Dean Henderson has had a lot of time to observe and assess from the sidelines this season. After enjoying a breakthrough season on loan at Sheffield United, the 23-year-old has been second choice at Manchester United. Even as David de Gea has made mistakes, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has stuck with the Spaniard over Henderson.
However, Sunday’s Manchester derby showed why Solskjaer should reconsider who he sees as his first choice goalkeeper. With de Gea in Spain for the birth of his daughter, Henderson was handed a rare start in a big game, with the 23-year-old keeping a clean sheet in a 2-0 win over Manchester City.
While Henderson only had to face six shots on target, he handled everything he had to. What’s more, United looked sure of themselves in defence, something that hasn’t always been the case with de Gea between the posts this season. Dean Henderson was a reassuring presence behind Victor Lindelof, Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka.
Henderson is more vocal than de Gea and this may have been a factor in the well-drilled defensive performance produced by his team against the Premier League table-toppers. Manchester United are lacking in natural leaders at the back, but with Henderson orchestrating things they were better organised.
“He’s just growing, getting more mature, so very, very happy with him,” Solskjaer said after the away victory over Manchester City, highlighting the personal progress Henderson has made over the course of the season. “His presence out there, you know there’s a future top, top keeper out there.”
The time is right for Solskjaer to give Dean Henderson a run of games as United’s number one if they are to settle their goalkeeping issue next season. If not now, when? Even if it’s on a trial basis until the end of the season, the Norwegian needs to know what his second choice goalkeeper is truly made of before he can possibly make a decision on de Gea’s future.
The Spaniard is a Manchester United legend and, once upon a time, finding a De Gea replacement would have been unthinkable. He stayed at Old Trafford through the difficult times that came after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013, earning himself a reputation as one of the best goalkeepers in Europe for a period. But his standards have slipped. While de Gea is still capable of pulling off a stunning save, he’s just as capable of a blunder leading to a goal.
Henderson’s performance against City on Sunday led to a goal, but one for his own team. It was his Peter Schmeichel-esque bowl-out that released Shaw down the left wing for United’s second goal. This provided yet more proof that Dean Henderson, and not de Gea, should be Solskjaer’s first pick. Such proactiveness when playing out from the back could sharpen Manchester United as an attacking outfit.
Manchester United have a strong history of giving opportunities to young players and academy graduates and Henderson has earned Solskjaer’s faith. Even if the 23-year-old falters, the Norwegian will learn more about the quality and potential of a goalkeeper widely seen as a future England number one.
If Henderson isn’t given a proper chance to prove himself at Old Trafford, he will leave. The 23-year-old is unashamedly ambitious and confident in his ability and would have no shortage of options should he decide to move on. Chelsea, for example, have previously been linked with a move for Henderson.
To allow Dean Henderson to leave without affording him a prolonged run in the first team would be a waste. United could regret it in the same way they were made to regret not giving Paul Pogba a proper opportunity before he departed for Juventus. Sunday’s Manchester derby could prove to be a sliding doors moment in the future of the Manchester United goalkeeping position.