As Erik ten Hag prepares his side for an early test against Liverpool, it has become quickly obvious that Manchester United’s new era will be a longer transition than many hoped for. This comes in wake of United dropping their first two matches of the season against Brighton and Brentford. Fans have begun blaming individuals and acknowledging that their longtime number 1, David De Gea, may not be the man for the future. This was painfully obvious with the glaring error De Gea committed ten minutes into their match against Brentford, where Josh Dasilva was gifted one of the easiest goals he will score in his life.
While David De Gea struggles, Manchester United’s goalkeeper away on loan, Dean Henderson, has shown strong performances for Nottingham Forest in their bid for survival after promotion. Naturally, supporters are wondering if things would be different if David De Gea was out of the picture and Dean Henderson was the man in goal. What this article will examine isn’t just David De Gea vs. Dean Henderson, but also what Head Coach Erik ten Hag is likely seeking in a goalkeeper.
What Defines an Erik ten Hag Goalkeeper
There is good news and bad news when it comes to Erik ten Hag and goalkeepers. Starting with the good, this isn’t the first time he has found himself in a tough goalkeeping situation. During his time in charge of Ajax, his first-choice goalkeeper (André Onana) was banned for nine months after he tested positive for a banned substance. This left Ajax in a tough situation where they did not have a goalkeeper on the books that necessarily met their standards. Now it is time for the bad news… Unlike Manchester United, Ajax did not need to lean on their goalkeeper as often due to their dominance. This means that we are limited in what we can find as an ideal profile of a goalkeeper. I decided to contact Dutch football expert Marc Lamberts (@lambertsmarc on Twitter) to further discuss Erik ten Hag’s goalkeeper preferences over his career.
"Ten Hag always had the idea of intention with his goalkeepers. We have seen this in the Eerste Divisie with Go Ahead Eagles, Bayern München II in Regionalliga Bayern, but mostly in the Eredivisie with FC Utrecht and notably Ajax.
It's hard to pinpoint what makes a Ten Hag goalkeeper because there have been several profiles of goalkeepers. The most important regardless of the significance of sweeper-keeper or shot-stopping keeper or ball-playing keeper is the matter of intention on and off the ball.
Off the ball, the goalkeeper is tasked with stopping shots and that's something most goalkeepers can do very well. But when a goalkeeper faces a 1v1 it's important to always have a proactive intention of play. Saving the ball is one thing, but the intention to continue to play and move into the transition of defence to attack is vital. This can be seen in the claiming of crosses, moving high up the pitch to go balls free in space or actively engaging in the positional play - these are all very important things.
On the ball, as we have looked at above, it's important that the goalkeeper is great with his feet. Not only great technical and striking abilities but also in the mind. On the ball - as is in line with the Ajax philosophy - the goalkeeper is the 5th defender (when we think in a backline of 4). He needs to think like this, progresses the ball like a defender and be able to receive the ball. The goalkeeper needs to find a footballing solution to a problem on the ball - even if he is pressed. And that's vital in my opinion to Ten Hag's build-up and demands of a goalkeeper. Something De Gea lacks and Henderson does have, but not in sufficient quality."
With this in mind, it is clear that Manchester United are likely seeking life with a ball-playing goalkeeper that shows competencies in sweeping abilities while of course maintaining a high level of shot-stopping. As referenced in my previous work, this fits the build of a modern goalkeeper, which are few and far between. As it is always easier to utilize players from within compared to dealing with the transfer market, we can now discuss David De Gea and Dean Henderson.
Manchester United’s £375,000/wk Problem
Before we dive into the metrics of David De Gea, we need to look at De Gea from a business perspective. David De Gea is reportedly on a £375,000/week contract (via Sports Illustrated) that runs until the end of this season. As he is now age 31 (and will be 32 by the time his deal runs up) we are also looking at a goalkeeper due for one more “big contract”. While De Gea is likely willing to accept a smaller weekly wage, he will still require a wage packet that few clubs can afford. Ignoring locations that he and his family would be happy in, there are likely only 10 clubs in the world that could afford him. Of the elite clubs in football (in terms of performance and financial power), goalkeeping is not an issue for any of them. This leaves Manchester United in a difficult situation… the clubs that can afford to acquire David De Gea have no interest in acquiring him, while the clubs that could reasonably need him cannot afford his contract. With a wage as high as De Gea’s, excluding bonuses and clauses, Manchester United cannot bench him without it being a massive blow on the business side of sport. Now, let’s focus on the performance side of David De Gea.
As seen in the above visual, which compares performances of all goalkeepers with a minimum of 500 minutes played across the top five leagues of Europe in 2022, De Gea has remained an excellent shot-stopper but provided very little in other aspects of goalkeeping. Be it winning possession in the style of a 5th defender like Ten Hag desires or distributing the ball with frequent success, David De Gea is simply not the style of goalkeeper required for Manchester United’s latest attempt of a rebuild.
The Case of Dean Henderson
Looking at Dean Henderson, he obviously has not featured enough in recent times against quality opponents for us to reference data. This means that we are limited to traditional scouting with the assumption of how he might adapt to a playing style. After watching all of his touches in his past five matches (excluding friendlies) I feel that Dean Henderson would indeed fit Manchester United better than David De Gea does now, but he still has his flaws. Henderson is only average in ball-playing and sweeping abilities, which means he could perform as less of a liability for Erik ten Hag, but Ten Hag would likely still be disappointed and wanting more.
Looking beyond the pitch, Dean Henderson is a product of Manchester United’s academy with a longer contract than De Gea (Henderson’s expiring in 2025) while also still being young enough to offer upside. Henderson has shown the club loyalty and patience while he has waited for his chance at the starting spot. The problem is… Dean Henderson is no longer around the club. With him out on loan, is the starting spot ever going to be an option for him? Is Erik ten Hag willing to wait until next season to try and see if Henderson can fit his requirements? What if he can’t? The English goalkeeping prospect is growing a reputation of being an ideal shot-stopper for a relegation-battling side, but Manchester United may need to look beyond the current books to satisfy their goalkeeping needs.
Could There be Last Minute Business?
As the transfer clock strikes closer to midnight and goalkeepers of quality become increasingly more difficult to acquire, it is safe to say Manchester United might be biting the bullet and accepting that David De Gea will be in goal for the remainder of the season. Another potential problem with exploring the market for anything more than a backup is it could mark the official decision that Dean Henderson is not the future of Manchester United’s goalkeeping – and that is something I believe the club is not ready to decide. The best-case scenario would likely be to bring in a short-term goalkeeper if doing any business at all in order to provide competition and reassess the situation at the end of the season. The likely candidate would be Keylor Navas, who is reportedly being pursued by West Ham and Napoli (Transfermarkt). The problem with bringing in Navas is he also does not solve much of the problem. He is an exceptional shot-stopper who is better than De Gea at coming off his line, but is not a noteworthy improvement on distribution… so why spend the money if the money can be spent elsewhere for more of an impact?
To summarize this examination of Manchester United’s goalkeeping problems – fans should probably buckle up for a long ride of a season. It is important to remember that the grass may not always be greener on the other side. Henderson may perform well at Nottingham Forest, but he may not be the solution to the problem. Business would be surprising and likely very pricey if it were to happen at this stage in the transfer window. Perhaps the arrival of a new backup could spark competition where it is not expected…
Thanks so much to my dear friend Marc Lamberts for assisting in this article. Make sure you give him a follow on twitter @lambertsmarc to see all of the great content he is consistently producing.
If you are interested in learning about how clubs are utilizing goalkeeping analysis (or if you want to integrate analysis into your coaching), consider signing up for my goalkeeping analysis course here. This course teaches methods in an individual-learning setting that you cannot find anywhere else, and it will also feature a variety of speakers from top clubs around the world.