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Sheffield United is currently sixth in the standings first league and in the European qualification race, it can be said that Chris Wilder’s team has exceeded most expectations.
Although the club likes to promote the value of the team over the individual, it was impossible to ignore the performance of their goalkeeper Dean Henderson.
Henderson, on loan from Manchester United, has become one of the best goalkeepers in the league. His explosive performances for the Blades, combined with an apparent decline in the capacity of the current No. 1 of his parent club, David De Gea, sparked the conversation about how Manchester United should handle this situation in the future.
Henderson’s form at Sheffield United
During the 2018-19 season, it was clear that Henderson was one of the best goalkeepers in the championship. His 21 clean sheets from the league helped secure an automatic promotion spot for Sheffield United. He has since reported this form to first league, and at only 23 years old, has established himself as one of the best young goalkeepers in Europe.
PSxG +/- is a measure of a goalkeeper’s shooting ability, and only three other U23 goaltenders have had better shooting seasons. According to the data, only Unai Simon faced more difficult hits.
Post-Shot xG (PSxG): a calculation made after a shot at goal has been found to have reached the target, while taking into account the quality of the shot, and more useful for evaluating goalkeepers than simple backups.FootballCritic Definitions
Henderson’s ability to stop rests on his reliable application of fundamentals, elite level athletics and a high level understanding of goalkeeper psychology.
Henderson has made what appear to be simple save types a regular feature of his game, and his consistent application of fundamentals (body position, two hands behind the ball, warding off danger) should be admired.
In the image above, we can see Henderson using the split save to deny Mane. Split rescue is a relatively new tool in Henderson’s arsenal, but he has used it wisely in individual situations to deny attackers what should be direct chances. Henderson adding it to his game alongside his existing prowess in more traditional backup types highlights the high level of technical skill he possesses.
The above shot he saved from Mohamed Salah just 13 meters away. He had a split second to react and use his explosive power. This athleticism (and his reflexes) are an essential tool for Henderson and have contributed to a significant number of stops this season.
Finally, we can see here an example of the deep understanding of psychology that Henderson possesses. Danny Welbeck faces each other, and Henderson closes the angle he must aim at first; however, he displayed excellent discipline so as not to rush and leave himself badly placed to make a save.
It stays as large as possible for as long as possible, exerting strong pressure on Welbeck, and as a result, it can use the previously mentioned split to deny the goal.
From Gea’s Man Utd decline
Are David De Geaare the best days behind him?
The graphic above shows two things; in the past three seasons, quality of shots De Gea faced remained mainly the even however, but his ability to stop said chances has seen a dramatic decline.
During the three seasons presented, De Gea went from being the best shooter to simply a “very good” shooter to slightly below average. This will obviously be a big concern for Manchester United, as the trait that made De Gea the best goalkeeper in the world apparently left him.
Below, we can see two examples of shots close to De Gea’s body struck a few meters from him. In the first example against West Brom in 2017/18, De Gea applies a negative step dive in and down his hand to save. The alternative would have been a backup with his feet, but what interests us is the clarity of De Gea in the choice between the two types of backup, especially in contrast to example two.
In the second example, from the 2019/20 season, De Gea finds himself trapped between these types of backup and does not attempt a backup of the foot or a negative step dive and the ball sneaks under him. The above is just one example of many cases in which De Gea has not shown the greatest clarity in his reflections on the savings to be made.
The second area of concern for United will be the sudden resurgence of basic errors in De Gea’s game. The first season of the Spaniard at United was marred by errors which led certain sections to doubt his ability to first league. In the following seasons, De Gea virtually eliminated these mistakes from his game and was thriving.
However, since a Spain error against Portugal at the 2018 World Cup, these errors have become increasingly common – Watford, Everton & Arsenal are the most recent and notable examples.
While these two areas are a major wake-up call for United regarding De Gea’s long-term role as number one in the club, to say definitively that De Gea will never return to its best would be short-sighted.
He is still quite young, free from any significant injury and without visible change in body composition, he retains his athletic prowess. United’s recent decision to remove De Gea’s longtime friend and coach Emilio Alvarez and the threat Henderson poses to his No. 1 jersey may be all the motivation De Gea needs to get back into shape .
Comparison Henderson v De Gea
In all essential measures Henderson has surpassed De Gea, and in many sections he is not particularly close. As the previous sections have assessed the stopping capacities of the two guards, we will not detail them further, but we will focus on two areas which should also illustrate the differences between the two guards; inter-stops and participation in possession.
Cross stop is an area of De Gea’s game that he has never quite taken to a world class level; even at its best, it may have been average at this level. This season De Gea has also shown less aptitude for this and therefore United are relatively fragile against crosses and set pieces. Although Henderson may not be world class in this aspect of the game, it represents a significant improvement over De Gea, and the two images below illustrate the differences:
De Gea struggles with crosses due to his lack of upper body strength which allows him to be intimidated and mismanage the ball. However, he often does not give himself the best possible chance using a poor jumping technique as shown in the example above.
De Gea prefers to jump on the left foot, but in the above situation, this prevents him from lifting his leg to act as a barrier between his heart and Virgil van Dijk. This allows the Liverpool man to transfer his momentum into De Gea’s exposed heart and, therefore, he mishandles the ball. This is something that we can see repeated over several games where his leg is not high enough to be an effective barrier, and the physical presence of other players causes a spill or no contact with the ball. Compare that to Henderson, who, while being physically stronger, uses a superior technique to protect himself.
The subtle differences in technique between the two goalkeepers can help explain substantial differences in performance. At the age of 29 and with so many games under his belt, it may be unrealistic to predict significant improvement in this regard from De Gea, but with additional training and focus he may be able to be improving slightly.
In terms of participation in possession, despite a score higher than De Gea, we can say that these figures do not tell the whole story. This metric measures the number of hits a goalkeeper receives relative to the total number of his team, so the graph below simply means that Henderson is involved in a higher percentage of Sheffield United’s game than De Gea in Manchester. United.
This should come as no surprise when you consider the plethora of ball players United have ahead of De Gea compared to Sheffield staff. To better understand, we need to take a closer look at the player to determine his performance.
In the table above, we can see the distribution of the two guards’ passes. If it is obvious that Henderson favored the long pass much more than De Gea, we can conclude by examining the data of the two teams that this can be explained by team tactics.
In total, Sheffield plays 32% of his long passes against Manchester United (24%). These two goalies play for teams in very different systems which will explain important differences not only in the types of passes they try, but also in the success they find.
Henderson’s instructions led him to play higher risk passes, and as a result, his number of complements overall is indeed lower. However, when we look at his passes over shorter distances, we can see that he is undoubtedly a capable ferryman (98% average success). However, these figures must be taken with a pinch of salt because it is much less tested than De Gea in this range (328 passes against 78). The conclusion we can draw is that if Henderson were in his parent club, a period of adaptation would be necessary, but he certainly has the potential to adapt.
What should Manchester United do?
We can probably conclude that, currently, Dean Henderson is United’s best book keeper. It is a delicate situation for the club which is now faced with three options for the next season.
1. Start Henderson and bank or sell De Gea
Perhaps the most radical (and least likely) option available to United is to reward Henderson’s performance over the past two seasons and De Gea bench or to seek out potential contenders for the Spanish goalkeeper.
De Gea’s market will be meager at the moment, and the club would be unwise to take a discounted offer. It is therefore likely that he should remain and United face the potential locker room turmoil it could cause. In this scenario, United should also find a destination for Sergio Romero who will see his precious minutes evaporate, but with a much lower salary than De Gea, he could be the easiest to move.
2. Ready Henderson, canned De Gea
It should be noted that despite his poor performance, De Gea is far from being a liability and that he retains the potential to return to his previous high level and that he has a salary that United may find difficult to move. In this scenario, the club stays with its former player of the year and maintains him as # 1 while finding another loan move for Henderson.
The obvious destination would be to return to Sheffield United. Here, Henderson could stay in a configuration that helped his development and play under the direction of a manager who fully trusted him, and with the possibility of a return of European football to Bramall Lane, Henderson could acquire an experience essential to this level.
This should be weighed against the satisfaction of Henderson’s personal desire to advance in his career.
3. Start From Gea, Phase at Henderson
Inspired by Barcelona’s management of Marc-André ter Stegen’s early years at the club, United would start De Gea in league games while entrusting Henderson with European and cup functions. This scenario allows De Gea to rehabilitate its slightly bumpy market value while slowly integrating Henderson into the side.
Henderson currently lacks experience at the European level and although United is not a realistic opponent for the Champions League at the moment, gaining this experience now could be vital for any future challenge.
United solves the immediate problem of having two # 1s. Anyway, whatever path the club chooses in the future, the story of United’s GK jersey will be fascinating in the future.