Sport

Opinion: Goalkeeping conundrum at Manchester United

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I’ve been reading quite a bit about David de Gea and the growing disenchantment with his continued selection. As expected, there are varying takes on his selection – with many attributing this to an unnecessary loyalty from his manager. Personally, I can look beyond this boring narrative and gauge an assessment from the following.

De Gea has been at the club since 2011 and, despite an underwhelming start to life in Manchester, was largely considered the worlds finest shot stopper for the better part of 5 seasons. It was during this particular period that the Spaniard was awarded the fabled ‘Sir Matt Busby Player of the year’ on four occasions. As well as this, he was voted the Players’ player of the year on three separate occasions. However, the past two years have seen a dramatic decline in the Spaniards form and, at the time of writing, he finds himself in the precarious situation of being somewhere in between both periods.

Dean Henderson also joined United in 2011 and spent four successful years climbing through the youth ranks. After several loans spells in the lower divisions, Henderson was a key factor in Sheffield United’s promotion to the Premier League. In his first full season as a Premier League keeper, Henderson matched De Gea for clean sheets (13) and gained national acclaim for his performances. The same year, he earned his first cap for the national side and on the 26th August, was rewarded with a new long – term contract at Manchester United and promoted to the first team.

As we approach the business end of the 2020/21 campaign, De Gea has maintained his status as the clubs #1. After 25 games played, he has started all but 3 – leaving Henderson take control of the cup fixtures. However, following a number of suspect performances and several high – profile errors which have lead to dropped points, there are growing calls for a changing of the guard. De Gea has managed 8 clean sheets (36.4%) – a figure that only 5 teams can better. However, United have also shipped 32 goals – a figure on par with 18th place Fulham. Attempting to further this analysis and utilise statistics as a comparative tool, it makes sense to use 2019/20 as a guide. The results make for interesting reading.

De Gea made 38 appearances (3420 mins), keeping 13 clean sheets. Henderson made 36 appearances (3240 mins) and also kept 13 clean sheets. Despite two fewer games (Henderson was ineligible to play against his parent club), Henderson made 5 more saves (97 : 92) and also achieved a higher save percentage (75.2 : 73.6%). Henderson is an expressive keeper, vocal in his every move and commanding of his box. He outperformed De Gea in successful punches (16 : 9), high claims (16 : 9) and also in sweeper clearances (8 : 3). The one area that De Gea exceeded was catches (11 : 7).

From the above figures, it’s clear that Henderson is more accomplished in his command of the box. 77.8% more punches and high claims, as well as 166.7% higher sweeper clearances cement this narrative. De Gea lead the way in successful catches (36.4% higher), but the most striking figure is the amount of individual errors leading to goals, with De Gea leading the way 3 : 1. This is a monumental difference and, for a side that is looking to take that next step toward challenging for the league title, a critical one.

Distribution is another surprising factor. A difference of 150 total passes (934 : 784 in favour of Henderson) can be attributed to a tactical ploy, but what’s striking is the amount of completed through balls (264 : 96 in favour of the English man). A remarkable figure when you consider how competent De Gea once was with the ball at feet.

If United are to continue with the high line, we’re inevitably susceptible to high balls over the top. The figures do not lie and Henderson again reigns supreme here (8 : 3 sweeper clearances).

One area I’d noted particular weakness has been our defensive structure on set pieces. A regulatory, for corners in particular, is an abundance of opposition bodies in the 6 yard box – sometimes 4/5 players. Any spectator can see that this is far from a strength of De Gea’s and opposition managers are targeting this at will. In contrast, Henderson thrives on claiming balls into the box. The figures cement what the eyes can see and opposition commit far less players toward inconveniencing Henderson. When considering the number of goals conceded from set pieces this season in the PL (14), it makes for uncomfortable reading for any De Gea supporter.

I read a tweet recently which asked ‘what more does Dean have to do to take first spot?’ and the answer is nothing. For me, the fundamental issue is the wage that De Gea earns. Henderson is on £120k per week, and this is less than a 1/3 of the Spaniard. If a decision were to be made to install Henderson as the clubs new number one, it requires an outlet for the inevitable money that will be sitting on the bench. Also, if the club were to be considering this change, there would need to be a fazed transition in order to keep the the Spaniards stock high enough in enticing a suitor.

Based on our style of play, the defensive structure we hold for set pieces and the unquestionable vulnerability in our centre back pairings, a shift in preference for the man between the sticks may indeed be on the horizon. Regardless of the opinion from a segment of supporters, David de Gea is a club legend and has earned the right to not just be tossed to one side. As always, the figures will never lie and going off the numbers above, it would appear as though it’s only a matter of time before we see a changing of the guard. The defining question – particularly for our money conscious owners – is where does the wage go?

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