Ole Gunnar Solskjaer goes into his first major final as Manchester United manager, against Villarreal in the Europa League on Wednesday, with sources telling ESPN that his team selection is set to resolve the unanswered question as to whether David de Gea or Dean Henderson will head for the Old Trafford exit door this summer.
While Solskjaer remains torn between the two goalkeepers due to their contrasting temperament, reliability and skill-set, sources have said that he accepts that the one who misses out in Gdansk will consider it the end of his United career.
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Solskjaer has shied away from anointing either De Gea or Henderson as his No. 1 since Henderson returned to United last summer following two seasons on loan at Sheffield United. But with the final against Villarreal representing the biggest game of Solskjaer’s two-and-a-half year spell in charge following Jose Mourinho’s sacking in December 2018, he must overcome misgivings over both keepers to make a firm decision on who he trusts to help deliver his first trophy as United manager.
De Gea has made 35 appearances for United this season while Henderson played his 26th game against Wolves at Molineux on Sunday. Sources have said that De Gea, who played in the 1-1 draw against Fulham last Tuesday, is winning the race to start against Villarreal. That decision would force Henderson to consider his future as he prepares to go into Euro 2020 as England’s second-choice keeper behind Jordan Pickford, due to a knee injury ruling out Burnley’s Nick Pope.
But although De Gea’s experience and reputation as one of the world’s best keepers — a status that has lapsed during an error-prone three years — ensures he retains Solskjaer’s faith, the 30-year-old continues to give his manager cause for concern.
De Gea has made a number of costly mistakes this season and sources have told ESPN that his laid-back personality, which extends to his work on the training pitch, has contributed to lapses of concentration that have caused the errors. Solskjaer and his staff find De Gea difficult to motivate and that even the challenge provided by Henderson has done little to spark the competitive edge that would intensify his focus and help eradicate the mistakes. But while those issues remain, De Gea is regarded at United as a better technical keeper than Henderson and that he is young enough to regain his best form and continue as first-choice for another 5-6 years at least.
Solskjaer has backed Henderson as his Premier League No. 1 since the beginning of March, however, with the 24-year-old selected for all but two league games since De Gea’s return to Spain for the birth of his child. Henderson is viewed as being a better communicator and defensive organiser than De Gea, and sources have said that United’s defenders play with more certainty that Henderson will patrol the defensive half of the pitch than De Gea, who prefers to stay inside the penalty area. But both keepers have been found to be susceptible to high balls into the box and prone to errors of judgement that lead to confusion with defenders..
Statistically, there is little to separate the two, with De Gea posting 9 clean sheets in 26 Premier League games this season and Henderson registering 4 in 13 appearances. But sources have said that there are concerns within Old Trafford that Henderson can be over-confident and that his impatience to be declared as No. 1 is not a wholly positive trait. Sources have said that he can be a challenging character and that speculation linking him to interested clubs, which emerged on the day he was dropped to the bench against Fulham last week, was not well received by senior figures at United.
It is no secret that United are actively seeking a new goalkeeper to improve their options this summer with Sergio Romero and Lee Grant both out of contract. ESPN reported earlier this month that United are keen to re-sign Sam Johnstone from relegated West Bromwich Albion, three years after the 28-year-old left for a transfer fee of £6.5 million, while there is also interest in Aston Villa’s Tom Heaton — another former United youngster.
Both Johnstone and Heaton are primarily regarded as back-up keepers to either De Gea or Henderson, with it highly unlikely that both will be at Old Trafford next season. But as yet, it remains unclear as to whether it will be De Gea or Henderson who moves on in search of regular first-team football.
With two years still to run on a £350,000-a-week contract, few clubs could afford to sign De Gea, but there is interest in Henderson from a number of Premier League teams.
There is no escaping the fact that Solskjaer has doubts over both keepers, but he has to settle on one of them and, when he names his team in Poland on Wednesday, his choice of goalkeeper against Villarreal will almost certainly signal the end of the road for the man who misses out.