea trumps Henderson in the shot stopping stakes, Henderson takes the spoils on authority and distribution, so ultimately it will boil down to what Solskjaer envisions is his ideal keeper. The drawbacks for Henderson are he still has much to learn, the pressure cooker at United is worlds apart from what Henderson experienced in excelling over two years at Sheffield United and he is yet to play in front of a crowd at Old Trafford at senior level.
A swift decision from Solskjaer would be appreciated, if he sees De Gea as his first choice, United would probably look to secure upwards of £30M for Henderson, who would doubtless have a long list of suitors.
Personally, I see that being a long shot and Solskjaer would ideally like Henderson to be between the sticks for the opening match against Leeds.
It could well be that United are stuck with De Gea, unless they help fund an exit by part paying his wages out on loan, as I cannot see how, or where, De Gea gets a permanent ticket out of Manchester. I just cannot help but feel the best days of De Gea are behind him and we need to invest in Dean Henderson for a full season. Time will tell whether he can cement his place for years to come, but he has time ahead of him and confidence in his ability and it would be a shame for United not to make that investment.
De Gea can certainly be included in the pantheon of United, and even Premier League, great keepers but it feels like it is time to move on. Funnily enough a quick Twitter poll saw my followers agree that Henderson should be first choice next season, with the Englishman getting 56% of the vote.
It will be interesting to see if Solskjaer, like myself, agrees with this view.