Perhaps there was a nod to Peter Schmeichel, to Edwin van der Sar, to Alex Stepney, to Manchester United’s three European Cup-winning goalkeepers. Erik ten Hag had just bought a successor, fresh from playing in a Champions League final in Istanbul and Andre Onana arrived at Old Trafford seemingly equipped with a knowledge of his new club’s history.
“Manchester United has a long history of incredible goalkeepers, and I will now give everything to create my own legacy in the coming years,” the Cameroonian said. Four months later, after his second Champions League tie in Istanbul in 2023, Onana’s legacy may include torching United’s continental campaign. They are not mathematically out of the Champions League but they are reliant on favours, on two results going their way, on Bayern Munich performing sufficiently poorly to lose at Old Trafford while FC Copenhagen and Galatasaray draw with each other.
If a 3-3 draw with Galatasaray was a microcosm of United’s group stage – the capacity to lose leads, to score three goals away from home without winning, the self-destructive streak and the chaotic midfield are all recurring themes – then Onana looks like being the face of failure, the major reason for a probable inability to get through a seemingly friendly pool. Galatasaray, after all, arrived at Old Trafford with two victories in their previous 25 Champions League group-stage games and won. FC Copenhagen had three victories in 21 Champions League group-stage matches before they beat United.
And if Onana’s ever-decreasing band of advocates – principally a Dutchman in his fifties – can argue that half of United’s meagre tally of four points stem from his injury-time penalty save from Copenhagen’s Jordan Larsson at Old Trafford, his campaign has featured four major mistakes. There was, after United had started well in Munich, the way he let Leroy Sane’s tame shot squirm under him to set Bayern on their way to a 4-3 win. There was, with United drawing 2-2, the awful, misplaced pass that led to Casemiro’s red card and a penalty in the 3-2 loss to Galatasaray. There were the two Hakim Ziyech free kicks that Onana ought to have held comfortably but which still brought goals on Wednesday.
While Ten Hag said he took responsibility for United’s European struggles, Onana should share the blame. Yet if the manager’s transfer policy, and his seeming belief anyone who has played in the Netherlands can excel for United, is backfiring, it is worth noting Ziyech, Onana’s midweek nemesis and a player who scored in the 2019 Champions League semi-finals for Ten Hag’s Ajax, was on the shortlist at Old Trafford in the summer of 2022; instead they spent £86m on the ineffective Antony from – predictably – Ajax.
If Onana’s time in Amsterdam felt a huge factor in his move to Manchester, one inexplicable element is that he was available on a free transfer the previous summer. United’s rationale for overlooking him then, that Ten Hag wanted to assess David de Gea, does not fully stack up but allowed Internazionale to make a £43m profit in a year. It also means his troubles are more costly.
And in his defence, Onana has the joint most clean sheets in the Premier League, the second-best save percentage; according to post-shot expected goal statistics, only Luton’s Thomas Kaminski has prevented more goals in the division.
Yet no one has conceded more in the Champions League. Indeed, Onana has had to retrieve the ball from the back of his net five more times in five Champions League games for United than he did in 13 for Inter. The glaring errors are part of the problem, along with their capacity to prove decisive. Yet so is the sense that shots don’t need to go in the corner of the net to beat Onana: among some agile saves – and a terrific reflex stop early in Turkey was not his first fine intervention in a United shirt – have come a series of goals that another keeper may have prevented.
It will be instructive if Ten Hag, whose stubbornness is part of his armoury, decides Altay Bayindir is that other goalkeeper. Another summer signing is yet to make his debut while Onana has played all 20 games this season. But the former Fenerbahce goalkeeper has been on United’s radar for years and is a player they believe they scouted rigorously; he acquitted himself well for Turkey last week against Wales. He may be the pragmatic choice: certainly there are questions if Onana has the conviction or presence required to reassure defenders.
But Onana has a symbolic status; he is a flagship Ten Hag signing. Yet, seven years ago, a manager in Manchester brought in a goalkeeper with passing principles from his old club. He proved a liability and Pep Guardiola had to jettison Claudio Bravo. And rather than proving United’s second Schmeichel, the danger is Onana’s legacy is to be remembered as their answer to Bravo.
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