Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has an unenviable goalkeeping conundrum on his plate that desperately needs solving ahead of next season.
He has two potentially top class goalkeepers at his disposal. One is enduring a worrying dip in form that has stretched back, on and off, for now more than two years. The other is an up and coming talent who may not be quite ready for what United would expect of him.
Does Solskjaer stick with David de Gea? Or does he make a change and put faith in Dean Henderson?
The reality is that it isn’t black and white and the answer is probably somewhere in the middle.
De Gea began the Premier League restart by making a costly mistake in United’s 1-1 draw with Tottenham, beaten by a Steven Bergwijn shot that should have been a comfortable save. His latest gaffe came as he weakly parried an effort from Chelsea’s Mason Mount into the net, a killer second goal that took the FA Cup semi-final clash at Wembley beyond his team.
There have been others in between over the last few weeks.
De Gea can be the best in the world. He undoubtedly was for several years between 2015 and 2018 until his form and consistency deserted him, paving the way for high profile errors to enter his game.
His form was already beginning to waver prior to the 2018 World Cup when a howler in a 3-3 draw against Portugal brought the issue to prominence. Despite still pulling off fantastic saves, it is like his confidence has never recovered and things that he used to do so easily have become a struggle.
Three high profile errors in March and April 2019 against Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea hit hard, suggesting there was more of an issue than a minor blip the previous summer. Around the same time he lost his place in Spain’s first choice XI and is still yet to permanently regain it as a result of competition from Chelsea’s Kepa Arrizabalaga and Roma’s Pau Lopez.
More lapses against Crystal Palace, Everton and Watford in the first half of this season proved the problem wasn’t going away. Further errors in recent weeks, which have seen the slump last more than two years, begs the question of whether it is still just a blip or something more serious.
Solskjaer clearly still backs De Gea, labelling the 29-year-old the ‘best goalkeeper in the world’ in the wake of the Tottenham error. That clearly is no longer true but it is understandable the United boss is standing by his player, perhaps protesting a little too loudly.
Solskjaer and his staff must now judge whether or not De Gea has it in him to return to his former best – Joe Hart has never recovered since losing his place at Manchester City – and how they coax it out.
Simply persevering and ignoring there is an issue, publicly at least, so far hasn’t worked.
In Dean Henderson, United have one of the most promising young goalkeepers in Europe at their fingertips. The 23-year-old has enjoyed two phenomenal seasons on loan with Sheffield United, thriving thanks to the opportunity to play regular first-team football.
From being a star of the Championship in 2018/19, Henderson, like his Blades teammates, has translated that form into the top flight and has played his way into the England squad.
Where United are concerned, Henderson fits the brief of young, home-grown, domestic talent. The problem that his parent club has is that he’s far from the finished article and still has a way to go before he can considered among the best in the world, which is what they ultimately want.
Henderson has made errors himself this season, but he has been under far less scrutiny than De Gea, largely owing to his age and the fact that Sheffield United have massively exceeded all expectations. Crucially for his development, he has been allowed to make those mistakes without fear of a backlash, unlike De Gea, whose confidence is in pieces.
If Henderson is suddenly catapulted into a situation where he is number one goalkeeper at Manchester United, the scrutiny will be much, much harsher and every mistake will be magnified.
At this stage, Henderson would be a gamble if it means replacing someone who was the best in the world within the last three years for someone else who remains relatively untested at the required level. United could hypothetically install him as number one and sell De Gea to the highest bidder – thereby boosting the summer transfer budget – ahead of next season. Problem solved? Hardly.
There is always the risk that Henderson is not cut out for the task. Plenty of goalkeepers are excellent shot stoppers, but keeping goal for the best teams is a different challenge and requires a great deal of mental strength and powers of concentration. Edwin van der Sar was a master of this, De Gea had it too until he seemingly lost it. The aforementioned Joe Hart never quite nailed it, while it is also what will stop England’s Jordan Pickford from ever breaking into the world elite.
Worst case scenario, Henderson could make a high profile error only a handful of games into his first season as number one in Manchester and the reaction destroys his confidence, by which time De Gea could already be gone and it would be irreversible.
In the short-term, United have to find a way to actually balance the two and have them compete against each other. Arguably a lack of serious competition for De Gea has contributed to his downfall – back-up Sergio Romero, while a quality goalkeeper in his own right, is never going to be number one. Henderson, meanwhile, still needs to do more to prove himself and a year in full-on competition would arguably be more valuable than another season playing elsewhere on loan.
It might be difficult convincing Henderson to return to Old Trafford without assurances that he will be number one. But it is too soon for the club to get rid of De Gea and the younger eventual heir to the United gloves needs to gamble on himself that he can earn them anyway.