A year ago, the inquest into Sheffield United’s sudden slump in form in the Premier League would often lead back to the change the Blades had been forced to make in goal.
In their extraordinary first season in the Premier League, Chris Wilder’s side could rely on the outstanding Dean Henderson.
But when Manchester United decided the academy graduate would stay at Old Trafford last term, he was replaced by Aaron Ramsdale, who had been recently relegated with Bournemouth.
With Ramsdale in goal, Sheffield United conceded an extra 24 goals and went from ninth to rock bottom and relegation to the Championship. So it was a surprise when Ramsdale joined Arsenal in a £24million deal this summer.
But the 23-year-old has forced his way past Bernd Leno to become No. 1 under Mikel Arteta and has kept six clean sheets in nine games. His recent double save against Leicester City was heralded as the “best save I’ve seen in years” by Peter Schmeichel.
Ramsdale’s form has been so impressive he’s now indisputably England’s second-choice goalkeeper and he could soon be putting pressure on Jordan Pickford. He was named Arsenal’s player of the month for October and his infectious, hyper personality has quickly made him a Gunners’ fan favourite.
In that regard, he has a lot of similarities to Henderson — only the United goalkeeper is becoming the forgotten man instead. He was in the Euro 2020 squad and was on the bench for the opening game against Croatia, but was forced to withdraw two days later with a persistent hip injury. He was replaced by Ramsdale and their paths have diverged since then.
Henderson picked up Covid-19 at the start of pre-season and then suffered from prolonged fatigue, wrecking his chances of starting the campaign ahead of David de Gea for United.
De Gea has been in superb form this season and, after a close battle last season, Henderson is now very much the No. 2. His only appearance so far has been in the Carabao Cup defeat to West Ham.
The 24-year-old hasn’t been in an England squad since the summer and is now watching Ramsdale earn plenty of plaudits for his bubbly and impressive performances with Arsenal.
It’s no secret that Henderson is fiercely ambitious and has long held designs on being the first-choice goalkeeper for club and country. If falling into the wilderness at Old Trafford wasn’t bad enough, he’s barely getting a mention while the praise falls to a goalkeeper that common consensus suggested he was better than just 12 months ago.
Henderson was reluctant to ever return to United without guarantees that he would be starting, but after a patch couple of years from De Gea he ended his cycle of loan moves last season to stay and fight for the role. By the end of a season in which Henderson started 25 times and De Gea 36 we were no closer to knowing who was winning the battle.
But circumstances have given Ole Gunnar Solskjaer the answer. The balls have fallen for De Gea and he’s taken advantage.
Don’t expect Henderson to hang around as an outstanding No. 2 for long. He knows the clock is ticking on his career and if he can’t be a starter at United, he will go and do that elsewhere. Not only has he lost his role as back-up to Pickford, but his lack of game time means he’s lost his place in the England squad entirely.
A new manager at Old Trafford could conceivably change Henderson’s fortunes at his boyhood club, but such has been De Gea’s form this season it’s unlikely a new boss will come in and rip up the goalkeeping ranks — unless the Spaniard suddenly begins to falter.
It’s more likely Henderson will feel he has to push to leave, whether permanently or on loan, perhaps even as early as January.
That would leave Tom Heaton as De Gea’s back-up. The experienced former England international enjoyed a good pre-season, but if Henderson is forced into action as he watches another young English goalkeeper in the spotlight, United might be forced to strengthen their own goalkeeping department again sooner rather than later.
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