Football Features

Signing Andre Onana can unlock Erik ten Hag’s vision at Manchester United

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 0:56, 9 July 2023

Manchester United are moving closer to completing the signing of Andre Onana from Inter Milan, according to reports.

If he arrives the 27-year-old Cameroonian goalkeeper would not only become United’s undisputed number one — following in a lineage that also includes Edwin van der Sar, who played an instrumental role in Onana’s development from afar and the gold-standard Peter Schmeichel; but it would also put into motion Erik ten Hag’s ultimate vision for the record 20-time English champions.

Ten Hag’s arrival last summer seemed to signal the beginning of the end of De Gea’s time at Old Trafford. It was in fact announced this weekend that the Spaniard will leave United this summer after making a club record (for a goalkeeper) 545 appearances.

Note: Several metrics above (i.e. goals conceded) are influenced by team defensive performance and coaching instructions.

Aside from a decline in form, De Gea never suited Ten Hag’s system. This cannot be said of Onana, who served the Red Devils‘ head coach well during their period working together at Ajax.

A pupil of Barcelona’s esteemed youth set-up, Onana moved to Amsterdam when it became clear a pathway into their first team was blocked. The Nkol Ngok-born talent soon took over from Jasper Cillessen after Barça snapped up the Dutchman.

For Ajax, the transition was smooth. Onana was tailormade to meet the demands Ajax place on whoever stands beneath the crossbar.

It long troubled Johan Cruyff, Ajax manager of the mid-1980s, that all goalkeepers were asked to do was stop shots. To him this was almost a waste of a player. Frans Hoek, arguably the most pre-eminent goalkeeping coach in recent memory, was hired and subsequently banished Cruyff’s goalkeeping bugbear.

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Hoek, whose method is Uefa approved, divides goalkeepers into two categories. Anticipation-type and Reaction-type. The former – preferred by Cruyff and Louis van Gaal – describes Onana, who “could be easily used as a field player, able to function as the eleventh player.” Goalkeepers like De Gea – “strong, has quick reactions and great charisma” – fall into the latter category.

Disciples of the Ajax school, which includes Pep Guardiola and his own followers, have certain expectations of their goalkeepers. Requirements, even. The most important is the ability to pass at speed, recycling possession by playing the ball out instead of launching it to restart moves.

As the 2022 World Cup showed, you can take the goalkeeper out of Amsterdam, but you can’t take Amsterdam out of the goalkeeper. Onana took 61 touches in Cameroon’s 1-0 loss to Switzerland, 24 of which amazingly came outside the box, setting a new record for a goalkeeper at the World Cup.

For all his good work, Onana wouldn’t truthfully be considered a ‘sweeper-keeper.’ A more apt description is a ball-playing ‘keeper. In the Serie A season just gone, Onana averaged more successful passes per 90 minutes than any other Serie A goalkeeper who played more than 1,500 minutes. His accuracy (79.2%) was the third-highest among regularly starting ‘keepers.

But for all that, Onana’s greatest strength is perhaps his shot-stopping ability. We saw this firsthand in last season’s Champions League where he maintained an 81% save percentage (3rd among all GKs) despite the fact no UCL ‘keeper faced more shots on target (58).

Furthermore, no goalkeeper, according to Opta’s expected goals on target conceded (xGOT) metric, posted a higher goals-prevented total than his 7.8 (excluding own goals).

Given his age, it comes as no surprise that Manuel Neuer – ten years Onana’s senior and one of the more high-profile ‘keepers of this generation – is a big reference point.

“He is the most complete goalkeeper in the world,” Onana once said of the World Cup winner.

“Strong in the air, strong on the line, very good in 1-on-1 situations and he always plays football. He likes taking risks, just like me. I think he is the best goalkeeper of all time.”

Onana’s mere presence allowed Ten Hag’s Ajax to move up the pitch and establish a high defensive line. It’s obvious he has sought to shape Man United in this fashion but De Gea isn’t the right man for the role.

No transfer is guaranteed to be a success. De Gea himself, who departs as a “United legend”, endured early months of criticism after coming to the Premier League.

Onana arrives far more seasoned. This challenge will be more demanding (especially when it comes to pressing intensity) than in the Eredivisie, where he played for the division’s most dominant side and so much rests on that critical assimilation phase. But if his adaptation goes well — and there will be a familiar face in United’s backline in ex-Ajax teammate Lisandro Martinez — Onana will become one of Man United’s most important players. Perhaps no one will play a more significant role in Ten Hag being able to finally realise his vision and preferred style of play.