Tuesday, April 16, 2024



David de Gea is a loyal Manchester United servant and one of the club’s greatest-ever goalkeepers, but after an error-strewn season, his time at Old Trafford is drawing to a close. The Spaniard has served the club well and in their darkest moments he was so often their hero, a goal-saving machine who prevented the team from falling deeper into the abyss.

But as United looked to the future last season under the forward-thinking Erik ten Hag, it became increasingly clear that De Gea’s skillset was rooted in the past and holding the club back. While the goalkeeper’s shot-stopping ability came under increased scrutiny after conceding a number of soft goals, the biggest concern was his inability to play out from the back and help United maintain possession.

The Spaniard became an easy target, with the likes of Brentford, Newcastle, Sevilla and Manchester City pressing him high and either forcing him into errors or provoking him to launch the ball long, either into the stands or the to the feet of opponents.

But just a week after De Gea routinely gave away possession to City in the FA Cup final defeat – as well as being too slow to save Ilkay Gundogan’s winning goal – United saw the future right in front of them.

In the Champions League final against City, Inter goalkeeper Andre Onana gave a masterclass in controlling and distributing the ball while under pressure. And if United want to build on all the progress they have made under Ten Hag, then they need to go all out and sign the Cameroon No.1.

Onana may have ended the night on the losing side, but he was one of the standout players in the Champions League final and was a key factor in Inter making such a contest of a match that many observers predicted would be a one-sided affair.

Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola had spoken about Onana’s quality on a number of occasions before the final. In the pre-match press conference, he was asked who Inter’s most dangerous player was, and rather than point to a forward like Lautaro Martinez, Edin Dzeko or Romelu Lukaku, he offered a concise analysis of his side’s opponents. And he singled out Onana, who he described as “an exceptional goalkeeper to take the position to build-up. Really, really good.”

In an interview with CBS Sports, he again praised Onana for helping Inter play out from the back, contrasting the Serie A side’s style of play with United: “The goalkeeper, Onana, makes it really difficult to deploy a high press against. You cannot press the goalkeeper properly. They are masters at keeping the ball, right up to the attackers – the likes of Lautaro, Dzeko and Lukaku.

“If you look at United, for example, it is long ball. With [Marcus] Rashford and another one (forward) to run onto. But Inter are different, they keep the ball.”

Onana lived up to Guardiola’s billing. In the opening minute of the final, he could be seen dribbling outside of his area, in front of his centre-backs. A few minutes later, when Bernardo Silva ran to press him in his area, he nonchalantly chipped the ball to Federico Dimarco.

Towards the end of the first half, Onana had five City players in front of him and only one real option to hit, but he slipped the ball straight into the path of Marcelo Brozovic, making the pass with the ease of a top-class holding midfielder.

Late in the game, when Inter were desperately chasing an equaliser, many goalkeepers would have resorted to quickly punting the ball forward. But Onana remained calm and courageous, venturing way out of his area with the ball at his feet – closer to the halfway line than his area – and taking on Erling Haaland before finding Lukaku and starting a dangerous Inter attack.

Short passing under pressure is far from Onana’s only attribute, and in one moment in the second half he took out seven City players with a curling pass to start a counter-attack. Over the course of the 90 minutes, Onana put opposite number Ederson, once regarded as one of the best ball-playing goalkeepers in the world, in the shade with his passing and dribbling.

The Brazilian came to City’s rescue with some fine saves, including tipping away Robin Gosens’ shot in the final seconds of added-time. But Onana also performed well with his hands, foiling Haaland from City’s best chance of the first half. There was very little he could do about Rodri’s winning strike, too.

Key to Ten Hag’s golden era at Ajax

While European superpowers such as Bayern Munich and Real Madrid were crushed by City, Inter got mighty close to toppling Guardiola’s side, and a large part of that was the calmness and control Onana gave them in possession. But that is far from the only reason why United should be trying to sign the goalkeeper.

Onana was Ten Hag’s No.1 for the majority of his time at Ajax, and during their time together, they won won three Eredivisie titles and reached the semi-finals of the Champions League, outclassing Real Madrid and knocking out Juventus before being eliminated in agonising fashion by Tottenham.

Onana, who first came to Europe to join Barcelona and then moved to Jong Ajax, the Dutch giants’ youth side, was a key factor in Ajax’s success under Ten Hag. He would frequently start attacks by finding playmaker Frenkie de Jong, and was on hand to offer his defenders a way out of trouble whenever they came under pressure.

Onana had to miss nine months of football between 2021 and 2022 while he served a doping ban for accidentally ingesting the banned diuretic Furosemide, mistakenly thinking it was a paracetamol. But once he was free to play again Ten Hag slowly reintroduced him to the team and defended him from criticism when he first returned, calling him a “masterful goalkeeper”.

Letting United play how Ten Hag wants

Ten Hag’s Ajax played a very different style of football to his United team, and one of the key differences is that in Amsterdam the coach had Onana and in Manchester he has De Gea. Indeed, the coach asked De Gea to play more with his feet in the pre-season campaign, but after the shock 4-0 defeat at Brentford in the second game of the season, when the Spaniard was responsible for two of the goals, he abandoned his plans to play possession-based football and the team managed to turn their season around by largely playing pragmatic, counter-attacking football.

Ten Hag has stood by De Gea and defended him publicly after his gaffe against West Ham in April and his unconvincing display in the FA Cup final. But on occasion, he has admitted his concern about the Spaniard’s kicking, such as after the match against Real Betis in March, when he said he could not ignore his errors.

And after the cup final defeat to City, when asked specifically about De Gea’s ability on the ball, he said: “Say it like this, we are in the right direction. But there are occasions in the game, issues in the game we have to improve, definitely, if we want to make the next step and win trophies.”

Signing Onana could be the key to United taking that next step and unlocking their true potential under Ten Hag, allowing them to replicate Ajax’s free-flowing football which conquered Madrid and Juve, and earned them admirers around the world.

Onana would also be able to link-up again with his old Ajax team-mate Lisandro Martinez, who United badly missed in the final two months of the season after he fractured his metatarsal.

Better or cheaper than alternatives

Onana would reportedly cost United around £50 million ($64m), a significant amount of money when the club are also targeting a world-class striker and a central midfielder, and considering they overspent last summer, leaving them to scrape the barrel in the January transfer window and pick up Wout Weghorst on loan.

But compared to other candidates who could fill De Gea’s gloves, the fee Inter would demand for a player of Onana’s quality and at the age of 27 looks reasonable. And United’s bid to sign him has been boosted by reports that Chelsea are no longer considering a move for the Cameroonian.

United are reportedly exploring a deal for Jordan Pickford, but the England No.1 is not as well rounded as Onana. While he has excellent ability at long passing and starting counters, he is less proficient at playing out from the back while under pressure and has little experience of doing so for his club or his country. Pickford is valued at around £45m ($57m).

David Raya has gained admirers for his ball-playing abilities and has been key to Brentford’s promotion to the Premier League and their admirable performance in both seasons in the top-flight. He would be a cheaper alternative than Onana, costing in the region of £30m ($38m), but he lacks top-level experience and many fine goalkeepers have struggled to make the leap from a mid-level club to the pressure cooker of Old Trafford.

AC Milan ‘keeper Mike Maignan is regarded as one of the best goalkeepers in the world, but according to reports the Frenchman would only be available for £80m ($102m). Porto and Portugal’s Diogo Costa is also highly expensive, with his contract containing a £64m ($82m) release clause.

Onana has another advantage over the other candidates. He quit the Cameroon team after falling out with coach Rigobert Song during the 2022 World Cup, meaning he can concentrate 100 percent on club football and stay fresh while the rest of his team-mates jet around the world to join up with their national teams.

Time to make a statement signing

United have dragged their heels over signing a new goalkeeper for years, and the truth is they did not wish to spend their summer looking for one given the other areas of the squad they need to address. The fact that it is still unclear who will own the club next year makes their transfer business even more difficult to carry out.

But goalkeeper is an area they have neglected for far too long, and in 12 years with De Gea as No.1, they have never given him a proper rival to compete with. One reason why is that they trusted him so much that in 2019 that they made him the Premier League’s highest-paid player, handing him a contract worth £375,000-per-week. Having made such a big outlay on De Gea, it made little sense to sign another quality ‘keeper to give him a run for his money.

Now De Gea has effectively run his course with the club, they need to make another big statement signing and plan for the next four or five years, as City did when they signed Ederson in 2017 and Liverpool did with Alisson in 2018.

Onana has all the skills a modern goalkeeper needs, and by taking Inter to the brink of winning the Champions League has proved he has the personality to succeed at the highest level.

Having allowed themselves to become complacent in their long-term search for a goalkeeper, United need to show ambition and leadership and do all they can to bring Onana to the club and reunite him with the coach with whom he first showed his true potential. Then he can help United’s reach theirs. Source:

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