Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was adamant that Tuesday night’s Champions League fixture with Istanbul Basaksehir was not “make or break” for Dean Henderson’s Manchester United career – and now you can see why.
Having started in Istanbul the expectation was that Henderson would make his fourth United appearance – and first at Old Trafford – in the return fixture, so it was a surprise when David de Gea was the man chosen in goal.
After what happened in Turkey Solskjaer clearly felt he could take no risks with his selection, but then goalkeeper is perhaps the strongest area of his squad, given the quality of Henderson as the reserve to De Gea.
The academy graduate collected his first England cap last week and was one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League with Sheffield United last season. He is more than good enough to be playing Champions League games against group also-rans.
But as we saw last season Solskjaer would always rely on De Gea when it came to the crunch, as Sergio Romero could testify after being dropped for all three knockout semi-finals United played last season.
That was the final straw for Romero, who is keen to leave the club, and Solskjaer will hope Henderson doesn’t come to the same conclusion.
Solskjaer was clear that Henderson can expect to get games before the Carabao Cup quarter-final at Everton on December 23, but after Tuesday night the window of opportunity looks to be closing.
It may be something that got lost in Solskjaer’s comments that now looks particularly telling.
“Dean wants to stay at Man United and play for Man United,” Solskjaer said. “I can’t see the logic in only one potential appearance left before Christmas. Do you know how many games we’ve got?
“I disagree completely that tomorrow is make-or-break for Dean. He’s come back in, he’s training really well, he’s maturing, he’s had some games, he’s training with one of the best goalkeepers in the world, he has got the potential to be one of the best goalkeepers in the world, it’s great competition between them.
“So I don’t buy that argument it’s make or break for him. And it’s not up to me to keep everyone happy. The performances will always be the deciding factor if you play or not. I think every position you play for Man United it is your duty to make me and the coaches happy. So then there’s a bigger chance you can play next time.”
That final sentence is perhaps instructive when it comes to De Gea. The 30-year-old has responded to Henderson’s ambition and so far this season has looked like the goalkeeper who won four player of the year awards at Old Trafford.
Having been selected on Tuesday he made some excellent saves once again. It was hard to argue that Solskjaer hadn’t got the decision correct.
That will be of little comfort to Henderson, however. He will turn 24 in March and having had a taste of international football last week he’ll want more. Henderson’s ambition won’t be sated by 45 minutes for his country and some Carabao Cup fixtures for United.
In the short-term Henderson must realise time is running out to be England’s No. 1 at next summer’s European Championships. He won’t leapfrog Nick Pope and Jordan Pickford with only a handful of United appearances.
But that could make his Old Trafford situation all the more urgent. De Gea is in his prime as a goalkeeper and isn’t likely to be going anywhere soon, so if Henderson can’t force his way in on training performances, and De Gea’s displays are back at peak level, then his options are limited. Will he be patient enough to sit and wait for a chance again next season if one international tournament has already passed him by?
United are in a fortunate position to be able to count on two goalkeepers of the quality of De Gea and Henderson, but keeping both happy was never going to be an easy task. Solskjaer might not see it as his job to keep them satisfied, but frustration from Henderson’s side will be entirely understandable if he isn’t even afforded a start in games that look tailor-made for him.