Why Crystal Palace have signed Dean Henderson

Dean Henderson’s arrival at Crystal Palace might provoke a degree of confusion in the context of the club’s extremely low-key summer, in which they had previously signed only two players, and given their most pressing needs appear to lie at the other end of the pitch.

When Palace’s relatively restricted budget is taken into consideration, it is, on the face of it, even more perplexing that they decided to spend up to £20million ($25.5m) — an initial £15m with a further £5m in potential add-ons — to bring in a goalkeeper from Manchester United. Henderson was being paid over £100,000 per week at Old Trafford and will become one of the highest earners at his new club.

Up to now, the only fee Palace had parted with this summer was on the 19-year-old Brazilian forward Matheus Franca from Flamengo. Jefferson Lerma, their other first-team addition, arrived on a free transfer after leaving fellow Premier League side Bournemouth at the end of his contract.

Palace are in need of attacking reinforcements — a winger and a striker in an ideal world. A goalkeeper probably would not have factored into their thinking at any high level when entering this summer’s window.

To some extent, though, their hand was forced.

Vicente Guaita, who had spent almost four years as Palace’s undisputed first choice in goal, has made things awkward. The 36-year-old lost his place in the team through injury towards the end of last season, with Sam Johnstone impressing in his absence. Manager Roy Hodgson revealed the Spaniard has been “refusing to play” since the squad returned for pre-season, adding that Guaita is “disenchanted with the club and has said he would like to move on.”

Guaita has been a regular since joining from Getafe in 2018 (Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)

Had Guaita not taken such drastic action, maybe Palace would have deemed Henderson more of a luxury, with the funds involved diverted elsewhere.

Instead, Henderson’s arrival almost mimics that of Johnstone last year — Palace’s interest is opportunistic but logical and sensible with the future in mind as much as the present.

Johnstone, brought in on a free transfer last summer after a contract impasse at West Bromwich Albion, was not someone Palace had tracked for a considerable period. Guaita and Jack Butland were in place at Selhurst Park and each had featured and impressed under then-manager Patrick Vieira during the 2021-22 campaign. Yet when Johnstone became available for no fee, they decided the chance to sign a top-quality ’keeper who had been in the England squad for the European Championship two years ago was too good to miss.

The 30-year-old came in as competition for Guaita — Butland broke a finger in pre-season, then when fit again was loaned to Manchester United in January — and had to bide his time, with misfortune befalling him as injuries struck, but was eventually granted minutes between the posts as the season drew to a close. He was excellent as a previously struggling Palace team improved under Hodgson’s management and safely negotiated passage to a mid-table finish.

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Johnstone in action during the Carabao Cup win over Plymouth on Tuesday (Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Henderson, a similarly opportunistic signing, may also find himself needing to be patient.

Hodgson is loyal to his goalkeepers and Johnstone, recalled to the England squad for June’s two Euro 2024 qualifiers, has done nothing to warrant being replaced. But the Selhurst Park incumbent’s recent injury history — he suffered thigh, back and calf issues last term — may mean an opening presents itself sooner rather than later.

Henderson is only 26, so his best years ought to be ahead of him. Given he has a senior England cap amid strong competition and has been in multiple squads under Gareth Southgate over the past four years, the fee can be considered good business for the club. This was not a signing made on a whim — Palace have recruited pedigree.

Where Johnstone may have been more of an outlier in their recruitment strategy in terms of potential re-sale value, Henderson fits into it neatly. That will be how they sold this move to him, too: play for Palace and impress over a couple of years and, if a team higher in football’s pecking order then comes calling, he can leave with their blessing.

The fee, in that situation, would inevitably represent a significant profit. Rinse and repeat for any young player they sign.

In the short-to-medium term, Henderson will improve them as well.

As Sheffield United won promotion from the Championship in 2018-19, Old Trafford loanee Henderson kept 21 clean sheets and was named their young player of the year. He went on to excel in the second season of that loan arrangement, starting every league game apart from the two against his parent club, as Chris Wilder’s side finished ninth in their first campaign back in the top flight.

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Henderson excelled over two years on loan at Sheffield United (Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)

Although he missed the second half of the last Premier League season on loan to promoted Nottingham Forest due to a thigh injury, he stood out in his 18 league appearances, keeping six clean sheets. Forest ended up conceding 68 goals, a figure in the same ballpark as relegated sides Leicester City (68), Southampton (73) and Leeds (78). In that context, Henderson keeping clean sheets in a third of his appearances — a clean-sheet rate of 33 per cent bettered by only five goalkeepers in the division — was impressive.

He has earned plaudits for not only his ability but also his personality.

“He’s a good professional and he really cares,” said Forest manager Steve Cooper last year. “He has a fantastic mentality towards winning.” Resilience is another quality he possesses and he is someone who goes all-in rather than doing anything in half measures.

Darren Ward, who worked with Henderson when he was Sheffield United’s goalkeeping coach, referenced his confidence. “He just puts himself on a pedestal and challenges people to knock him off it. He wants to show people how good he can be,” Ward told The Athletic last year. Henderson is ambitious and aspires to be England’s No 1, but he cares about progressing the team he is part of as well as self-development. 

At Manchester United, when given a run of games in early 2021 due to an injury to David de Gea, he was authoritative and encouraged his colleagues to play a higher defensive line, while being keen to come off his line and command his area.

He is not the finished article. 

Last season, as impressive as he was, he found it difficult to keep out shots from distance. He conceded 12 goals from outside the penalty area from a combined expected goals on target of 6.3 — an under-performance of 5.7 — which suggests that is something that needs work. That figure was, however, an outlier compared to the rest of his career.

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This has the potential to be another shrewd signing for Palace. It is a deal that should work well for all parties and, unless Johnstone now departs before the transfer window closes, it leaves them with two excellent goalkeepers, Remi Matthews as third-choice and two youngsters, Joe Whitworth and Owen Goodman (now on loan at Colchester United in League Two), as long-term prospects. 

The competition will be healthy and, should he establish himself in the Palace team and impress, this is an opportunity for Henderson to follow Johnstone in returning to the England setup.

He has ample self-belief. He will view this as providing him with an excellent platform on which to excel.

(Top photo: Micah Crook/PPAUK)

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