It would have been harsh to axe David de Gea for Manchester United’s 2018/19 season-enders against Huddersfield Town and Cardiff City, but it would have been fair.
A string of errors towards the end of a chaotic season — both for De Gea and United as a collective — showed the Spaniard’s 2018 World Cup hangover had not subsided and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had a very credible alternative in Sergio Romero he ought to have used.
Solskjaer’s reluctance to play Romero was again evident the next season when the Argentine should have started key Europa League and FA Cup semi-finals, after impressing hitherto in both cup competitions. But De Gea always retained the trust of his manager and automatically came back into the line-up, just as he kept his place when he should have been under pressure.
The decisions to keep him as the clear first choice in the United goal were partly borne out of necessity (Romero is older and was never going to be a long-term option), and partly from a sense of loyalty (De Gea has been United’s top earner for a while and had credit in the bank from his 2014 to 2018 excellence).
The situation is very different now. Solskjaer initially held off on dropping De Gea for Dean Henderson, but his admiration for the latter — an academy product and nearly seven years the Spaniard’s junior — is obvious.
The selection of Henderson over De Gea for the first legitimate league match when Solskjaer had both to choose from, against Brighton, was seen as a sliding doors moment — even if the Norwegian played it down.
After the 2-1 win over the Seagulls on Sunday, Solskjaer faced numerous questions about the goalkeeping situation. He said: “With Dean and David’s situation, I know it’s something that will create headlines and [is] fish and chip wrapping paper in a little while, but I’ve got two great goalkeepers and it’s about now finding games both will play.
“Obviously not the same game, of course. But both of them deserve to play more than what they do and it’s a decision I have to make every time.”
How long Solskjaer can keep up the veneer of “two number ones” — a phrase he used before the match, speaking to TV broadcasters BT Sport — is debatable. His comments suggested he knew the gravity of his decision deep down.
Rio Ferdinand’s instant reaction to that line in the punditry studio was to say “two number ones just doesn’t work” while a large swell of United fans accept Henderson is the coming man.
Solskjaer is playing it cute, but he’s also becoming ruthless with a player that has four Sir Matt Busby player of the year awards at United, a player who earns more than anyone else in the squad.
Some may see his diplomatic responses in the media as placating De Gea, but the proof will be in the selecting. And it’s hard to see Henderson dropping out for next week’s league visit to Tottenham Hotspur — even if De Gea plays in the Europa League versus Granada.
It’s more evidence that Solskjaer is finding the courage to make some ruthless decisions in areas of the United squad that needed them.
The sanctioning of Jesse Lingard’s loan exit in January is a decision that many, with the benefit of hindsight, are now questioning. Some United fans see Lingard’s sensational form on loan at West Ham and believe he should still be playing a role at Old Trafford.
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Manchester United secured a hard-fought 2-1 win over Brighton in their first game back after the international break.
Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood struck in the second half, after Danny Welbeck’s opener, to give United an important three points in their quest to finish second in the Premier League this season.
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But the truth is the 28-year-old wasn’t getting his opportunities at United and needed a change of scenery to rediscover himself. Solskjaer knew that and made a snap call that has proven to be the right one for Lingard’s career. United can reap the rewards from it, in fact, by getting a decent fee for a permanent Lingard sale. It was smart.
The same can be said for his decision to sign Bruno Fernandes a year ago, the same decision that sparked the beginning of the end for Lingard and for Andreas Pereira. Solskjaer knew United couldn’t continue with those options in attacking midfield and sought a significant upgrade, which has transformed the team’s fortunes ever since.
There are similarly major decisions on the horizon, on Edinson Cavani, Juan Mata, Eric Bailly and a number of transfer targets. They will require clarity of thought from Solskjaer and the same ruthlessness that is helping Dean Henderson and others right now.