Andre Onana: The 'plus one' at the back

Monday 21 August 2023 12:15

Every football transfer inspires excitement. But few signings in United history can have aroused more intrigue than Andre Onana.

Each player brings something unique, but this is something more.

Yes, the Cameroonian is wildly talented, replete with the kind of huge, confident personality that many deem essential at Old Trafford. But that could be said of many United acquisitions.

The reason Onana will have every Red buzzing is simple: his fluency with the ball could be the key ingredient in the creation of a United team like no other.

That may sound hyperbolic. But anyone who watched Erik ten Hag’s Ajax or the recent Champions League final – where Onana shone despite Internazionale’s 1-0 defeat – will appreciate how a technically gifted goalkeeper can expand a football team’s parameters.

“Most important, always for a keeper, is clean sheets,” explained the manager, when asked about the club’s pursuit of a player he once described as “masterful”.

“The capabilities of a keeper is [about] keeping the goal clean. So this is the first criterion of a good goalkeeper. But nowadays football also demands good playing from the back, out-playing qualities, and that is a quality Andre has. You need to cover both areas.”

Watch Onana’s first United interview Video

Watch Onana’s first United interview

Onana has been a Red for just over a week – don't sleep on his first in-depth interview as a United player...

Onana started his professional climb at Barcelona’s famed La Masia Academy, before joining Ajax in 2015. United fans might remember his presence in the 2017 Europa League final, when Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan helped us triumph in Stockholm.

It was with Ten Hag’s bold 2018/19 Ajax that Onana really rose to acclaim. The four-time European kings soared to within seconds of the Champions League final, until Lucas Moura’s dramatic goal took Tottenham through on away goals.

But memories of Ajax’s buccaneering raid on the Bernabeu that season, and their beating of Juventus, linger long in the brain. As do the fluid, crisp passing moves Ten Hag inculcated.

Onana was integral, firing passes into midfield, sucking opponents into pressing attempts – in short, creating space and openings for his outfield colleagues.

Some readers might interject here and mention our former goalkeeper Fabien Barthez. Long before the modern wave of feet-first goalkeepers – embodied by Premier Leaguers such as Ederson, Alisson and Aaron Ramsdale – Barthez would venture out of his box, try audacious skills and take on adventurous passes.

But they were never really integrated into United’s collective style, making the Frenchman look like something of a peripheral eccentric.

Onana’s arrival signals the start of something entirely different: a seismic progression in the way the team will function. As Erik recently put it: “He’s a keeper who can be used as a ‘plus-one’ in the back, so we definitely will put that in our strategy and tactics.”

Why Onana was Man of the Match v Wolves Video

Why Onana was Man of the Match v Wolves

Player highlights | Onana was in the thick of the action against Wolves, showing off great footwork and shot-stopping...

In other words, Old Trafford will witness Onana adopt advanced positions way up the pitch. We’ll see him trying to take opponents out of the game by inviting them to close him down. In essence, United will have 11 outfield players when in possession, while the opposition must rely on 10 defenders.

Fans have already been encouraged by Andre's two Premier League appearances so far: he was voted United's Man of the Match against Wolves and earned praise at Tottenham Hotspur.

While his style induce a few heart-stopping moments, there should be faith that Onana’s bravery will create space further upfield.

That’s not to say the 27-year-old is merely a midfielder in a goalkeeping jersey, though. Last term, after swapping Ajax for Inter, he laid the foundations for the Nerazzurri’s Champions League run with seven clean sheets, making more saves than any other goalkeeper in the competition.

As you can see in the video below, he made plenty of admirable saves in north London at the weekend.

Onana's highlights against Tottenham Video

Onana's highlights against Tottenham

Player highlights | Andre Onana demonstrated his passing range and smart reactions in our match against Tottenham...

“I’m very comfortable playing from the back, but it depends,” cautions the man himself. “I think the most important thing is to recognise the situation. When we play, depending on who we play, sometimes you have the possession and sometimes not, so from there you have to be smart and try to help the team. I look at myself as a modern goalkeeper, so I can adapt to any situation.”

David De Gea will be missed, like Edwin van der Sar and Peter Schmeichel before him. But with Onana’s arrival, United are making a bold and admirable attempt to expand the boundaries of what the current first team can do. Goalkeeping’s exciting, daring, brave new world has set up camp in M16

This feature first appeared in United Review, our matchday programme at Old Trafford that can be ordered online.

Which area of Andre Onana's game do you admire the most so far?poll

Which area of Andre Onana's game do you admire the most so far?