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Is Dean Henderson ready to replace David de Gea at Manchester United?

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De Gea has not been the same since 2018, but the grass is not always greener on the other side

Tottenham Hotspur v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

Former Manchester United Captain Roy Keane was apoplectic with rage at half-time in his duties as a pundit for Sky Sports. David De Gea and Harry Maguire took the brunt of it as the two were culpable for a string of individual errors that led to Tottenham Hotspur taking the lead in United’s much-awaited return from the break. While this led to much of the discourse around the game, perhaps his most disconcerting point was after the game. He warned United that they are running out of games to close the gap on Champions League places.

United will have to overcome these small margins and granular details in the coming days. While Keane may have been far too grating in his comments, he isn’t wrong here. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has done a fantastic job in uplifting the despondent group that he inherited from the man who was in the opposition dugout on Friday. However, it is time for even his most loyal devotees to judge him under the microscope. He has to start by addressing an elephant in the room.

David De Gea has been United’s most consistent performer since Fergie’s retirement and has been encumbered with carrying the side for years to a respectable spot in the table. His failed deadline day move to Real Madrid in 2015-16 is a much-celebrated anecdote among the fan base. However, one would have to be in denial to consider his form a blip. Two years is a long time.

It’s incomprehensible how a player who had enjoyed one of the greatest goalkeeping seasons in Premier League history in the 2017-18 season could have such a decline. United fans aren’t unaccustomed to this – United’s greatest goalscorer was subject to a very similar narrative. It doesn’t help that only a day before Friday’s match, United’s 23-year-old loanee Dean Henderson was pulling off save after save, coming off his line to pick up balls in the air on his way to the golden glove leaderboard.

It’s an awkward situation for the manager as De Gea isn’t even old by goalkeeper standards, and is one of the club’s highest-paid players in a new economic reality. No club could possibly afford him, and if they could, it would be a luxury signing. United also have their hands tied as a goalkeeper is way down the pecking order when they haggle in the transfer market.

The stats aren’t kind to De Gea this season and they look exponentially better for Henderson. The metric used in analytics to measure goalkeeping performance — post-shot expected goals minus goals allowed — has De Gea at -0.7 (all stats are from FBref via statsbomb) for this season. For those unfamiliar with this metric, the post-shot expected goals stat is a measure of shot quality.

Still unsure? Let’s put it this way — a 5-yard tap-in would have a high expected goal value but if the player who receives the tap-in happens to scuff it, the goalkeeper is likely to save it. This shot would not have a very high post-shot expected goal value. Whereas, a shot that makes ‘top bins’ from an acute angle will not have a high expected goal value (which is why we love them) but it’ll have a high post-shot expected goal value because of the difficulty in saving these shots.

Henderson, on the other hand, has a fairly high post-shot expected goal minus goals allowed value of +6.7. There are other factors to be considered before he is thrown into the fishbowl that is Old Trafford, however. He was at fault in a game against Liverpool earlier in the season and got a rollicking from his manager. More recently, he was at fault for the second goal the Blades conceded against Newcastle United. Perhaps a few games for England — and Henderson’s senior national team debut is surely not far away — will help determine if he’s ready for the biggest stage before United take the plunge.

Henderson also has an extremely high percentage of launched goal kicks, at 95.8%. When looking at the percentage of launched kicks from all his passes, it’s still a fairly high number at 76%. A launched goal kick is a goal kick over 40 yards. De Gea, for all of his faults, has only launched 34.3% of his goal kicks. Modern goalkeeping demands playing it out from the back in building attacks.

A launched kick isn’t necessarily a sign that a goalkeeper is booting the ball route-one style, though. Allison Becker had a launched 52.4% of his goal kicks last season but he had a success rate of 49.7% whereas Henderson has only had a success rate of 28.7%.

Neither De Gea nor Henderson show extraordinary sweeping ability, with De Gea having only 10 defensive actions outside the box all season and Henderson having 13. There is a not insignificant difference in crosses stopped in the penalty area with De Gea stopping 9 from 226 attempted crosses while Henderson has nearly double that with 17 from 216.

While this is clearly impressive from young Henderson, his performances don’t hold a candle to De Gea’s best season in 2017-18. Why compare it to that season? Because that’s the standard that he has to meet if he’s to become Manchester United’s number 1.

De Gea’s post-shot expected goal minus goal allowed stood at an implausible +12.4. He launched 84.5 % of his goal kicks but only launched 52.3% of his attempted passes in a José Mourinho side. One could presume that Henderson would make a change if instructed, like De Gea has done since, but the temptation to do so must be resisted.

Robert Fulghum, author of that classic book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, put it this way: “The grass is not, in fact, always greener on the other side of the fence. No, not at all. Fences have nothing to do with it. The grass is greenest where it is watered.”

There’s evidence to suggest that De Gea has adjusted to the demands of modern goalkeeping when re-examining the launched kick stats. When Louis van Gaal was United manager, he was also accompanied by Frans Hoek — the legendary goalkeeping coach who advocated for the sweeper-keeper role as we know it today. He spoke of De Gea’s disinclination to those demands recently in an interview with Sky. The goalkeeping metrics, unfortunately, aren’t available for the seasons under van Gaal.

With all the evidence available, neither Henderson nor De Gea from the last two seasons are ideal candidates. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s position isn’t as precarious as it was a few months back but his best bet is to help De Gea regain his form and send Henderson on loan to a side that restricts its goalkeeper from launching the ball and being faced with a flurry of shots.

Manchester United need the goalkeeper from the 2017-18. They need the keeper who put in one of the greatest goalkeeping displays in Premier League history in the last season’s version of Friday’s fixture. The debate will only heat up when United face Sheffield United in a few days, even though Henderson will not take part per the terms of the loan agreement.

One must heed to what football historian, journalist and sociologist extraordinaire David Goldblatt had to say on goalkeepers when writing an account in Jonathan Wilson’s book – The Outsider: A History of Goalkeeper, “Certainly the goalkeeper must endure the role of scapegoat more often than any outfield players. They are inevitably seen as the final line of defence; ultimately responsible for conceding last-minute equalisers and devastating winning goals.”

De Gea has started to become such a scapegoat, but we should be wary of rushing to proclaim Henderson as his immediate replacement just yet.