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Featured Image Credit: Alamy/Twitter: Dean Henderson
The way Manchester United have handled their goalkeeping conundrum in the last two years is a prime example of why they are struggling under Erik ten Hag so far.
David de Gea experienced a career low for the club against Brentford on Saturday. Meanwhile, on Sunday, Dean Henderson was the saviour in Nottingham Forest's first Premier League win in over two decades.
Henderson was vital in the 1-0 victory against West Ham, saving Declan Rice's penalty mid-way through the second half. He also showed excellent distribution and ability to command his box.
The 24-year-old was loaned out to the newly promoted side after making just four appearances for the Reds last term.
In the season prior, Henderson started 10 of the last 12 league games for United, where the team lost just once as they finished second in the table.
It seemed like the perfect change in personnel, but a bout of long COVID stopped the goalkeeper from starting the season at Old Trafford, and De Gea took the reigns.
"The conversation I had coming out of the Euros squad was ‘you’re coming back here to be the No.1'. I got COVID, came back, so I should have still been the No.1, but then unfortunately nobody followed through with what they had told me," Henderson told TalkSPORT at the beginning of the month.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer opted to keep the Spaniard in net once United's no.24 returned to action. At the time, it might've seemed like the correct choice.
De Gea started the season very well, he looked sharp and was making great saves which kept United in games whilst they were majorly struggling to find any form on the pitch.
Yet, Solskjaer saw the benefits that Henderson was bringing to the team beforehand — commanding his area, communicating with his backline and offering himself in possession — and decided against integrating him back into the team, despite De Gea being unable to offer these different benefits.
De Gea might've been playing well, but the entire situation stunk of the decision making that has cost United their stature as a top performing club in recent years.
There were sharp saves, but De Gea was still the same goalkeeper that has not adapted to how top clubs want to operate. He doesn't help United in possession and is still yet to control his 18-yard box; a problem he has faced since he moved to England in 2011.
Why wasn't it being highlighted? Because United weren't playing like a top club last season.
It was a perfect scenario for the no.1 to thrive in. He was regularly in action with United collapsing like a broken table every time the opposition transitioned with the ball. We've seen in previous campaigns that mistakes crept into De Gea's game when he wasn't involved much.
His poor distribution and inability to be able to take charge of his area was masked by the poor level of the whole team. 'Why point it out when he's bailing the team out so often?', some would say.
The reason being the aim of returning the club to the top under Ten Hag, which seems all the more difficult with a goalkeeper who is unable to play the way that other top goalkeepers do.
There were warning signs in pre-season and then flashing lights against Brighton, but United's visit to the Gtech Community Stadium was a nightmare and each goal showed a reason why De Gea is no longer at the top of the food chain between the sticks.
The first goal came from a shot-stopping mistake as the Spaniard let the ball go underneath him, which also shows why you can't just rely on that attribute alone if you're a top level goalkeeper. Mistakes will always creep in and you need other attributes to fall back on.
But, then came errors with De Gea's distribution, ability to command the box and sweeping for the following three goals in the 4-0 drubbing from Thomas Frank's men.
The decision to keep De Gea and let Henderson leave was not made with the idea of what top goalkeepers offer their team. It was made because of a run of form — which didn't show improvement in any area other than shot-stopping — and the fact that he is the best paid goalkeepers in the world. Sentiment would've also likely came into it, after De Gea's superb performances in previous years left credit in the bank following his poor performances in 2019/20 and 2020/21.
However, the idea that a manager would come into the picture and want to play football like other top footballing teams, who have well-rounded goalkeepers, must've not crossed the minds of those in charge. Spain manager Luis Enrique has not used the goalkeeper since October 2020. “I need a goalkeeper to transmit peace and tranquillity to me," he said back in June.
Now, it seems that Ten Hag is stuck with De Gea for the rest of the season and the possibility of Henderson taking on the baton afterwards seems low since he left for Forest without speaking to the new Dutch manager.
Whilst the rest of the team is far from innocent, the two main problems so far have been the midfield and goalkeeper. All six goals conceded in the league so far could've been avoided if a well-rounded keeper was in between the sticks and the midfield was not walked over by opposition.
The decision from Solskjaer and those above him last year was made without much thought of the future at the club. There has been far too many similar decisions made in recent years and those are partly why Ten Hag has received a shock since his move to England.
Whether Henderson in the long-term solution to this problem, we don't know. The one thing we do know, however, is that De Gea is certainly not.