Football Features

Chelsea, Barcelona or Spurs? André Onana’s playing style may shed light on the right answer

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 17:22, 30 April 2020

André Onana has likely played his final game for Ajax following the Dutch FA’s decision to prematurely conclude their league season.

The 24-year-old Cameroonian goalkeeper, who’s been with the record Eredivisie champions since January 2015, has publicly expressed his desire to leave.

It’s been five great years [at Ajax], but now my time has come to take a step. I don’t yet know what will happen, but my ambitions and agreements are clear. – Onana, to Algemeen Dagblad

As was the case with Ziyech, it is suggested he has an informal agreement with Ajax, obliging the club to enable his departure should an interested party make a suitable bid. This would undoubtedly come as a blow to Erik ten Hag’s side, who a year ago came minutes away from reaching a first European Cup final in over two decades.

That side has slowly broken up, with the influential duo Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong having signed for Juventus and Barcelona respectively last summer, Ziyech bound for Chelsea while others – and not just Onana – prepared to soon say goodbye.

Highly regarded in his formative years, the Ajax No.1 is considered “arguably one of the best ‘modern’ goalkeepers in the world” by former Ajax and Nigeria midfielder Sunday Oliseh, who adds that Onana is a “goalkeeper that wins points for the team.”

Accordingly, a number of super clubs are said to be keeping tabs on him. But who from the list of teams being linked suits him best?

Educated in the Amsterdam way

Onana first came to Ajax’s attention when he faced them in a youth tournament. Marc Overmars, the club’s wily sporting director, inquired as to his availability with Barcelona – his old stomping ground – and before he knew it, a transfer was arranged.

After spending time away from the first team, Onana soon became Jasper Cillessen’s understudy before taking over the reins following the latter’s own move to Barça. He has since kept 74 clean sheets across 178 matches in all competitions.

“I think Andre [Onana] is fantastic,” Ajax CEO and legendary goalie Edwin van der Sar said back in 2018. “He came to Ajax aged 18 or 19 and the way he developed, and the natural attributes that he already had, his speed, his reaction… I think he set himself as a great goalkeeper.

“Also, he was in a rush to play first-team football quickly, but I think the level that he composed himself and that first year, playing straight away the [2017] Europa League final was a great start.”

Given both clubs still honour Johan Cruyff’s footballing ideas when it comes to goalkeeping – which are mostly to do with utilising the No.1 as an extra footballer who just so happens to keep the ball out of the net – Onana’s education gives him an advantage in the modern game. It made him a perfect fit to continue from where Cillessen left off, yet his greatest strength isn’t actually his distribution of the ball (although in this respect, he is exemplary). Rather, it is his shot-stopping. It is his knack for popping up at the right time in the right place, especially in high-pressure scenarios.

Of course there are unfortunate exceptions, such as that infamous second leg against Tottenham, but these episodes are few and far between, even if they’re the most memorable. Given his age, it comes as no surprise that Manuel Neuer – ten years his senior and one of the more high-profile ‘keepers of this generation – is someone Onana looks up to as a reference.

“He is the most complete goalkeeper in the world,” he said of the Bayern Munich star. “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.”

The feeling is mutual – Neuer described himself as Onana’s “biggest fan” – but to say he’s cut from exactly the same cloth as the 2014 World Cup winner would be a tad erroneous. As touched upon, ‘sweeping’ – though a task he’s capable of carrying out – isn’t his biggest selling point. Ajax play a high defensive line and this affords him ample touches of the ball. The accuracy of his passing is not quite there yet, but that could all change given how those in his position tend to peak in their later years.

Option A.) Homeward bound

So the question becomes: where are those ‘later years’ going to be spent? Barcelona, somewhere he previously called home for the first half of the last decade after joining from compatriot Samuel Eto’o’s academy in 2010, is a realistic option, especially when you consider Onana knows exactly what is required of their goalkeeper and the ongoing contractual situation regarding first choice Marc-André ter Stegen.

Then again, it’s unfathomable to imagine Ter Stegen leaving the Camp Nou, even if nothing can ever be ruled out in football. Such is his stature and current standing in the game, Onana would represent a downgrade. And that’s not even remotely a slight on Nkol Ngok-born footballer, who’ll no doubt acknowledge the gap in quality – albeit probably while backing himself to one day hit those same heights.

Quique Setien | Barcelona | La Liga

From the buyer’s point of view, though, Barça’s apparent interest makes sense. There is Neto already on their books, though he’s considered to be more of a number two and Onana has the fabled club DNA coursing through his veins.

“Barcelona is my home. When I go there all the doors are open. It’s normal because I was there since I was young,” he told BBC Sport. “Everyone would love to go to Barcelona but for me it’s important to play. I am happy when I play so I will try to play somewhere.”

A move from the Eredivisie to La Liga hasn’t done De Jong – his former Ajax teammate – any harm. Of course, it is quite different with goalkeepers, the loneliest position in football, where the scrutiny is usually at its most intense. Especially given the calibre of attack he often faces in the Netherlands is a lot tamer than what Barcelona experience in Spain.

Option B.) London calling

If not a return home, then what about following his buddy Ziyech? Chelsea’s issues regarding their first choice goalie are well documented. Kepa Arrizabalaga, the world’s most expensive goalkeeper, started under Frank Lampard before a string of disheartening performances saw the veteran Willy Caballero usurp him.

But that changed last time out, when Kepa won back his place. Now in possession of the jersey, it’s Kepa’s to lose, and given his contract expires in June 2025, plus the fact there don’t seem to be many clubs with enough money in desperate need of a goalkeeper, would Onana entertain a move that’ll see him arrive on equal footing with his rival?

Another well-trodden path might be more to his liking. Hugo Lloris, though not quite done, is showing signs of decline, and Spurs would be foolish if they haven’t already discussed his long-term successor, even with Paulo Gazzaniga as back-up.

There’s also the fact Onana is actually the type of goalkeeper the present Lillywhites boss, José Mourinho, seems to favour. Onana can be classified as a Reaction-type goalie, someone who is strong, has quick reactions and great charisma, rather than an Anticipation-type, someone who could easily be asked to function as the eleventh outfielder; Lloris falls into this latter bracket.

The decision facing Onana, who is also said to be tailed by Paris Saint-Germain, rests on several factors, including guaranteed regular playing time and the offer of continued development in the right environment. Both seem to be on offer at Spurs, where he would become the latest to make this switch following Jan Vertonghen, Christian Eriksen and Davinson Sánchez.

Onana vs the Champions League average* (in brackets):

  • Appearances: 6
  • Goals conceded: 6 (vs 9.75)
  • Shots on target faced: 30 (vs 29.88)
  • Saves: 26 (vs 20.42)
  • Save percentage: 80% (vs 67.36%)
  • Passing accuracy: 59.39% (vs 67.98%)

*Average among all Champions League goalkeepers to have played 500 minutes or more.