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As Dean Henderson sat on the Manchester United bench and watched David de Gea again play a vital role in a victory on Wednesday night, he might well have been feeling a sense of ‘what if?’.
The duel between Henderson and De Gea was one of the most intriguing sub-plots of last season and when the campaign ended it seemed like a close to 50/50 call as to who would start this season as No. 1.
Ahead of the final game of last season Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had admitted the situation where De Gea and Henderson shared duties in goal was untenable, but in the end the decision was made for him at the start of this season.
Henderson missed the start of pre-season after contracting Covid-19 and struggled to overcome the effects of fatigue as a result of the illness. In his absence, De Gea returned from his summer break early and he’s made the most of his chance to reaffirm his supremacy as United’s first-choice goalkeeper.
He’s started eight of United’s nine games this season and Henderson looks unlikely to get another chance anytime soon after playing in the side knocked out of the Carabao Cup last week.
At the start of the summer there was an expectation that Henderson might have begun the season in goal in the Premier League, but now the task of dislodging De Gea looks to be an impossible one. Henderson is extremely ambitious and at 24 he’s likely to look for a move if he remains on the bench throughout this season.
When De Gea starts against Everton tomorrow he will be making is 450th appearance for United, a tally it looked like he might not reach in recent seasons. Regular mistakes had begun to creep into his game and his backfoot style wasn’t in tune with modern goalkeeping in the Premier League.
But those mistakes have mostly been eradicated now and while De Gea is never going to transform into Ederson or Alisson, his weaknesses are less obvious when he’s making such vital saves.
His rejuvenation was confirmed with the penalty save at the London Stadium two weeks ago. It was the first time he’d saved a penalty in 40 attempts and it couldn’t have come at a better time, preserving the victory United had earned through Jesse Lingard’s late goal.
At Old Trafford on Wednesday it was no surprise to see teammates embrace him so enthusiastically after the final whistle. Cristiano Ronaldo might have been the obvious hero but without De Gea’s saves he wouldn’t have had the chance to write his own script.
The Spaniard made excellent first-half saves from Arnat Danjuma, Paco Alcacer and Yeremi Pino and produced another vital stop three minutes from the end, foiling Boulaye Dia twice to keep United level and allow Ronaldo to seal the victory.
Both Diogo Dalot and Bruno Fernandes praised De Gea’s performance after the match and at the moment it’s difficult to envisage a scenario where Henderson gets in ahead of him for a meaningful game.
Solskjaer has already spoken this season about De Gea’s desire to impress and work hard over the summer and how that has got him close to being back to his best. The United manager believes De Gea at his best is the best goalkeeper in the world. That’s probably an exaggeration now, but on this form he’s settling the debate that dominated the discussion around United at times last season.