David de Gea Manchester United starting lineup
David de Gea has struggled on the back of a new contract. Nigel Roddis/EPA.

The changing of the guard is always imagined to be a smooth process: precise, on time and with all parties aware of what’s to come. But the debate surrounding David de Gea’s status as Manchester United’s top goalkeeper and whether Dean Henderson should replace him next season suggests any passing of the torch will come with a few bumps.

The future of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s incumbent No. 1 was already up for discussion prior to the 3-1 FA Cup semi-final defeat to Chelsea, when De Gea’s near-post fumble at the start of the second half gifted Mason Mount a 2-0 opening at Wembley:

It was the latest in a lengthening line of costly faults from the four-time United fans’ Player of the Year, having contributed to points being lost against the likes of Tottenham Hotspur, Everton and Watford this term with similarly glaring gaffes.

Solskjaer has been eager to avoid any talk of his first-choice goalkeeper being dropped despite the creeping fear of fallibility, via Football Daily:

Henderson’s star is on the opposite trajectory approaching the end of a second season on loan at Sheffield United, with whom he’s enjoyed a coming-of-age under manager Chris Wilder. He’s impressed so much, in fact, Frank Lampard is reportedly eager to replace Kepa Arrizabalaga with the 23-year-old Englishman on terms worth £170,000 a week, per Samuel Luckhurst of the Manchester Evening News.

Those rumours should scare those around United who would one day like to see Henderson between their sticks, with the loanee having previously made clear his intention to be the club’s outright No. 1 rather than compete for the spot.

De Gea is in some ways a victim of his own formerly pristine standards, one of those being the £375,000-per-week contract he signed in September 2019, which was both a reward for and representation of what he’s produced for years at Old Trafford.

It was not necessarily representative of what he’ll give going forward.

United could pay around £100 million in wages alone if the Spaniard saw out the entirety of that deal until 2023 (with the option of an extra year), while Henderson’s current contract—which expires in 2022—sees him earn £70,000 per week as things stand.

From a business point of view, it doesn’t require a masters in economics to decide which of the two represents the better investment: the best-paid goalkeeper in the world as he compiles evidence his best days may be behind him, or the future England No. 1 candidate, six years his junior and on a fraction of the salary. That equation doesn’t account for heartfelt concerns like fidelity nor faith, but the point could be made that such sentiments have to be repaid with adequate performance on the pitch.

Selling De Gea is by no means a simple pitch given few, if any, clubs are in a place to pursue the player, particularly in a post-coronavirus landscape. It’s unthinkable he will be at Old Trafford next season with both Henderson and Sergio Romero competing, but resolving the back line is now a matter of urgency after United’s forward and midfield setups have taken shape.

Henderson is at a disadvantage in regards to pedigree when compared to De Gea, but the 23-year-old has the benefit of a less-magnified lens at Bramall Lane. Goalkeeping blunders against Liverpool (Georginio Wijnaldum), Chelsea (Tammy Abraham) and Arsenal (Dani Ceballos, FA Cup quarter-finals) have each had a significant impact on results that went against Sheffield United this season. Still, the disparity between the size of their personas means Henderson’s errors fade faster while De Gea’s linger in the headlines.

There are certain aspects of a player’s mental profile that we on the sidelines can only assess to a limited degree. In the same way United captain Harry Maguire has been since completing an £80 million move from Leicester City last year, Henderson will be expected to rise and accept the scrutiny that comes with the position should he be promoted at Old Trafford.

Former England goalkeeper Rob Green told the Football Daily Podcast just what a stark contrast there is between what Henderson has experienced thus far and the possible road ahead:

The Cumbria native has an edge in that he’s been on the books at United since 2011. He undoubtedly harbors long-held dreams of a first-team future. Experience in that setup and the calibre of players surrounding him puts Henderson in a superior seat to any starlet exploding in a smaller setting, even if numerous loans have limited the amount of time he’s spent at Carrington.

Henderson has kept 13 clean sheets in 35 Premier League appearances this season, one more than De Gea despite the latter playing 90 minutes more. The former has also made 94 saves for Sheffield United in that time, per WhoScored.com, three more than his Red Devils counterpart.

There’s much to be said for the Blades’ defensive form under Wilder and the solidity his team have managed in their first season back in the top flight, but it’s almost certain the promoted club would have leaked more at the back were it not for the considerable talents of their on-loan No. 1.

The soccer world sees De Gea with a skeptical eye at present given the mounting mistakes, but with the Spain stopper yet to turn 30, there remains a window of opportunity to turn form around and prove himself to be of the elite rank he once held.

United could take that as reason to attempt selling their veteran goalkeeper now, turning their back on the player in the hope his stock doesn’t plummet further. Or, Solskjaer holds onto a loyal—but extremely expensive—first-team servant of nine years and risks sending a message that Henderson isn’t needed right now, nor might he be should De Gea get back to his best.

Another season on loan at Sheffield United may no longer satiate the appetite of Henderson considering the likes of Chelsea are said to be tracking his situation.

United must make a difficult decision sooner rather than later to secure the loyalty of that guard who best protects their long-term future, a choice that could come to epitomise Solskjaer’s vision of a new era of United success.