With Sheffield United currently sixth in the Premier League and in the hunt for European qualification, it is safe to say that Chris Wilder's team has exceeded most expectations.
While the club likes to promote the value of the team over the individual, it has been impossible to ignore the performances of their goalkeeper Dean Henderson.
Henderson, on loan from Manchester United, has emerged as one of the league’s very best keepers. His explosive performances for the Blades combined with a seeming decline in the ability of his parent club’s current No. 1, David De Gea, has sparked the conversation about how exactly Manchester United should handle this situation going forward.
Henderson's form at Sheffield United
In the 2018-19 season it was clear that Henderson was one of the best keepers in the Championship. His league-high 21 clean sheets helped secure an automatic promotion place for Sheffield United. He has since carried this form over to the Premier League, and at only 23 years of age, has cemented himself as one of the best young keepers in Europe.
PSxG +/- is a measure of a keeper’s shot-stopping ability, and only three other U23 keepers have had better shot-stopping seasons. From the data, only Unai Simon has faced shots of greater difficulty.
Post-Shot xG (PSxG): A calculation taken after a shot towards goal has been found to have hit the target, while taking into account the quality of the shot, and more useful in assessment of goalkeepers than merely saves made.FootballCritic Definitions
Henderson's shot-stopping ability is founded in his reliable application of fundamentals, elite level athleticism and a high-level understanding of goalkeeping psychology.
Henderson has made what seem like straightforward save types a regular feature of his game, and his consistent application of fundamentals (body position, two hands behind the ball, parrying away from danger) should be admired.
In the above image, we can see Henderson utilising the split save to deny Mane. The split save is a relatively new tool in Henderson’s arsenal, but he has used it to great effect in the one-on-one situations to deny strikers what should be straight forward chances. Henderson adding this to his game alongside his existing prowess in more traditional save types showcases the high level of technical competency that he has.
The above shot he was saving from Mohamed Salah from only 13 yards out. He had a fraction of a second in which to react and employ his explosive power. This athleticism (and reflexes) are a vital tool for Henderson and have contributed to a significant number of saves this season.
Finally, we can see here an example of the keen understanding of psychology Henderson has. Danny Welbeck is bearing down one-on-one, and Henderson first closes down the angle he has to aim for; however, he displays excellent discipline to not 'rush in' and leave himself ill-positioned to make a save.
He remains as big as possible for as long as possible, placing a high degree of pressure on Welbeck, and as a result, he can employ the previously mentioned split save to deny the goal.
De Gea's Man Utd decline
Are David De Gea's best days are behind him?
The above graph showcases two things; firstly in the last three seasons, the quality of shots De Gea has faced has mostly remained the same however but his ability to stop said chances has seen a dramatic decline.
In the three seasons featured, De Gea has gone from being the best shot-stopper in Europe, to merely a 'very good' shot-stopper, to being slightly below average. This will obviously be a cause of great concern for Manchester United as the trait that made De Gea the best goalkeeper in the world has seemingly abandoned him.
Below we can see two examples of shots close to De Gea’s body struck from within a few yards of him. In the first example against West Brom in 2017/18, De Gea applies a negative-step dive and gets his hand down to make the save. The alternative would have been a save with his feet but what we are interested in is the clarity De Gea shows in picking between the two save types, especially when contrasted with example two.
In the second example, from the 2019/20 season, De Gea gets caught between these save types and attempts neither a foot save nor a negative-step dive and the ball sneaks under him. The above is just an example of numerous instances in which De Gea has not shown the most clarity in his thoughts about what save to make.
The second area of concern for United will be the sudden re-emergence of basic goalkeeping errors in De Gea's game. The Spaniard’s first season at United was blighted by errors that had some sections questioning his suitability to the Premier League. Over the next few seasons, De Gea had all but eliminated these mistakes from his game and was thriving.
However, ever since an error for Spain against Portugal at the 2018 World Cup, these errors have become more and more commonplace - Watford, Everton & Arsenal the most recent and notable examples.
Despite these two areas being major alarm bells for United regarding De Gea's long-term role as the club's No. 1, to definitively say De Gea will never return to his best would be short-sighted.
He is still young enough, been free of any significant injury and with no visible body composition changes he still holds his athletic prowess. United's recent move to remove De Gea’s long time coach & friend Emilio Alvarez and the threat that Henderson poses to his No. 1 shirt could be all the motivation De Gea needs to recapture his best form.
Henderson v De Gea comparison
Across all essential metrics, Henderson has outperformed De Gea, and in many sections, it isn't particularly close. As the previous sections have evaluated both keeper’s shot-stopping abilities, we will not detail it further, but we will focus on two areas that should also illustrate the differences between the two keepers; cross-stopping, and in possession involvement.
Cross-stopping is an area of De Gea’s game that he has never quite taken to a world-class level; even at his best he was perhaps average at this facet. This season De Gea has also shown less aptitude towards this and as a result United are relatively fragile against crosses and set pieces. While Henderson might not be world class at this aspect of the game, he represents a significant improvement on De Gea, and the two images below illustrate the differences:
De Gea struggles with crosses stem from his lack of upper body strength that allows him to get bullied and mishandle the ball. However, he often doesn't give himself the best chance possible by employing poor jumping technique as shown in the above example.
De Gea prefers to jump off of his left foot, but in the above situation, this prevents him from getting his leg up to act as a barrier between his core and Virgil van Dijk. This allows the Liverpool man to transfer his momentum into De Gea’s exposed core and as a result, he mishandles the ball. This is something we can see repeated across multiple games where he doesn't get his leg high enough to be an effective barrier, and the physical presence of other players causes a spill or no ball contact at all. Compare that to Henderson, who while also being physically stronger, employs a superior technique to shield himself.
The subtle differences in technique between the two keepers can help explain substantial differences in performance. At the age of 29 and with so many games under his belt it is perhaps unrealistic to predict any significant improvement in this regard from De Gea, however with additional coaching and focus he may be able to improve in a small way.
In terms of in-possession involvement, despite scoring higher than De Gea, we can say these numbers don't tell the whole story. This metric measures how many touches a keeper receives relative to the total number their team has, therefore, the graphic below merely means that Henderson is involved in a higher % of Sheffield United’s play than De Gea in Manchester United's.
This shouldn't be a surprise when you consider the plethora of ballplayers United has in front of De Gea compared to Sheffield's personnel. To gain a clearer understanding, we need to examine the player closer to determine their performance.
From the above chart, we can see the distribution of both keeper’s passes. While it is evident that Henderson has favoured the long pass much more than De Gea, we can conclude by looking at the data for both teams that this can be explained as a function of team tactics.
On the whole, Sheffield play 32% of their passes long versus Manchester United (24%). These two keepers play for teams in very different systems that will account for significant differences in not only the types of passes they attempt, but the success which they find.
Henderson's instructions lead him to playing higher risk passes, and as a result, his completion numbers overall are indeed lower. However, when we look at his passes over the shorter distances, we can see that he is an undoubtedly capable passer (98% medium pass completion). Still, these numbers should be taken with a pinch of salt as he is much less tested than De Gea at this range (328 passes versus 78). The conclusion we can draw is that if Henderson was at his parent club, a period of adaptation would be needed but he certainly possesses the potential to adapt.
What should Manchester United do?
We can probably conclude that, currently, Dean Henderson is the best keeper on the books at United. This is a tricky situation for the club who are now faced with three options heading into the next season.
1. Start Henderson and bench or sell De Gea
Perhaps the most radical (and least likely) option available to United is to reward Henderson's performances over the last two seasons and either bench De Gea or looking for potential suitors for the Spanish keeper.
The market for De Gea will be thin at the moment, and the club would be unwise to take a cut-price offer. It is likely therefore he would have to stay and United deal with the potential locker room turmoil this could cause. In this scenario United would also need to find a destination for Sergio Romero who will see his precious few minutes evaporate, but on a much lower salary than De Gea, he might be the easier to move.
2. Loan Henderson, retain De Gea
It should be noted that despite his declining performance, De Gea is far from a liability and he retains the potential to return to his previous high level and is on a wage that United may find difficult to move. In this scenario, the club stick with their former Player of the Year and keep him on as No. 1 while finding another loan move for Henderson.
The obvious destination would be back to Sheffield United. Here Henderson could remain in a set up that has aided his development and play under a manager who has complete trust in him, and with the possibility of European football returning to Bramall Lane, Henderson could get much-needed experience at this level.
This would need to be weighed up with satisfying Henderson's personal desire to progress his career.
3. Start De Gea, Phase in Henderson
Drawing inspiration from Barcelona's management of Marc-Andre ter Stegen's early years at the club, United would start De Gea in league matches while giving Henderson European and cup duties. This scenario allows De Gea the opportunity to rehabilitate his slightly dented market value while also integrating Henderson slowly into the side.
Henderson currently lacks experience at the European level and while United are not realistic challengers for the Champions League at this time, getting that experience now could be vital to any future challenge.
United solve the immediate problem of having two No. 1s. Still, whichever path the club chooses going forward, the story of United's GK jersey will be a fascinating one going forward.