Dean Henderson over David de Gea? Manchester United goalkeeper’s sweeping might give him the edge

Manchester United overpowered Tottenham in the end and ran out deserved 3-1 winners but the crucial period in the match came around the hour mark after Fred had scored the equaliser. Twice Spurs came close to restoring their lead. Twice they were denied by Dean Henderson.

The first opportunity fell to Heung-Min Son, scorer of the game’s opening goal. He cut inside on his favoured right foot and unleashed a firm shot that was close to the United goalkeeper, who thrust out a trusty right boot. United fans have seen that before. “It is a De Gea save,” said Gary Neville.

There was an even better stop to prevent Harry Kane scoring later in the half, a fierce strike by the Tottenham forward that would have snuck past many a goalkeeper. Henderson stretched out his foot again. The hand would surely have been too slow. He has been learning from De Gea.

But it was the incident just after the Son save that perhaps had wider significance even though it is unlikely to make the highlights package. Jose Mourinho had responded to United’s goal by bringing on Moussa Sissoko for Giovani Lo Celso and moving Tanguy Ndombele into an advanced role.

The switch almost paid off instantly. Ndombele collected the ball near the halfway line before threading a pass in behind Harry Maguire that seemed perfectly measured to find the onrushing Kane. Instead, Henderson was off his line quickly to meet it, clearing the danger in the process.








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Watch Dean Henderson sweep up behind the defence against Tottenham

Neville spotted it. “That is a couple of times from Henderson, one in the first half that I don’t think we highlighted and one there, where he was really [well] positioned and off his line,” he noted on co-commentary for Sky Sports.

In fact, it was one of three times in the match Henderson performed what Opta defines as accurate keeper sweepings – when a goalkeeper anticipates danger and rushes off their line to try to either cut out an attacking pass or to close down an opposition player.

Henderson currently averages 1.23 accurate keeper sweepings per 90 minutes in the Premier League this season, more than any other regular goalkeeper in the competition. More pertinently, he comes off his line to sweep up this danger far more often than the man he has replaced in the team, David de Gea.

De Gea has many admirable assets as a goalkeeper. That save with the feet is a trademark, even changing the way the modern goalkeeper approaches low stops close to the body. But coming off his line to clear balls away from danger is something that does not come so naturally to him.

The statistics show that in De Gea’s 337 Premier League appearances for Manchester United, he has only made three accurate sweeper keepings in a game – as Henderson did against Tottenham – on three occasions. Never in any of those 337 appearances has he done so more than three times.

It is important because it is a goalkeeper’s best chance of snuffing out danger before it arises. It requires proactive thinking. Good judgment is essential because there is an element of risk. But having a goalkeeper who can do it well also allows a team to defend in a different way.



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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Manchester United’s 3-1 win over Tottenham

It allows a team to push up that extra few yards, safe in the knowledge the goalkeeper will be off their line to cover. That is something United have not been able to do, something highlighted by Neville earlier this season. “Both Maguire and Lindelof don’t shift up,” he explained.

“They don’t move their feet three, four, five yards. They never do and they have to do it. If they don’t start doing it, they’re never going to get to a point where they’re going to win the league. They both seem to drop back a little bit and you need someone who can get them up the pitch.”

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been trying to oversee that evolution from the more dismal days of Mourinho’s final season in charge. There were 12 teams in the Premier League who won the ball back higher than United in the 2018/19 season. Last season it was four. Now it is only two.



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David de Gea and Dean Henderson’s best saves from the 2020/21 campaign

Neville’s thinking was a dominant centre-back could help with this but a dominant goalkeeper can perform the same function, encouraging that higher defensive line with their actions. Henderson is relatively inexperienced but he is showing the mentality required of the man in that role.

“It is a big ask,” said Neville. “I think it is the job in football that is scrutinised the most, Manchester United’s No 1. Any mistake, it is a position that you just get absolutely punished in and I am always aware that when Manchester United have had good goalkeepers they have done well.

“He is a young goalkeeper but in the first five or 10 games that he has played he has been really confident and really secure. You have to have courage to play that position, full stop.”

Dean Henderson's shots faced for Manchester United in the Premier League this season

Henderson has it and after this latest display he can expect further opportunities to enhance his reputation. Solskjaer has refused to make it explicit who his first-choice goalkeeper is – De Gea started in Europe on Thursday – but this fifth Premier League start in a row tells its own tale.

“I think he sees Dean Henderson as his number one now,” Roy Keane told Sky Sports. “He has trusted him to play the big games and will give him until the end of the season unless he has a complete disaster, so I think De Gea is under huge pressure now to get back into the team.”

The hope for Manchester United is that they have found a goalkeeper who not only possesses some of the Spaniard’s best traits, but one who brings special qualities of his own to the role too.



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