MANCHESTER, England — For 120 minutes at Old Trafford on Tuesday night, Dean Henderson’s main concern was finding a way to stay warm.
During flurries of snow on a freezing night in Manchester, West Ham United mustered just one shot on target as Manchester United won their FA Cup fifth-round tie 1-0 thanks to Scott McTominay’s goal in extra-time. But even when David Moyes’ side could not help the 23-year-old goalkeeper advance his claims to be first choice, he still managed to help himself.
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His performance in his 10th start of the season was one of quiet competence, and set against David De Gea’s errors during the 3-3 draw with Everton on Saturday, it will do his hopes of dislodging the Spaniard as No. 1 no harm at all. It is likely Henderson will be back on the bench for the trip to West Bromwich Albion on Sunday but more games like this — calm, organised and uncomplicated — and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s decision will become harder and harder.
Henderson did nothing spectacular against West Ham — he didn’t need to — but he was still able to show how good of a goalkeeper he is. He was in the right position to comfortably save Said Benrahma’s header and when West Ham were searching for a goal in extra-time, he was confident enough to race to the edge of the penalty area and grab Aaron Cresswell’s high free kick.
There is no doubting De Gea’s ability as a shot-stopper but he doesn’t come off his line to take the pressure off his defenders as often as he should. Henderson did it more than once, and at the end of the first half claimed a Cresswell cross from the left over the head of Andriy Yarmolenko.
“I always hope our keeper has a quiet night when we play, and most of the time it’s happened that way. Today [Henderson] was clean in everything,” said Solskjaer afterwards. “Going through is always the main thing in the cup. I was very pleased with the mentality, the attitude and going through.”
On loan at Sheffield United last season, Henderson made more saves, claimed more crosses and punched clear more often than De Gea, but there are still aspects of his game Solskjaer and his coaches would like him to work on. At Bramall Lane he was allowed to thump balls up to the halfway line more often, but at United he is expected to help build from the back. In his pre-match news conference, Solskjaer suggested Henderson is getting better with his feet, and the way he turned Tomas Soucek on his own goal line as the final seconds ticked down was evidence of his growing confidence. It was noteworthy that at half-time Henderson was out with a coach, not warming up his hands, but going through passing drills.
Often the challenge for a goalkeeper at United is keeping your concentration when most of the action is at the other end. “David has been used to this for years: to keep concentrated, keep your eye on the ball and suddenly one moment comes up and you have to make a save,” said Solskjaer.
Henderson still has a job on his hands to oust De Gea permanently. In September 2019, De Gea signed a mammoth contract that could keep him at the club until 2024, and Solskjaer will be reluctant to have one of his highest earners sat on the bench.
For Henderson, playing regular games is the only way he will continue his development, and even through he has made 11 appearances so far this season, Solskjaer accepts that is not enough. “He is not the most patient,” was the Norwegian’s pointed comment this week.
Sources have told ESPN that Henderson and his representatives are comfortable with Solskjaer’s plan for this season. He will hope to play in the remaining cup games and the majority of the Europa League campaign while De Gea continues in the Premier League.
The question, though, will be how long Henderson is happy with that arrangement. He has ambitions to be England’s No. 1, if not at this summer’s European Championship then certainly for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
First, he will have to win the battle with De Gea at United. He went under the radar against West Ham but ensured the debate about who should get the gloves at Old Trafford will rumble on.