12 Oct Why Man United believe Onana is the right goalkeeper despite a shaky start
Harry Maguire got an early taste of André Onana‘s fiery personality in preaseason. A pass from the Manchester United centre-back had put Christian Eriksen in trouble against Borussia Dortmund in Las Vegas. The mistake led to a chance for Sébastien Haller and after Onana had dealt with the shot, he immediately turned to berate Maguire, launching a tirade at the England defender, who was standing only a few yards away.
Onana was later criticised by former Liverpool and England defender Jamie Carragher, who said the rebuke was “over the top,” but Man United manager Erik ten Hag didn’t mind it at all. There’s confidence within the club that the strong character shown by their new No. 1 that day — a new signing demanding higher standards from a senior player — will help him through what has been a difficult start to life at Old Trafford.
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Maguire isn’t alone in finding himself on the receiving end of Onana’s wrath; during Internazionale‘s Champions League tie with FC Porto last season, cameras caught him telling teammate Edin Dzeko to “shut up” before Hakan Calhanoglu tried to de-escalate the situation by putting his hand over Onana’s mouth.
United’s recruitment department were impressed with Onana’s performances during Inter’s run to the Champions League final, but when the search for a goalkeeper to replace David De Gea was being discussed with Ten Hag, it was Onana’s personality that set him apart from other options on the list, including David Raya and Diogo Costa. (It was the same when Ten Hag argued to sign Lisandro Martínez and Casemiro a year earlier.)
The finer details of the deal to bring Onana to Old Trafford took longer than expected, and he was late to join the summer tour of the United States. He arrived at the team hotel in rural New Jersey from JFK airport in a minivan with heavily tinted windows, and the staff sent to greet him were taken aback by his beaming smile and enthusiastic entrance despite a grueling day of travel.
Onana has endured a difficult first few months, but Ten Hag and his staff remain hopeful they have chosen their new goalkeeper well and that his character will help him deal with life under the microscope. Despite a series of mistakes and intense scrutiny since his £47.2 million move from Inter, the 27-year-old has remained a vocal member of the dressing room alongside Bruno Fernandes and Casemiro, particularly impressing his new teammates with the way he owned up to his error in the 4-3 defeat to Bayern Munich in September.
After letting Leroy Sane‘s weak shot squirm into the net, Onana apologised in the dressing room. Once Ten Hag had finished talking — during which he told the other players to remember the attitude shown by Onana in owning his mistake — he also sought out the club’s media team to tell them it was his job to speak publicly to broadcasters. Onana spoke to four TV crews in the main interview room at the Allianz Arena, and gave the same sincere apology each time before being whisked off for another round of questions on the same topic.
What concerned staff most about Onana’s performance against Bayern was not the mistake, but rather how long it took for him to get over it. Sane’s goal came in the 28th minute, and coaches noted that it wasn’t until the start of the second half — more than 30 minutes later — that he was back clapping and shouting instructions from behind the defence.
Ten Hag on Onana’s mistake: Don’t make it bigger than it is
Manchester United’s Erik Ten Hag talks about the team and Andre Onana’s performances after the 4-3 loss vs. Bayern Munich.
United are working with Onana to help him better deal with errors when they come as well as on the technical side of his game, including stabilising his feet more quickly to help with shots aimed low and around his body. It doesn’t help that he has a tendency to get stuck on his goal line when opponents are attacking, and coaches have reminded him to take up more aggressive positions to make the target smaller.
He’s been brought to United. primarily, because of his ability with the ball at his feet with UEFA’s technical report on the Champions League final against Manchester City noting he “displayed the passing range of a deep midfielder.” After eight Premier League games last season, according to ESPN Stats and Information Group, De Gea had completed 134 of his 218 passes (61.47), while Onana has reached 205 from 271 attempts (75.65%), a sign that the Cameroon international is trying to help Ten Hag’s side play in a different way.
There was also the misplaced pass against Galatasaray that resulted in Casemiro being sent off on the way to a shock 3-2 home defeat, but Ten Hag is conscious that some of the teething problems are down to the rest of the team transitioning from one goalkeeper who was cautious in possession to another who wants to take risks.
Onana is so committed to making sure he’s a success at United that he’s reluctant to leave for a month in the new year if he’s called up by Cameroon for the Africa Cup of Nations. He told Ten Hag during negotiations that he had no plans to return to international football following his fallout with Cameroon coach Rigobert Song during the World Cup in Qatar, but after pressure from the Cameroon FA and the government, Onana agreed to play in the final AFCON qualifier against Burundi in September.
There will be more talks before the AFCON tournament starts in the Ivory Coast in January, but there is an acceptance at Man United that it’s very difficult for high-profile Cameroon footballers to turn down the chance to play in major competitions.
Turkey international Altay Bayindir also joined United from Fenerbahce in the summer as the understudy and is waiting in the wings if Onana decides to go to the AFCON. Bayindir, 25, was signed ahead of younger alternatives because of his experience, and Ten Hag is open to making a change in goal if Onana’s form doesn’t improve. Still, despite a shaky start, United are backing Onana to prove they were right to jettison De Gea, the first-choice goalkeeper at Old Trafford for more than a decade, and bring in a replacement with a different set of attributes.
Retired Man United star Gary Neville once said that, because of the pressure and scrutiny, being United’s goalkeeper is “the hardest job in English football,” but Ten Hag believes he’s found the right personality to take it on.