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De Gea, Henderson, or none of the above?

Things have never really been the same for David de Gea since his move to Real Madrid fell apart at the last minute in the summer of 2015. Arguably, they haven't been the same since Alex Ferguson left Manchester United – but then, nothing really has. De Gea has had to rediscover himself, to get his mojo back somehow, under a succession of coaches. But even with the rather capable Sergio Romero waiting in the wings, De Gea has never faced a serious challenge to his status as Manchester United's number one... until now.

Dean Henderson played all of the 36 league matches for which he was eligible on loan at Sheffield United, conceding 33 goals and recording 13 clean sheets. It helped to have some of the league's stingiest defenders in front of him, to be sure, and Chris Wilder expertly guiding him from the technical area. Yet the message was clear: Henderson was every inch a Premier League goalkeeper, and at age 23 could only improve.

At 29 years old, David De Gea is in his peak years as a GK. But Henderson probably won't want to sit on the bench for the Red Devils after the season he's had. If Henderson is to be Manchester United's future, he must be their present as well.

So what should Ole Gunnar Solskjaer decide? Let's take a look at the overall stats for both GKs:

The first thing that pops out is the big difference in playing style. De Gea is one of the least aggressive defenders in Europe's top leagues. He stays close to his line and uses shorter passes to his defenders. Henderson, by contrast – and this has more than a little bit to do with Wilder's way of playing – passes much more aggressively and can take the ball out himself, as well as being a more active defender. The difference is pretty obvious on these smartermaps:

Interestingly, De Gea's passing was much more similar to Henderson's back in 2016-17, when Jose Mourinho was on the touchline at Old Trafford. But now, it looks like Henderson would have to adapt, or Solskjaer would have to allow him a different role if he came in as the number one.

The other big difference between the GKs is their shotstopping. Despite some notable errors in the past couple of seasons, De Gea is still excellent for non-headers in open play, the biggest category of shots. But his weakness against non-headers from dead balls and direct free kicks has been exposed repeatedly, and he's little more than average in the other categories.

De Gea's weakness is Henderson's strength, with a much higher rating on non-headers from dead balls. He's nothing to write home about in the other categories, though. Here's how Henderson's rating for non-headers in open play evolved over his first season as a Premier League starter:

Henderson's rating peaked in early July and then started to decline when the wind seemed to go out of the Blades' sails. He showed that he could operate at a high level, and he'd have to learn to sustain it. Here's the same chart for De Gea over the period covered by our data:

De Gea didn't face many shots in that first season under Mourinho, and the Red Devils conceded just 24 non-penalty goals. peaked in November 2017, when there was only a 30% chance that he would concede from a basket of shots where a generic Premier League GK would have a 50% chance of conceding. He had notched nine clean sheets after just 13 league matches! But that was also the time when gossip resurfaced linking him to Real Madrid, and maybe that got into his head, sending him into a slide that only ended in January 2020.

Neither GK is completely consistent. They both have their hot and cold streaks. But De Gea's average is far above Henderson's, and the question is whether Henderson's other attributes would justify making him the starter. And of course, there are other options – especially if Manchester United want a player with a similar style to De Gea's but with more reliable shotstopping. Here are the most similar players in style across Europe's top five leagues with at least 900' played in a season:

The names that stands out is Walter Benitez, the 27-year-old Argentine at Nice. (Yoan Cardinale, another Nice GK, is justifiably the backup.) Here are Benitez's stats at a Premier League standard, and they make for some interesting reading:

Benitez is a better defender than De Gea, his ball retention has improved to a similar level, and he's an outstanding shotstopper across the board. Bizarrely, such a good GK might have trouble getting a work permit for the Premier League, since he's never played for Argentina's senior side. But perhaps his agent Mino Raiola could work something out.

Manchester United may wish to cast their net even wider, too. They may decide that they want a GK with De Gea's ball retention and link-up passing, but with Henderson's aptitude for defender and his ability to bring the ball out of the back. Whatever they decide, they shouldn't ingnore shotstopping skill. De Gea may be getting back to his best, as long as his state of mind stays positive.

[Photos: Антон Зайцев, Jrppezza, unknown]

 

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