the no fuss, no frills keeper who transforms defences

Being a great goalkeeper is not just about pulling off brilliant saves that other keepers could never do. And Manchester United’s Dean Henderson yesterday gave an excellent demonstration of how some of the more subtle aspects of the keeping craft are just as important, if not more so.

The whole United team played well in yesterday’s 2-0 win over Manchester City, but it was not just a case of ending City’s unbeaten run. United also became the first team to shut out City in the Premier League at the Etihad since 2019 and the defensive organisation was clearly a huge factor in that achievement yesterday.

‘United’s defensive line was noticeably higher than usual against City, an inevitable by-product of Dean Henderson’s place as goalkeeper,’ says The Athletic’s Lauire Whitwell.

‘In the 36th minute Henderson rushed 12 yards to collect a through ball by Ilkay Gundogan that would have found Raheem Sterling and that kind of decisive action punctuated the 23-year-old’s performance, giving Maguire and Victor Lindelof licence to head to the halfway line when United had the ball in City territory.

‘It was the first Manchester derby in the Premier League David De Gea has been absent for since Wayne Rooney’s overhead kick in 2011, and Henderson did everything necessary to seize his opportunity. His long throw to Shaw was the highpoint as much for the idea as the execution.’

There were no miraculous saves from Henderson, but that is part of his modus operandi: he is a no fuss, no frills keeper. He bellows out instructions to his defence and heads attacks off at the pass by coming off his line to perform sweeper-keeper duties. He turns defence into attack with ambitious throw-outs such as the one to Luke Shaw that led to United’s second goal.

It would be crass to suggest that the absence of Henderson on loan has made the difference between Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United of 2019/20, who finished ninth and flirted with European qualification until a poor end to the season, and that of 2020/21, rooted to the bottom of the table and almost certain to go down. But it is fair to say that his presence is sorely missed and a huge factor in the Blades’ decline.

Henderson is in the mould of the legendary Peter Schmeichel and while he lacks the Great Dane’s physical stature, at 23 he is arguably well ahead of the normal progress curve for a Premier League keeper. Schmeichs was half way through his 28th year when he joined United.

How long David de Gea stays on paternity leave and whether he will be restored to United’s number one spot upon his return nobody knows at this stage. But one thing is certain: if Henderson continues in this vein, there would be very little reason to replace him, even with De Gea.

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