There have been ups and downs, challenges faced in his career, but Andre Onana has proven his worth.
Not just a goalkeeper
Goalkeepers have always been called shot-stoppers, players with the most important task of guarding the goal. Over time, with the continuous evolution of tactical trends, goalkeepers have expanded their role beyond just guarding the goal; they now need to be involved in the ball-playing process. Thus, they need to be skillful with their feet and adept at reading the game to always be ready to play an important role in ball distribution or breaking out of the opponent’s pressing.
In his book “The Outsider,” writer Jonathan Wilson identified Edwin van der Sar as the first goalkeeper who could play as a true sweeper. The Dutch legend himself once said, “The back-pass rule changed my life because I could use my feet well.” Indeed, Van der Sar became an inspiration for many goalkeepers that followed, most notably Manuel Neuer – the best goalkeeper of the 2010s with his distinctive style.
Having developed through Ajax’s youth academy and later becoming the club’s director, Van der Sar understood the value of maintaining the team’s traditional playing style and knew how to identify goalkeepers who met the professional criteria. Andre Onana’s presence stemmed from Van der Sar’s belief. After joining Ajax from Barcelona in 2015, Onana faced some doubts about his overly confident ball-playing style. However, the Dutch legend had great faith in his newcomer.
Journalist Marcel van der Kraan shared with Sky Sports: “At the beginning of his career, he was a bit too confident. However, Edwin van der Sar had faith in him. Some of Ajax’s scouts didn’t want to bring him in because they thought he brought too much risk with his actions on the field. But Van der Sar said, ‘We need this kid, he will become outstanding.’ And since joining Ajax, he has been a great success.”
It is Onana’s impressive footwork and shot-stopping abilities that convinced Manchester United to pursue him in the summer of 2023. Erik ten Hag, a coach who follows a possession-based philosophy, had worked with Onana at Ajax and knew he was a missing piece in the project he was building at Man United.
Sky Sports statistics comparing the performances of David de Gea and Andre Onana in their respective leagues during the 2022/2023 season showed that the Cameroonian goalkeeper was a significant upgrade in ball distribution. On average, every 90 minutes of play, Onana made 38 passes, with 30.1 accurate passes at a rate of 79.2%. In the previous Premier League season, De Gea made 28.5 passes, with 19.5 accurate passes at a rate of 68.3% every 90 minutes.
After the UEFA Champions League final in the 2022/2023 season, Pep Guardiola commented: “Onana played like a defensive midfielder and operated in the positions of a defensive midfielder. We struggled against him.” In that match, there were moments when Onana made passes higher up the field than both Inter Milan’s center-backs. Onana’s ability to anticipate situations and his confidence on the ball provided Inter Milan with a reliable outlet in home games.
Onana’s former national teammate, Gaetan Bong, expressed: “We all know his abilities. He plays like a defender and can act as a player in the defensive line. I sometimes get scared when playing against him. Fans should be prepared for a goalkeeper like him; he plays just like the style Man City is playing. This is the level that Man United wants to achieve, and to do that, they need a modern goalkeeper like him.”
Meanwhile, data from Sky Sports also showed that in the previous Serie A season, Onana had an average save percentage of 71.8% and an expected goals conceded rate of 19.5% on target shots from opponents. For De Gea in the previous Premier League season, he had a save percentage of 69.9% and an expected goals conceded rate of 41.5% on target shots from opponents.
Of course, the differences in the statistics can be attributed to the fact that they played in different leagues. Nevertheless, the statistics somewhat prove that Onana is reliable in preventing shots on goal.
It must be mentioned that with the arrival of the Cameroonian goalkeeper, Manchester United will need to get used to his confident ball-playing moments that sometimes create an adventurous feeling. Ajax and Inter Milan fans understand this aspect to some extent. However, with a manager like Ten Hag, who is consistent in his approach and has worked with Onana before, the Dutch tactician has the ability to help his pupil maximize his potential to bring success to Manchester United.
Rising from setbacks
Andre Onana’s career journey had a mishap that he will probably never forget.
Looking back to the 2016/2017 season, Onana tried to find a club for a loan spell as he didn’t have a chance to prove himself at Ajax. At that time, Onana was only 20 years old, and coach Peter Bosz thought it was too risky to select the Cameroonian goalkeeper for the goal. However, Onana couldn’t find a suitable destination and chose to stay.
After the first two rounds of the Dutch league that season, Ajax’s first-choice goalkeeper, Jasper Cillessen, moved to Barcelona, and Onana received a message from Bosz: He would have one month with three matches to impress and claim the starting position. In the first match, Ajax lost 1-2 to Willem II. Only two matches left for Onana to prove himself. In the next game, Ajax visited Go Ahead Eagles, and in the first half, defender Davinson Sanchez committed a foul that resulted in a penalty for the home team. But Onana made a successful save, contributing to Ajax’s 3-0 victory. In the third match, Ajax kept a clean sheet once again. From that point on, Onana became Ajax’s number one goalkeeper.
However, an incident in February 2021 changed everything, making Onana feel like “all my efforts before had been wiped away.” In October 2020, Andre Onana returned to Amsterdam after Ajax’s 2-2 draw against Atalanta in Bergamo. At that time, the Cameroonian goalkeeper felt a headache and decided to take a pill from his medical kit in the kitchen before going to practice. After training, as a routine procedure, he was asked to undergo a doping test, and of course, he didn’t think much of it.
Two days later, while at the training camp of the Cameroon national team, Onana was informed that he had tested positive for doping. He couldn’t believe it. However, the truth couldn’t be changed, and unfortunately, it was due to his own negligence: He accidentally took the wrong pill that the doctor prescribed to his pregnant girlfriend, which contained prohibited substances for athletes. Initially, Onana was banned from playing for 12 months by the sports arbitration court before the penalty was reduced to 9 months because he was deemed not to have intentionally used doping. “It’s unbelievable, just 40 mg of medicine can ruin an entire career,” Andre Onana shared.
What made Onana even more angry was that he had been a professional athlete with a strict lifestyle, but his reputation had been affected by his own carelessness. He shared a story in an interview with The Guardian: “How do you explain to your parents that you tested positive for doping when you never drink or smoke? How do you get out of this? People will think I committed a crime. No one has time to be fully informed about the issue.
I was once stopped by the police in Belgium. At first, everything was normal, they asked for my identification papers, and I showed them my ID. Then a police officer recognized me. ‘You, Onana, step out of the car.’ They searched the entire car, and I heard someone say, ‘This guy is carrying a lot of drugs.’ It was really painful to hear. Right now, I can laugh about it, but at that time, the only reason I didn’t get out of the car and fight was that they were the police.”
Nine months of suspension is still a long time that affects both a player’s mentality and form. But leaving the regrettable incident behind, Andre Onana has come back stronger. Now, at the age of 27, the Cameroonian goalkeeper still has plenty of time ahead to achieve more success.
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