With two goalkeepers desperate to be first choice, Ole Gunnar Solskjær has a critical decision to make as the new Premier League season approaches. Selecting between his £350,000-a-week biggest earner, and a promising young English goalkeeper who firmly believes he deserves to be first choice. Yet this dilemma is not just one of ability, form or quality: it is symbolic of Solskjær’s tenure. An opportunity to transform Manchester United’s playing style on the pitch, utilising players whose profiles support the tactical aims, potentially at the expense of big names.
A Clash of Styles
David de Gea is one of the few Premier League winners in Solskjær’s squad, and can claim to have been the best in his position for a period of his career. Playing in a position where careers can last into a player’s 40s,(indeed the great Edwin van der Sar himself only joined United aged 34) the 30 year old Spaniard would appear to have time on his side before considering retirement. However, playing in goal for Manchester United demands world-class performances, consistency, and presence…
World-Class and Consistent?
As the Opta graphic below shows, de Gea had an exceptional 2017-18 season, preventing 14 goals over and above the expected. That sort of form placed him firmly on top of the goalkeeping world, yet since then, ‘Numero Uno’, as he’s known by many United fans, has failed to hit the heights required. In both 2018-19 and 2019-20, the current Spanish number two (having been usurped by Unai Simon) saved no more goals than expected – an average return and not of the level required at United.
De Gea’s greatest strength is often said to be his shot-stopping, yet as the above graphic shows, he has been disappointing ever since his 2017-18 heroics. Looking at the current season below, he ranks below most PL goalkeepers in terms of Post Shot Expected Goals prevented per 90 mins (vertical axis of graph). In simple terms, he concedes more goals than expected per 90 mins, and most PL GKs rank significantly better in this metric. For a goalkeeper in a team hoping to challenge for titles, these are not inspiring numbers. And then we come to his presence.
[Data via FBref, graph by @StatManCam]
It has long been known that de Gea prefers to remain on his goal line, rather than aggressively charging out of goal to confront attackers, claim crosses, or clear balls. Looking again at the above graph, on the horizontal axis we can see the % of crosses into the penalty area stopped by the goalkeeper, and in this metric, de Gea ranks WORST in the league. Whilst this may be acceptable with a defence composed entirely of dominant aerial presences, Victor Lindelof and Aaron Wan-Bissaka certainly do not excel in the air.
In contrast to de Gea, his rival Dean Henderson ranks considerably higher in terms of stopping crosses, and marginally better as a shot-stopper. Given United’s propensity to conceding from set pieces, coupled with our known aerial vulnerability on the right side of defence, Henderson would appear to suit the team better.
With modern football teams often making use of a high press after losing possession, it is essential that the space in behind the pressing team’s defence is well covered, or else any relatively fast striker could easily be presented with many 1v1 situations per game. In order to facilitate this, in addition to a fast defence who are able to quickly track back and recover when necessary, a goalkeeper willing to come out of goal to clear balls/engage opposition players is no longer just a luxury. It is an absolute necessity.
Of Manchester United’s back four in the 2020-21 season, only Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka possessed notable recovery pace: Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof excel in other areas, but are not the most rapid central defenders around. Whilst the imminent signing of Raphael Varane will drastically improve upon this, United desperately need a goalkeeper able to cover the space to allow the team to press higher and sustain attacks more readily.Embed from Getty Images
On the below graph, the average distance from goal line for defensive actions (vertical axis) is compared with the number of actions outside the penalty area per 90 minutes. This gives an indication of a GK’s tendency to sweep and cover space behind their defence, rather than merely staying on their line.
[Data via FBref, graph by @StatManCam]
Ederson’s position here may be surprising – one would expect him to be much closer to Allison – though this is likely down to the sheer amount of possession City average. As such, Ederson has fewer actions to make per 90. Once again, though, de Gea scores awfully compared with Henderson. Henderson is evidently a much more active sweeper, in addition to a bigger presence on crosses, and a broadly similar shot-stopper. Tactically this could provide advantages for the Red Devils in future, with a goalkeeper better suited to the team’s style.
Already, Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s reign has seen an evolution of United, with our battles with our blue intra-city neighbours being an excellent portrayal of how the team has improved. In our 2-1 victory over Manchester City in December 2019, David de Gea started in goal. United saw just 29% possession, with 58% of our defensive pressures coming in our own third. In contrast, in March 2021, United saw off our neighbours 2-0 with Dean Henderson in goal. Our possession was slightly improved at 34%, but this time only 45% of pressures came in our own third, demonstrating our ability to play higher up the pitch with Henderson covering space in behind. De Gea’s average distance from the goal line in that game was just 10.3 yards, whilst Henderson managed 18.5. Without wishing to over-simplify football, the further away you keep the opposition from your goal, the less chance of conceding!Embed from Getty Images
So far we have explored the tactical advantages Dean Henderson can bring to Manchester United, but one major question which hangs over the Englishman is his mentality. At just 24, he’s still young for a goalkeeper, but he’s never been shy of letting his ambitions be known. Indeed, before going on loan to Shrewsbury Town, (yes, Shrewsbury Town), he told former United manager Jose Mourinho that he wished to be number one on his return. Since then, Henderson has enjoyed two seasons on loan at Sheffield United before returning to Old Trafford for 2020-21.
However, with such high ambition comes an enormous level of pressure on oneself, and this has been evident in certain errors made by Henderson in a United shirt. As the goalkeeper himself alludes to below, the mental energy of battling with David de Gea for the #1 jersey has taken its toll at times. With Henderson’s constant desire not just to show he’s good enough for United, but also to convincingly prove to the world he’s better than de Gea, instances of poor decision making have crept in, none more so than against Burnley.
In the opening minutes at Old Trafford, Henderson seemed desperate to demonstrate his aerial prowess – presumably to emphasise his advantages over de Gea. With the whole footballing world knowing Lindelof is hardly elite in the air, Henderson made it his mission to take any ball off Lindelof’s head and clear it himself. The result: an early goal conceded as Henderson charged out 18 yards, getting to the ball after Chris Wood, his blushes spared fortunately by the offside flag.
Henderson has made other mistakes, and it is imperative that he allows himself to relax into a natural state, to make decisions based on their merits, not in order to portray himself as a hero. He must also improve on set pieces: it was telling that Sheffield United (his old club) opted to crowd him at every set piece, as he is prone to being aggressive with crosses, and sometimes ends up flapping. Just as Manchester United fans, Sir Alex Ferguson, and the Old Trafford hierarchy stuck by de Gea for his early years in the Premier League, so will the fans, Solskjær and the club be required to do again, whilst Henderson establishes himself and develops as a goalkeeper. His high standards stand him in great stead to improve.
If Dean Henderson can find the right zone mentally, he will become another famous United goalkeeper.