As David de Gea contemplates retirement, his replacement at Manchester United, Andre Onana, is already under the spotlight after a high-profile error against Bayern Munich in midweek.
According to Italian journalist Stefano de Grandis (Sky Italia via Sport Witness), “Onana is physically good and had a good season [in 2022/23] but he’s not world class.”
De Grandis also said that “Inter earned more for Onana than he’s worth.”
The expert’s words speak to the question that is on everybody’s lips right now: have United bought a pup?
The fluffed shot in Bavaria is the highest profile error made so far but not the only one. Many would argue that Onana was extremely fortunate to escape punishment for a foul on Wolves’ Sacha Kalajdzic in injury time in United’s opening match of the season.
If that penalty had been awarded, United would probably have dropped points in that game and the Cameroonian would have been under more scrutiny sooner.
It is generally accepted that United bought Onana because they needed a goalkeeper who is better with his feet than De Gea. To be fair, nobody expected an improvement on the Spaniard in terms of shot stopping. But covering the basics of that most crucial of goalkeeping requirements was surely expected of the Cameroonian.
Reporter James Horncastle (via BBC) said “He’s presented as this playmaker in gloves, but there’s more to him than that.”
“I don’t think he’s been signed exclusively for line-breaking passes and helping United beat the press. They want a shot-stopper as well instead.
“He kept Inter in games last season with his hands, not his feet. In time we’ll see the true value of Onana.”
Sky pundit Guillem Balague says that “”Because he’s not the smoothest technically he makes little mistakes that sometimes cause goals. He’s fantastic with his feet. Sometimes he does saves for the gallery but he does save impossible balls too.
“He’s not the perfect goalkeeper but good enough for Man United.”
The fact is, as Jonny Evans said yesterday, even De Gea struggled to settle at United when he first joined the club and that was in the days of Sir Alex Ferguson, when the environment was stable.
United today is anything but.
The most important attribute of all in a Manchester United goalkeeper is mental strength. Every match is a big match and the pressure is enormous.
Onana’s reaction to his mistake – publicly owning it and apologising for it – shows immense strength of character and it is this, above all, that will stand him in good stead.
A goalkeeper’s understanding with his defence is hugely important to his success. When to come out for a cross, or to clear his lines, or to narrow the angle, and when to stay on his line are decisions that are massively dependent on the speed, technical ability, positioning and personality of the defenders around him.
The fact that in five Premier League matches so far, Onana has had to work with two different right backs, two different left backs and five different centre backs can hardly have made life easy. Of course, on the surface of it, spilling an easy shot into your own goal has little to do with understanding your teammates. But it does speak to a lapse in concentration that may have been brought about by the myriad thoughts running through Onana’s mind when he is getting accustomed to, and consciously having to process, a defensive unit that with time will become as automatic as riding a bike.
Confidence could now be a factor for Onana and there might be more mistakes to come. But this is no Massimo Taibi. United will have to be patient and accept that things might get worse before they get better.
In one year Onana became a cult hero at Inter Milan. It would not be a surprise to see him do the same at Manchester United despite the less-than-perfect start. Fans will need to be patient and keep the faith. An 11th player capable of strong passing and effective in transition will win United a lot of points this season. His huge personality and the fire in his belly are exactly what United need as well.
It is probably true that United overpaid for the 27 year old, but those few million will not matter if he is able to deliver what has been promised, and what he showed he can do at Inter.