“You don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps.” That phrase has made its way onto tens of millions of coffee mugs and office walls up and down the UK for decades. It is a nod to the old self-deprecating British sense of humour that often bears an equal measure of irony and madcap silliness. But if there is (as many suspect) a Goalkeeper’s Union, and if they do indeed hold secret meetings to discuss all things related to their work between the sticks, one imagines that its members would take the aforementioned phrase far more seriously than its origins in 1970s sitcoms would deem appropriate.
In English footballing culture, after all, it has generally been accepted that goalkeepers are a breed unto themselves. They are mad, and they bloody well need to be.
If none of that sounds too familiar to Manchester United fans, they need look no further than the current number one at Old Trafford to work out why. David de Gea does not have the ‘crazy streak’ that a goalkeeper needs to dive head-first into a penalty-box melee, nor the arrogance to stare into the eyes of a hopeful attacker and scream “Come and take it off me if you think you can!” while planning out his next Cruyff turn/Pirlo pass combo. Even in his heyday, when he was the best shot stopper in the land, De Gea did not have any element of insanity – he was sensible.
For a long time, that might even have been a bit refreshing for United fans. But as the game has moved on and – more pertinently – as Erik ten Hag attempts to move Man United’s style forward, that has become a serious problem. De Gea has spent his entire career doing the ‘safe’ thing and, in doing so, has found himself a 32-year-old lacking in many of the talents that the risk-taking managers of the world demand from their goalkeepers.
That brings us to Andre Onana, who appears to be the next in line to take over the arduous task of becoming Manchester United’s goalkeeper. As reported by The Peoples Person, a deal could even be wrapped up by the end of the week, with David Harrison, director of football operations, all set to meet Inter Milan’s sporting director Piero Ausilio by Friday, well aware of the terms that will be accepted.
Onana spent nine months suspended for mistakenly taking his wife’s medication in 2020, and last year got himself sent home from the Qatar World Cup for a spectacular fallout with Cameroon manager Rigobert Song. He retired from international football a month later in protest at the age of 27. If Man United are looking for a bit of ‘crazy’ to play in net, so far so good.
But it is his long-standing aversion to safety on the pitch that Ten Hag really admires. When the pair worked together at Ajax, they managed incredible successes – with four league wins on the bounce, a Europa League final, and a couple of unlikely runs in the Champions League that saw heavyweights such as Real Madrid and Juventus put to the sword, among them. Ajax’s hypnotic off-ball runs and metronomic passing gained plenty of plaudits at the time, but Onana’s unique style of play provided the foundation for it all. It has been in vogue for a goalkeeper to step up and become the eleventh outfielder for a long time – the Cameroonian took it further and became a genuine playmaker in his own right.
Line breaking passes into Frenkie de Jong, raked diagonals out to Hakim Ziyech, and disguised balls for an inverting Noussair Mazroui were common fundamental plays for the semifinal-running Ajax side Ten Hag put together in Amsterdam. The variety of passes available to Andre Onana at any given time may have had onlookers questioning the effectiveness of the opposing marking structure, but in reality the options were largely available because of Onana himself. A goalkeeper so confident on the ball as to actually want to be pressed by his opponent and purposely bait it is invaluable in opening up spaces further up the pitch. When the same player has the vision and range to exploit those spaces himself, so much the better.
That is something his current employers soon found out last season. Onana was signed on a free transfer from Ajax twelve months ago, and took a little while to usurp long-serving Inter stalwart Samir Handanovic. The Slovenian started the first eight Serie A matches of the season, while Onana was essentially the Nerazzuri’s Champions League group stage goalkeeper. After impressing in that tournament, he quickly found himself playing second fiddle to no one.
Inter Milan, particularly in Europe, took full advantage of Onana’s ability to find players high up the pitch last term. Denzel Dumfries and Federico Dimarco were given full licence to push up early on in the build up phase to be available for long passes into space, while the abilities of veteran Edin Dzeko to win aerial duels and bring his teammates into play were given a new lease of life during the Champions League final run.
Onana’s markedly more direct passing during his time in Italy goes to show the variety of options available to a team when their goalkeeper is supremely comfortable on the ball and able to pick a pass over a number of distances. For the Serie A star, his distribution gives his manager a switch-blade with which to carve out a path through the opponent’s pressing structure.
Last season, Ten Hag was forced to adopt build up patterns that mitigated the risk of United losing possession in dangerous areas. Should The Red Devils secure Andre Onana, the focus will be on how best to break through the first line of pressure and create attacking overloads. That may seem a subtle change in focus, and one that begins far from goal, but it is a vital one for Man United to start imposing themselves on the bigger matches in their pursuit of the biggest trophies.
Follow The Peoples Person on Twitter or Instagram for all the latest news as it happens and to join in the conversation.