With David de Gea out of the door, we investigate why André Onana appears to be the favourite to replace him at Old Trafford.
For years, decades even, the role and importance of the goalkeeper was hugely undervalued. You could potentially even say they were misunderstood and underutilised.
They were there to stop the ball going in the goal, and that was pretty much it. So, when maverick goalkeepers occasionally came along, that made them even more memorable. You know the ones. Keepers like René Higuita, Jorge Campos, José Luis Chilavert and Fabien Barthez.
But while many at the time will have considered these keepers to be pointless risk-takers bordering on alien, perhaps more of us should have thought about the bigger picture and the potential in confident, forward-thinking goalkeepers.
Okay, in terms of his style of play, Higuita was madder than a box of frogs, even alluding to this during a 2008 interview with Reuters when saying goalkeepers should “entertain the people who pay for the tickets” as much as outfielders.
Those specifically like Higuita haven’t exactly become established in the mainstream, but no longer is the goalkeeper just seen as the 11th player. More and more they’re utilised as a de facto 11th outfielder, meaning the qualities that underpinned the wacky tendencies of Higuita, Barthez and others of that ilk are becoming key components in the modern game.
The Playmaking Goalkeeper
André Onana is arguably the most extreme example of this kind of goalkeeper at the elite level of the sport today. That’s not to say you’ll see him trying to dribble past midfielders on the halfway line, but he’s a risk taker, has a positive and creative mentality, and is every inch the embodiment of a modern goalkeeper.
He’s also probably the most sought-after keeper in Europe this summer. Having just helped Inter to the UEFA Champions League final, interest is high and his asking price is – apparently – surprisingly low at about €50million (£43m).
Chelsea had initially appeared to be at the front of the queue, but now Manchester United seems a more likely destination with the club letting David de Gea leave the club. His contract at Old Trafford ran out on 1 July.
It shouldn’t be understated just how good De Gea has been for United over more than a decade at Old Trafford, but it’s also been clear for a while that there are better all-round keepers out there. Erik ten Hag has often spoken highly of the Spaniard, but the writing was on the wall as soon as he became Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s permanent successor last year.
Moving for Onana as De Gea’s replacement would certainly be a case of going from one extreme to another. The latter simply isn’t an assuring presence on the ball; the former is probably among the world’s calmest and most confident goalkeepers in possession.
“From every area of the team, I want productivity,” Ten Hag said in pre-season last year. “That’s the most important thing, that players take the initiative on and off the ball, in offence and defence.”
So, with that in mind, the arrival of a goalkeeper like Onana could have a transformational impact at United. They already have some key players in defensive areas who are effective at playing through the lines, such as Lisandro Martinez, Luke Shaw and Casemiro, plus Bruno Fernandes a little higher up. Adding a talented ball-playing goalkeeper would appear to be the logical next step, particularly given the Premier League seems to be the home of pressing these days. Eight of the 20 clubs from the top five leagues with the most high turnovers in 2022-23 were English, and the competition’s average of 16.04 per game was also the most.
Onana would certainly fit the bill. He may be someone who plays on the edge, but last season his 93.8% pass accuracy in his own half was only bettered by 12 goalkeepers (minimum 1,000 minutes played) across Europe’s top five leagues, and just three of those attempted more on a per-90-minute basis (28.8). De Gea, by comparison, found a team-mate with 88% of passes in his own half from 19.3 every 90 minutes.
So not only is Onana used to seeing a lot of the ball, he’s reliable. Given he’s often described as being a risk taker, this might sound like a surprising summarisation, but there’s a real purpose and deliberation to his game. Rarely do you get the impression that he’s playing a pass without much thought, which is also demonstrated by the fact only three goalkeepers in Serie A registered fewer ‘hoofs’ up the pitch than his one.
Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola amusingly went as far as to liken Onana to a “holding midfielder” after the Champions League final, such were the positions he was taking up and some of the passes he picked out. In fact, it was his pass to Lautaro Martinez in the second half (pictured below) that took more than half the City team out of the equation and eventually led to Romelu Lukaku getting a shot on target.
Guardiola even suggested before the final that Onana’s qualities made Inter the antithesis of United in terms of build-up, telling CBS Sports: “Onana makes it really difficult to deploy a high press against. You cannot press the goalkeeper properly. They are masters at keeping the ball, right up to the attackers.”
He added: “If you look at United, for example, it is long ball. With Rashford and another [forward] to run onto.”
That might be a little reductive, but there’s a hint of truth to it as United tallied more direct attacks (102) and goals from such situations (nine) than any other team in the Premier League last season. Just because Onana plays a lot of passes in his own half doesn’t mean United would lose the ability to play direct if he did sign, however.
His four combined chances created and secondary chances created – which is the pass before the pass that sets up a shot – was second only to Lazio’s Ivan Provedel in Serie A last term, but the latter played 3,412 minutes; Onana featured for only 2,160 minutes in Italy’s top tier.
Of course, chance creation isn’t going to be a major responsibility of Onana’s if he does join United, or Chelsea for that matter. But his ability on the ball and use of it could still have a frequent impact on how the team attacks, or how many chances they craft. Given how quickly Ten Hag’s side can get from back to front already, Onana’s adventurous passing out from the back could bring further destabilisation to opponents, particularly those who press high.
He played a role in 1.7 open-play shot-ending sequences every 90 minutes in Serie A last season, which was bettered by only two goalkeepers (minimum 650 minutes played) across the top five leagues. Among the same group, just four players averaged more shot-ending build-up involvements (1.5) each game. Of course, this requires outfield players capable of continuing to knit attacks together, but United’s 99 build-up attacks was only slightly below Inter’s 101, so there’s plenty to suggest Onana’s talents would be just as well utilised.
High Risk, High Reward
This all feeds into a wider narrative around Onana’s character and mindset. He’s absolutely a front-foot goalkeeper. While Inter’s fairly deep defensive line has meant he’s not really been required to sweep, he tallied 35 keeper sweepings (completing 32) in the 2016-17 Eredivisie season for Ajax, which has only been bettered by 10 goalkeepers in a single season across the top six leagues since.
Of course, he went on to be coached and managed by Ten Hag at Ajax the following season, coinciding with Onana curbing his sweeping tendencies to a significant degree. Nevertheless, there’s no getting away from the fact his style of play and risk taking aren’t for everyone. Some supporters may take a little time to adjust to him.
Let’s not forget, at Qatar 2022 Onana broke the record for the most touches (26) outside the box by a goalkeeper in a single game at the World Cup, with those coming from an open play total of 46 in the 1-0 defeat to Switzerland. That was his first and only appearance of the tournament. A row with head coach Rigobert Song, who felt Onana took too many risks, led to the goalkeeper leaving the camp entirely and retiring from international football.
Below is another example of the riskiness he represents, as he coolly strokes the ball straight past the pressing Erling Haaland in the Champions League final. But one man’s riskiness is another man’s bravery.
As mentioned, Ten Hag is already very familiar with Onana’s habits and quirks, so any successful pursuit would be seen as the former Ajax boss providing a seal of approval for his talents. His abilities will need to stretch to a goalkeeper’s bread and butter, though. Ten Hag’s system almost requires United to concede a lot of shots because that encouragement results in the opposition leaving more space to be exploited at the other end, as such they faced 481 shots last term, fewer than only Tottenham (520), Fulham (505) and Brentford (559) among those who finished in the top half.
To be fair to De Gea, he remains a very able goalkeeper when it comes to pure shot stopping, though his 69.9% save percentage in the league last season was under Onana’s 71.8%. The latter also led everyone in the Champions League for ‘goals prevented’, keeping out 7.8 (excluding own goals) according to Opta’s expected goals on target conceded (xGOT) metric, although he let in 2.5 more than he should have in Serie A.
Onana isn’t perfect, but is any goalkeeper? Even Ederson last season conceded 4.7 goals more than expected in the league according to the same model, yet he’s still lauded as being among the best and probably the benchmark for ball-playing goalkeepers.
We also have to acknowledge Onana has been playing in leagues that are regarded as less physical than the Premier League, especially in terms of the modern-day fascination with pressing. If he was to join United, it’s obviously not a given that he’d be a success.
His adaptation would be key. How quickly he adjusts to the change in pressing intensity would be a significant factor during the early months, but if all goes smoothly, there’s every reason to expect Onana to be a hugely important cog in Ten Hag’s machine if he does swap Milan for Manchester.
United could be finally moving with the times; perhaps the goalkeeper will at long last be utilised to maximum effect at Old Trafford.