The first preseason friendly of the summer was an opportunity for third and fourth choice goaltenders Tom Heaton and Lee Grant to escape and without Dean Henderson or David de Gea on the training squad at Pennyhill Park this week, that is, likely to remain the case at Queens Park Rangers this weekend.
As the curtain fell last season, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer admitted that the goalkeeper situation at Old Trafford needed a “solution for next year, definitely”. Solskjaer had spent the season being fairly evasive on De Gea and Henderson and his last pre-game press conference of the Premier League season was the first time he had publicly accepted that the situation was unbearable.
But as it stands, De Gea and Henderson remain at the club. While it is obviously time for that to change, there have been few suggestions he is likely to see and at the moment the smart money is on the two goalkeepers remaining at United this season.
While last season’s glove battle can be seen as a one-off, with the academy graduate Henderson having the option of snagging that role away from De Gea or bringing the Spaniard’s best form back, it doesn’t. does not look like a situation conducive to long-term rivalry.
As Solskjaer said at this press conference, having two No.1 goalkeepers is rarely a recipe for harmony.
“It’s been a strange season in that regard as far as the goalkeeper is concerned. At United most of the time we had a No.1 who played most games, ”he said.
“I’m really happy with both of them, it’s hard to have that kind of rotation, you don’t shoot so normally, I’ll have to find a solution for next year definitely. “
The phased return in preseason doesn’t make an easy decision. At the most, Henderson and De Gea will have the friendlies against Brentford, Preston and Everton to impress. But will everything they do in three low-key preseason games really tip the vote in their favor?
De Gea played 36 times for United last season, Henderson 26. It should be enough audition for Solskjaer to pick his first-choice goalkeeper. Henderson certainly expects to get the gloves when the real business starts against Leeds United on August 14.
The risk of keeping both on the books is the uncertainty this will create. If Henderson starts the season as No.1, with a quadruple Player of the Year, a 45-caps Spain international goalkeeper with around £ 375,000 a week on the bench, that will only increase the pressure. Anytime Henderson drops a corner or kicks out of play, every minor and inconsequential mistake will become a story. Any significant error will dominate the agenda with a liner of De Gea’s caliber and history waiting behind the scenes.
The reverse will also be true, perhaps to a lesser extent. Henderson has a proven track record as a Premier League-ready goalkeeper and his ambition is relentless. He won’t want to accept spending an entire season sitting on the bench. If De Gea does not reach his best form, the clamor for Henderson will increase.
If Solskjaer was fed up with being asked about his goalkeepers last season, then he’s going to be tearing his hair out in the coming year if the battle between De Gea and Henderson continues in an act two.
Perhaps the biggest problem is that Solskjaer is not entirely convinced by one or the other. There is no perfect solution. De Gea’s best days seem to be behind him and while he remains a world-class shooter, his communication and distribution aren’t strong points, but they are staples of modern play. Henderson is better in both departments but remains a work in progress.
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Before the opening of the season against Leeds Solskjaer will have to nail his colors to the mast. United can no longer find themselves in a situation where they play 60 games and split them almost evenly between two goalkeepers. A shared No. 1 rarely ends well for a club.
The transfer window will be open for two weeks after the start of the season, so the disgruntled goalkeeper could be looking for a move, although most of the big clubs have now sorted their goalie department. Paris St-Germain were probably De Gea’s most likely exit route, but Gianluigi Donarumma’s signing left them very well covered in this position. If Henderson leaves, he wants to go somewhere to be the first choice, but those options in mid-August will be limited.
If United say goodbye to either, then Heaton showed Derby on Sunday that he can possibly be a reliable No.2. He may be 35, but he was in an England team less than two years ago. His ambitions might be to start games, but Henderson would feel less pressure with the former Burnley and Aston Villa goalkeeper as an assistant than if the cameras cut De Gea every time he made a mistake in a match.
If the window closes with De Gea and Henderson still at United, Solskjaer will need to handle this situation with caution. Someone will be disappointed, but the story could continue throughout the season.
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