Manchester United goalkeeper Dean Henderson has been given what appears to be a rare audition to prove that he has what it takes to be the club’s number one instead of David de Gea next season in the remaining games of the 2020/21 campaign.
Henderson was persuaded to sign a new contract at Old Trafford last summer following two super successful years on loan at Sheffield United, being rewarded with a handsome salary that is on par with the starting goalkeepers at Liverpool, Manchester City, Arsenal and Tottenham.
But despite Henderson’s huge appetite for first-team football, United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer initially stood by De Gea, whose patchy form since 2018 has led to increasing scrutiny and criticism.
Henderson was firstly called upon for EFL Cup games, making his United debut against Luton back in September. It was a big moment in his career, having joined the academy at the age of 14 and spending five seasons grafting on loan, at one stage as low as the National League North.
The England stopper was given a chance in the Champions League against Istanbul Basaksehir in early November, before making his Premier League debut as a half-time substitute against Southampton when De Gea got injured later that month. He was also given the nod against former loan club Sheffield United shortly before Christmas and later started all of United’s FA Cup games.
Elimination from the Champions League saw Henderson installed as number one for the Europa League knockout rounds, but his chance to supplant De Gea came when the Spaniard returned to Spain on personal leave in March for the birth of his first child.
Coronavirus restrictions have made international travel difficult and so De Gea was afforded an extended break, opening the door for Henderson to stake his claim.
It was initially thought that he would get a run of six consecutive starts up until the March international break, three of which he would have played in anyway because of the Europa League and FA Cup. He kept three clean sheets in the trio of Premier League fixtures, including a crucial late save in the first of those against Crystal Palace to prevent defeat.
The crunch moment was always going to be who Solskjaer selected after the international break when De Gea was fully integrated back with the squad. And it was Henderson.
Solskjaer’s decision over who his starter is for at least the rest of this season was underlined when it was De Gea who played against Granada in the Europa League, with games in that competition usually reserved for the back-up goalkeeper. Henderson again got the nod in the Premier League against Tottenham on Sunday, which was perhaps his biggest challenge so far.
Henderson had played in the 2-0 Manchester derby win last month, but with the pressure for a place in the top four mounting before kick off against Spurs, and having been humiliated by the same opponents in the reverse fixture in October, United had plenty more to lose in this one.
United needed to be on it to avoid a slip up against a side still within touching distance of a top four finish if they could put together a late run and build momentum.
Spurs even went ahead in controversial fashion when Son Heung-min scored only a few minutes after his dramatic reaction to a unwitting flick of Scott McTominay’s fingers had seen an opener for United chalked off following a VAR review.
Henderson could do little to prevent Son from sweeping the ball home at the far post but did make a handful of other important saves in the match. Those blocks with his feet, perhaps an influence of training with De Gea for the past ten months, gave his team the platform to eventually win 3-1.
United staff may not be fully sold on Henderson’s ability to play at the highest level, which is why the remainder of this season is now so important for the goalkeeper to prove he is worth the gamble of potentially selling De Gea when the summer transfer window opens.
The audition hasn’t been flawless – he was criticised for AC Milan’s equaliser at Old Trafford, for example – but Henderson did everything that was asked of him against Spurs. There was nothing spectacular about his performance in north London, but being a top goalkeeper is as much about doing the simple things better than everyone else as it is about pulling off world-class saves.
Over the last three years, De Gea, who is still capable of mind-blowing stops, has allowed too many basic mistakes and lapses into his game which have cost United at key moments. The important thing for Henderson now is to show that he can avoid those errors and provide a solid foundation on which the rest of the team can build from.
He has another seven Premier League games left this season to prove himself.