It is a new one for a section of a football club’s fanbase to suggest the number one goalkeeper is the one sat on the bench.
They are factually correct, in fairness; David de Gea‘s has the number one stitched onto the back of his shirt. If we are to be pedantic, the first choice at Manchester United – the de facto number one – is Dean Henderson.
Why? Henderson has started in the last five Premier League games and in eight of the last nine across all competitions. In the Europa League, a competition reserved for the back-up ‘keeper, De Gea played against Granada last week and is expected to be between the sticks for the return leg.
De Gea will likely start in the league again this season. United are as certain of finishing second as queues outside UK shops and there might be nothing – not even prize money – riding on their final fixtures against Fulham and Wolves. Those matches already look ripe for mass rotation, be it a first start for Amad or a debut for Hannibal Mejbri.
Click to play
Tap to play
But back to the ‘keepers. A minority of United’s online following find Henderson’s new status to be anathema seemingly because of his nationality. The gall of an English club starting an English goalkeeper.
One of the most unhealthy aspects of Twitter is it specifies the number of replies to a tweet. You can get a pretty accurate gauge of the outrage at a post just by that number and anyone who dared laud Henderson following his performance at Tottenham was accused of an ‘agenda’ or, in one risible case, ‘British chauvinism’.
Another demanded criticism of Henderson for Leicester’s goals in the FA Cup quarter-final three weeks earlier, as if he was culpable rather than Fred, Nemanja Matic and Scott McTominay. Others wanted respect for De Gea, as if we are on his Pravda payroll. After De Gea’s league debut for United in 2011, a colleague was hounded off Twitter for suggesting De Gea looked ‘like a schoolboy’.
Gary Neville said on Sunday the United goalkeeper’s role is ‘scrutinised most in football’. A former colleague was so devastated by Jim Leighton’s demotion for the 1990 FA Cup final replay against Crystal Palace he wrote to Ferguson, vowing he would never forgive him.
It still beggars belief some supposed United fans are unable to celebrate an academy graduate who has spent 10 years at the club, developed from the National League to the Premier League, via loans in League Two, League One and the Championship, to become their first academy-bred number one since Gary Walsh in 1987.
De Gea has been celebrated throughout his decade at United and will be again when he strides out of Old Trafford for the last time. He has multiple entries in the pantheon of greatest saves and United could release a DVD boxset of his ‘best of’s. His brilliance has merited more winner’s medals than four in 10 years. It will be a particular pity if United matchgoers are unable to thank De Gea in person, although he is technically entitled to a testimonial.
Sir Alex Ferguson once half-jokingly suggested De Gea was the worst ‘keeper he had ever bought in front of other United players. De Gea laughs at the memory now and his millennial status did not jar with Ferguson’s bluntness.
De Gea is the only player this correspondent has ever marked 10 in the ratings. He earned that near-unattainable honour twice at Arsenal and Tottenham 13 months apart and there are countless other matches where De Gea saved United’s bacon. One of De Gea’s standout saves, at Fulham in February 2013, was so fine only the slowest of slow-motion replays detected the glove. The United fans in the Putney End thought Bryan Ruiz had just hit the post.
Henderson joined United in the same summer as De Gea in 2011 and when he accepted Stockport County’s loan offer in 2016 some of his teammates in the United youth team derided his decision to play non-league football. His advisor reassured him they would struggle to be in the game in a few years’ time. Henderson’s playing time on loan was recognised by Louis van Gaal, who recalled him amid an injury crisis and named Henderson on the bench for the FA Cup fifth round win at Shrewsbury.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has lacked authority in his handling of the goalkeeping dynamic, reneging on plans to drop De Gea on at least two occasions and referring to his ‘two number ones’. Two number ones does not add up, but some believe the spiel.
Click to play
Tap to play
Henderson’s two saves at his near post from Son Heung-min and Harry Kane were routine but key, given both stops came at 1-1. His shot-stopping was the least impressive aspect of his goalkeeping at Tottenham.
Twice Henderson charged out of his area to bail out Harry Maguire and one of the criticisms of De Gea in recent years is he is too rooted to his line. Sweeping is obligatory with ‘modern’ ‘keeping and the contrast has partly convinced Solskjaer to pick Henderson.
Another is Henderson’s extroverted nature. He was so brazen with his communication at Tottenham he told the United coach Kieran McKenna where to position Aaron Wan-Bissaka on the halfway line and repeatedly demanded a higher line.
De Gea’s introverted nature has been moot for the majority of his time at United and the great goalkeepers of the century – De Gea, Gianluigi Buffon and Iker Casillas – are usually unflappable and placid characters. English goalkeepers are taught to be vocal and there are unmistakable parallels between Henderson and a young Joe Hart, other than their development at Shrewsbury and fruitful Premier League loans.
It is not De Gea’s fault Solskjaer was accustomed to hearing Peter Schmeichel from a different time zone when he was a player or that Victor Lindelof has enjoyed his finest performances of the season with Henderson behind him. De Gea has had two years of decline, though ironically performed flawlessly in his last two outings at Granada and Chelsea.
Objectively, Henderson needs a sustained run in the Premier League for United to ascertain whether he is their long-term number one. He is six years younger than De Gea, on a longer contract, an international and has been on an upward curve since his first career appearance at Stockport’s Edgeley Park as an 18-year-old.
The ‘English bias’ is seemingly multilingual, as De Gea is also playing second fiddle to Unai Simon in the Spain national team. Jose Mourinho, who exchanged a fist bump with De Gea prior to kick-off, held Henderson avuncularly at full-time and regards him as the best ‘keeper at United but is understood to sympathise with De Gea’s situation.
The ‘number one’ is on the bench.