David de Gea is scraping through games, getting by through the skin of his teeth. Dean Henderson is leaving his imprint on games, making an active difference. That is the difference for Manchester United right now.
Their goalkeeping dilemma lurched in another direction during the 1-0 victory over AC Milan on Thursday night and it was not good news for De Gea’s army of staunch supporters.
It is only natural that a goalkeeper with a decade-long reputation as a United great will accrue such a set of fans, and only natural that criticism of the Spaniard is met with suspicion. But the eyes don’t deceive anymore when it comes to De Gea versus Henderson. The debate is swinging in one, probably irreversable, direction.
It has been one of the most intriguing one-on-one battles for a United place in the post Sir Alex Ferguson era, in truth. But a winner seems to be emerging, with only one of the two goalkeepers on an upward trajectory.
Personality is a trait often discouraged by goalkeeping coaches for fear of it leading to over-exuberance. United fans will remember how chaotic Fabien Barthez — touted as Peter Schmeichel’s long-term heir — could be. The great Dane tended to get just the right balance between character and care in goal.
Henderson can often be heard barking orders at his teammates and always looks to be brimming with confidence, though the 24-year-old’s closest confidants say his brashness is a front masking a more sensitive and personable interior.
Either way, he certainly looks to have the right level of confidence for a role Harry Maguire recently described as “probably the most scrutinised role in English football”. If Henderson becomes both the United and England No.1 that scrutiny will be double, but if anyone can deal with it, it’s this Cumbrian-born shotstopper.
It felt significant that Henderson’s big save in the Milan game was to deny Zlatan Ibrahimovic, one of European football’s last remaining old warhorses at 39 and a former United talisman of course. Henderson is proving rather good at blunting big reputations.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been reluctant to make such a seismic change between the United posts, which perhaps explains why he’s also a little reticent, when asked, to praise Henderson. But after a clean sheet in the San Siro — Henderson’s 11th in 18 United appearances — the Norwegian couldn’t stop himself.
“It’s a save he should have made last week,” came the first bit of semi-criticism.
“Very similar. Very pleased for him, of course. Great save,” he added.
“The team is always giving us everything. It starts from the front with the pressing front four really high energy pressing, the back six and keeper, we know what they can do. Very happy with the defensive foundation, that gives you the platform to go and win games.”
Again, the small doses of praise were couched in more general comments about the United defence, but since De Gea went away on paternity leave, Henderson has done little wrong. Even that ‘mistake’ to allow Simon Kjaer’s header in, in the first leg against Milan, was hardly a howler. He’s conceded just one goal in his last eight appearances.
Henderson has allowed United to get into a position that is far stronger than Ferguson add after Schmeichel’s exit in 1999. They have the luxury of bedding De Gea’s obvious long-term successor into the club, whereas Barthez, Raimond van der Gouw, Mark Bosnich and others all came and went post-Schmeichel, in the early 2000s.
Henderson might not match Schmeichel’s Old Trafford achievements, or even De Gea’s. But there is little doubt he is the coming force between the United sticks and has given Solskjaer a simple decision to make.