There is an alternate reality where Ole Gunnar Solskjaer kicks off Dean Henderson in the 2021 Europa League Final.
The England keeper had played in 10 of Manchester United’s last 12 Premier League games that season and although he did not fully claim the No.1 position, he brought qualities to their defensive work that his rival David de Gea could not provide.
This early 2021 Henderson was an authoritative figure, constantly barking orders at his back four and encouraging United as a whole to play their football higher up the pitch. Eager to leave his line and command the penalty area – as well as the space beyond – Henderson allowed United to play offside traps for the final games of this season.
There were some weaknesses in his game, but Henderson’s strong showing from March initially gave manager Solskjaer the space to allow De Gea extended family leave after becoming a father that month. , then the “good problem” of which goalkeeper to start in the Europa. League final three days after the end of United’s Premier League campaign.
Solskjaer kept his powder dry as long as possible but opted for De Gea over Henderson for the encounter with Villarreal in the Polish city of Gdansk. De Gea failed to save any of the 12 penalties he faced in the shootout that followed a 1-1 draw before seeing his own effort saved by Geronimo Rulli to win it for the Spanish side.
Back then, Henderson had a better penalty record than De Gea.
“What if Henderson started? was a question that was on the minds of many United fans throughout the ensuing summer.
There is another alternate reality, where Henderson doesn’t start this Europa League final but stays fit throughout June after being named in Gareth Southgate’s European Championship squad.
Henderson made the bench for the group opener against Croatia but had to leave the England side soon after. On June 15, the Football Association issued a statement saying that Henderson had “a hip problem which would continue to limit his involvement in training throughout the tournament”. He returned to United for treatment, with relegated Sheffield United’s Aaron Ramsdale leaving Southgate’s provisional squad to provide cover behind Jordan Pickford and Sam Johnstone.
Ramsdale had minimal impact on the pitch at the Euros, but his presence in the squad added to the escape velocity that took him from Sheffield United – where he had succeeded Henderson on loan – to Arsenal in the window. summer transfer.
In the summer of 2021, Ramsdale was considered a poorer goalkeeper than Henderson. A year later, their careers follow different trajectories.
There is yet another reality where Henderson does not contract COVID-19 after the Euros.
“Dean Henderson will miss Manchester United training camp in Scotland as he continues his recovery from prolonged fatigue after contracting a COVID-19 infection three weeks ago,” read a statement from the club at the start. august.
Henderson’s window of opportunity for the No.1 spot closed once De Gea returned from his own quiet Euros as Spain’s substitute goalkeeper. He had regained his No.1 position at United by default; Henderson’s recovery saw him not only unavailable for pre-season but also for the first three Premier League games.
Away from Wolves in United’s third league game, De Gea produced an excellent shot-saving performance that made Henderson’s case for an increasingly lightweight starting spot. Then, shortly after the September internationals, in a 2-1 win at West Ham, De Gea saved a stoppage-time penalty from Mark Noble, securing his position as Solskjaer’s goalkeeper for the outings. in the Premier League and the Champions League.
Henderson started his first game of the season in the Carabao Cup, also against West Ham, the following week, but United lost 1-0 at Old Trafford, leaving him as a cup keeper with no cup games to play in over the next few weeks. next three. month.
In our current reality, Henderson has gone from being a near No.1 and possible No.2 for England to a footballer on loan again to a newly promoted Premier League side.
Henderson’s last appearance in the top flight was on May 23 last year, in a 4-2 win over Wolves.
Since then, he has played 278 minutes of top-flight football. Through no real fault on his part, he lost a year of his playing career.
Henderson had also done almost everything right.
Two years on loan at Sheffield United had shown him his skills in the league and the Premier League. He thrived as a cog in Chris Wilder’s unorthodox football machine, then proved capable of being a modern, progressive goalkeeper when United needed him to be one of the second. half of this 2020-21 season.
Perhaps Henderson still fails in those aforementioned alternate realities.
His performance in United’s FA Cup penalty shoot-out loss to Middlesborough in February suggests he was not guaranteed to beat Villarreal that night in Gdansk.
He might not have supplanted Pickford, or any other England goalkeeper, at the Euros.
Solskjaer could have opted for De Gea to be No.1 again at the start of last season, and the fact that caretaker manager Ralf Rangnick didn’t feel the need to drop the Spaniard for Henderson after taking the relay in November could be an indicator of the quality of now. 25 years old is.
It’s frustrating. We’ve known since late 2019 that Henderson is good enough to be a Premier League side’s first-choice keeper. What we never learned is how high in the table this team should be.
It’s a shame that Henderson worked so hard to earn his chance as Manchester United’s starting goalkeeper, only to find himself injured and otherwise unavailable at key times when those chances arrived.
There are still weaknesses in his game but Henderson hasn’t had time on the pitch to show the world if he has worked on them. We don’t know if he’s still struggling to get out of his six-yard box to claim crosses or corners.
They say “luck is when opportunity meets preparation”. In the past 12 months, Henderson has never had the two ingredients in sync.
Perhaps if he had received a longer streak from his parent club he might have proven himself top six in a way that Ramsdale has (and maybe even better ) for Arsenal.
As we head into the 2022-23 season, Henderson is in a similar position to when he returned to Bramall Lane in the summer of 2019 – good enough to be part of a recently promoted squad, and maybe good enough to give them a three or four point boost from 38 games that could be the difference to avoid instant relegation to the Championship.
One of the Premier League’s unluckiest players has a chance to revive his career on loan at Nottingham Forest.
We hope his luck will be good in the coming season.
(Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Images via Getty Images)