Henderson’s grand stage
Once again during his extended Manchester United audition, Dean Henderson didn’t have a great deal to do against AC Milan, but his strong save from Zlatan Ibrahimovic just over 15 minutes from the end was hugely impressive.
The former United striker powered a header goalwards from six yards, but Henderson reacted superbly, sticking out a strong hand to force the effort away from goal. Having allowed Simon Kjaer’s header to get past him at Old Trafford a week ago it was an excellent response.
Henderson was comfortable with the ball at his feet once again as well and kept an 11th clean sheet in 16 starts for United this season. That’s a stunning record.
The presence of David de Gea on the bench showed a big decision is pending for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Has Henderson done enough to earn an extended run as No. 1 towards the end of this season? If De Gea is back in the Premier League side after the international break then Henderson must be wondering what more he can do.
United’s decision – and Henderson’s patience if it goes against him – might be even more pressing in the next couple of weeks. England have three World Cup qualifiers during the international break and Henderson or Nick Pope will be in goal. If the 24-year-old is chosen he will know he is getting closer to his dream of becoming England No. 1 as well. If United deny him that role it might be the end of the road, but on the evidence of the last couple of weeks Henderson’s time has come.
A night to swell the ego
When Solskjaer lined up Jose Mourinho in his crosshairs on Wednesday, with that not-so-subtle jibe about trophies being an “ego thing” for some managers, he couldn’t have possibly imagined the following night would go as well this.
Mourinho’s Tottenham collapsed in embarrassing fashion in throwing away a 2-0 first-leg lead against Dinamo Zagreb, while United moved a step closer to ending their trophy drought by progressing to the Europa League quarter-finals.
There were some willful misinterpretations of Solskjaer’s comments as the Norwegian saying he isn’t bothered about silverware, but his strong selections in cup competitions and his excellent record in them suggests otherwise. He would love to win a trophy as a United manager, but that isn’t where progress will be judged.
This win certainly takes a bit of pressure over ahead of the FA Cup quarter-final against Leicester City on Sunday, but if they can win at the King Power Stadium it will end a potentially defining week for Solskjaer and United.
They will fancy their chances in the East Midlands as well. Solskjaer’s United have now contested 28 knockout ties, winning 22 of them. That is a remarkably consistent record and while those four semi-final defeats and the collapse in the Champions League group stage are black marks against the side, Solskjaer knows that sort of record and progress in the Premier League will produce a trophy eventually. Quite possibly this season.
A case for the defence
United have found goals hard to come by recently so their best chance of success in Milan was always going to be on the defence keeping a clean sheet.
If they could find a way to nick a goal and keep things tight at the back then that would do the job and that is exactly what happened.
This was an excellent night for Harry Maguire and especially Victor Lindelof, who defended resolutely and intelligently and protected Henderson’s goal superbly.
Just like against West Ham last week, United relied on their defence to lay a platform for a narrow win. When you’re short on goals that is exactly what’s required.
That’s now six clean sheets in seven games for United and while they produced a similar run last season that proved to be a false dawn, this defensive resilience has been well-timed, considering United have scored only five times in that run.
Solskjaer’s lesson in making subs
On Sunday Solskjaer didn’t make a single sub against West Ham, but he signaled his intention to make changes if required pre-match at the San Siro, mentioning Paul Pogba, Donny van de Beek and Amad as likely candidates to try and change the game.
After a poor end to the first half that change needed to be made at half-time, but Marcus Rashford’s injury meant it was an enforced substitution, with Pogba coming on to play on the left.
Within three minutes it had worked brilliantly and Pogba’s arrival galvanized United, who produced their best spell of the tie in the early stages of the second half.
The question only Solskjaer can answer is whether he would have been bold enough to make a change at half-time if Rashford wasn’t injured.
His delayed use of replacements when games aren’t going for United is often a criticism aimed at Solskjaer, but against AC Milan he saw what can happen when you take the proactive approach. That might just encourage Solskjaer to be bold the next time the first-half doesn’t go according to plan.
The best and worst of James
When it comes to a discussion around the best left-backs in world football, AC Milan’s Theo Hernandez is certainly in the conversation. The Frenchman has been a revelation at AC Milan, defensively excellent and a real threat going forward, but he was given a thorough test by Daniel James in the first half at the San Siro.
James regularly had the beating of Hernandez and it was clear United were keen to isolate the winger against the Milan left-back. The speed of James regularly took him beyond Hernandez, which is a sign of just how dangerous the Welshman can be.
But his impact was diluted by some questionable decision-making, which is a regular frustration in James’ game. In fairness, he is still relatively inexperienced for a 23-year-old. This was only the 109th senior appearance of his career, so there are still parts of his game to iron out.
It is picking the right moment to take his man on, as well as when to cross and when to shoot, that James needs to work on. If he can iron out those glitches in his game then he can still have a long future at Old Trafford, but that needs to arrive sooner than later.