The decision to keep Dean Henderson in goal for Manchester United’s Premier League win against Brighton on Easter Sunday looks to have provided clarity to a delicate situation.
The battle between David de Gea and Henderson to be No. 1 this season was always going to present Ole Gunnar Solskjaer with a dilemma at one point or another. He will feel a certain loyalty towards De Gea, who has shown United plenty of that trait, but at the same time there is an obligation to get the decision right for the future of the club.
Right now there probably isn’t a great deal between the standard of Henderson and De Gea, but the former is the younger man by six years and looks to be a better fit for Solskjaer’s style of play. More comfortable with the ball at his feet and proactive when it comes to leaving his line, he can help United build from the back and play with a higher line.
Henderson’s change of status brings a new pressure but he should just have to get through the final eight Premier League games of this season without falling under the weight of that spotlight to make sure he keeps the position for next season.
That won’t be the end of the goalkeeping drama at Old Trafford, however. The duel between Henderson and De Gea was only ever likely to be a one-season shootout, with whoever ended the campaign without the gloves moving on.
If De Gea remains second-choice then it would make sense for his 10-year stay at Old Trafford to come to an end, with a considerable debt of gratitude to the Spaniard.
Given his earnings of around £375,000 a week, he’s far too well-paid to be a cup goalkeeper and at 30 he has plenty more to offer, including winning his place back as Spain’s No.1.
Finding a club willing to get close to that salary might be a challenge, but it could suit all parties if De Gea departs. United may need to agree to a pay-off in some form, but Henderson will feel a harsher spotlight if he is trying to establish himself as first-choice with a veteran of more than 400 games for the club waiting in the wings.
He’s unlikely to be the only goalkeeper on his way out of the building this summer. Sergio Romero will leave when his contract expires, having spent an unnecessary final year at the club – when he’s been in Manchester anyway. At 37 Lee Grant could also leave, although there could be an argument for retaining his experience as a third-choice option. Most Premier League clubs want an experienced hand to be their third goalkeeper on a matchday now and Grant is clearly a valued member of the squad.
The potential departures of De Gea and Romero would leave Solskjaer without an obvious No. 2, however, a situation that would need solving. Going into the season with Henderson, Grant and the untried and untested Nathan Bishop would be a significant risk.
There are examples for United to follow in the not too distant past. Perhaps the most high-profile recent tussle for the right to become a first-choice goalkeeper was at Stamford Bridge, although it always felt age was on Thibaut Courtois’ side against Petr Cech. The latter still felt he had something to offer, however, and after they duelled it out in 2014/15 he left for Arsenal that summer.
That left Chelsea without an obvious No.2 for Courtois. They solved that conundrum by signing Asmir Begovic from Stoke City for £8million and it proved to be a relatively wise decision. The Bosnian would start 15 Premier League games that season as a result of a knee injury for Courtois and while the campaign was a disaster for Chelsea, it could have been worse had they not signed a suitable back-up goalkeeper.
It would be unfair to say the jury remains out on Henderson, but he is obviously still a player proving himself at the very highest level. Sunday was still only his sixth Premier League start for United and his ascension to No. 1 goalkeeper, something he’s been striving for since he joined the club, will bring a new type of pressure and scrutiny.
So United will want a reliable No.2 next season, capable of supporting Henderson and stepping into the void if required, but it might also help the academy graduate’s chances if it wasn’t a goalkeeper who had obvious claims on his shirt, like De Gea would if he remained for another season.
Finding someone to fill that brief will not be easy. United have had an embarrassment of riches in the goalkeeping department this season, with internationals from England, Spain and Argentina, but this could be a summer of upheaval between the posts.