Andre Onana arrives at Man United after Erik ten Hag lost faith in David de Gea


Andre Onana in action during the Istanbul 2023 UEFA Champions League Final, disputed on Ataturk Olympic Stadium, 10 June 2023 Istanbul.

The decision for Manchester United to push for a new goalkeeper, Inter Milan’s Andre Onana, for an expected €51 million initial fee, came down to Erik ten Hag.

At the start of the transfer window, the priority of the Manchester United manager was to sign Harry Kane from Tottenham Hotspur. When it became clear that it was going to be exceptionally difficult to do that, Ten Hag looked at other areas of his team that could be strengthened earlier in the window. The attitude of the manager who had long publicly backed David de Gea also hardened.

The Spaniard had a poor end to the season and there were longer-standing concerns about his ball possession game. Ten Hag regards his goalkeepers as outfield players and, under him, De Gea was coached to think like this, but was never going to be his manager’s ideal player.

Onana has more technical skills in possession and understands the tactical responsibilities regarding positioning if a team wants to press high.

Managers at big clubs such as United want possession-based goalkeepers with the focus more on what they can do with their feet rather than shot-saving ability with their hands, as the position has traditionally been judged. Ederson at Manchester City and Alisson Becker at Liverpool are the best examples of this in the Premier League.

De Gea was always viewed as an excellent shot-stopper by those at United, the man to make the defining saves, more than any other goalkeeper. Ultimately, that was not enough for his club, as it had not been for his country.

The former Atletico Madrid goalkeeper lost his place in the Spain team when Luis Enrique, now manager of Paris Saint-Germain, dropped him for the inexperienced Unai Simon and said: “My goalkeeper must be the first player who gives us numerical superiority while in possession. He must come forward with the ball, and take decisions. I know no other way and I don’t want to know any other way.”

Onana is excellent with both feet and it was this that saw him chosen at Inter ahead of the long-serving and popular veteran Samir Handanovic soon after he signed from Ajax a year ago.

Inter changed the way they played with Onana. In the two Champions League games against Barcelona last season, he boldly hit long diagonal balls to his full-backs, starting attacks much quicker.

Despite having little of the possession (38 per cent) and goalscoring opportunities (11 to 25), Inter won 1-0 in Milan and drew 3-3 in Barcelona, results that were key in seeing them qualify from the group – and Barcelona being eliminated.

Onana had been at Barcelona for five years as a youth player having been signed from the Samuel Eto’o academy; Inter would surprise all by reaching the 2023 Champions League final.

Ten Hag knows Onana well. He was his goalkeeper at Ajax and just 22 years old when his side knocked Real Madrid out of the competition in the Bernabeu in March 2019.

He was only 20 when he played against Manchester United in the 2017 Europa League final in Stockholm under coach Peter Bosz. Onana was guided by Edwin van der Sar, but United’s Jose Mourinho did a number on the Dutchmen that night, his side having just 33 per cent of possession and six shots to Ajax’s 17, but looking comfortable and winning 2-0.

The Ajax side had an average age of just 22 years and 282 days – a record for a European final and Onana was in esteemed company. Almost all his teammates have gone on to play in bigger leagues.

Onana’s passage was not smooth. In 2021 he was banned for 12 months, later reduced to nine, after testing positive for the banned substance Furosemide, a diuretic that, while not performance enhancing, can be used as a masking agent. He claimed he had taken his wife’s medicine by mistake and was found to have made “no significant fault” after his explanation was accepted.

The Cameroonian, 27, announced his retirement from international football after the 2022 World Cup finals. He had been sent home from Qatar by manager Rigobert Song due to an argument with his coach about tactics. Not being called up for international football will not trouble most United fans.

Onana has long wanted to play in England’s Premier League. He will now get his chance at United under a manager who thinks he is one of the best goalkeepers in the world.

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