Andre Onana is not the type of character to wilt when circumstances go against him.
While at Ajax in 2021, Onana mistakenly popped a diuretic pill prescribed to his wife when he’d been fumbling around for some paracetamol. He was served with a nine-month doping ban. “It was incredible,” he recalled, “40mg can destroy a career.”
Forced to watch on from the sidelines while wild accusations were flung his way, Onana held firm and only improved upon his return. The 27-year-old reached last year’s Champions League final with Inter before becoming the most expensive goalkeeper in Manchester United‘s history in the summer. “I’ve come back from it,” he said of his ban, “but if it happened to someone less strong mentally it would be very difficult.”
Onana’s mental fortitude was firmly required during a testing opening few months at Old Trafford. A gaggle of goalkeeping errors, with his hands and vaunted feet, culminated in Onana letting Mathias Jensen’s tame shot squirm under his limp wrist as United fell behind at home to Brentford in October.
United had lost six of their previous nine matches and were booed off at half-time. But the fate of the team and their goalkeeper seemed to shift during that second half. Onana pulled off a flurry of crucial saves to keep United in the contest before Scott McTominay’s stoppage-time brace won the match. Onana beat some of his outfield teammates to engulf the Scot in celebration of his second goal.
While the subsequent six weeks haven’t been faultless – United only won their first match of the season by more than a single goal against Everton – Onana’s contribution between the posts has been exemplary.
Andre Onana has been in the firing line for much of his brief Manchester United career / James Gill – Danehouse/GettyImages
In the Cameroon international’s next appearance at Old Trafford after the Brentford victory, Onana was at the epicentre of more late drama to beat away a stoppage-time penalty from FC Copenhagen’s Jordan Larsson, thereby earning United’s first Champions League win of the season.
When considering Premier League matches, United’s custodian has saved between eight and nine goals more than the average goalkeeper would be expected to, based on the quality and quantity of shots flying his way (per StatsBomb). That’s more than any other goalkeeper in England’s top flight.
StatsBomb can calculate how many goals a keeper would be expected to concede by measuring a raft of attributes about each shot once it has been struck, such as the trajectory and speed of the strike, how close it is to the corners, which part of the body was used to make the attempt.
By comparing all of this information to thousands of previous attempts (where the outcome – did it result in a goal – is known), every shot is assigned a numerical value between zero and one to represent how likely it would be to beat an average goalkeeper. A point-blank strike heading towards the top corner would be closer to one than a long-range pea-roller down the middle.
Adding up all of these values for every effort a keeper faces provides an estimate of how many goals the average shot-stopper would ship. When the numbers are crunched, Onana comes out on top in the Premier League.
Onana arrived at United with most of his reputation built around what he could do with the ball at his feet. In UEFA’s technical report of last year’s Champions League final, Onana was lauded as “less a sweeper-keeper than a holding midfielder”. However, Inter’s run to that European showpiece was underpinned by Onana’s shot-stopping.
Across Inter’s 12 matches ahead of the final, Onana kept eight clean sheets, conceding just nine times from shots that would have been expected to produce 16 goals (per StatsBomb). No other keeper prevented more goals in the competition.
Onana’s return to that impressive form has not gone unnoticed by Ten Hag. “He has been playing very well for a number of matches,” Onana’s former Ajax manager smiled after United’s 3-0 victory over Everton on Sunday. “He has a lot of charisma, gives the defence a lot of rest, [made] a few great saves… Yes, Onana had an excellent match.”
Thanks in no small part to Onana’s steely resolve, Ten Hag has been able to say that last throwaway line far more often.
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