Andre Onana: The Catalyst
Rarely has a Manchester United summer transfer window seen the clarity and execution that 2023 summer has so far. The biggest gaps in the squad have been tackled head on and so far, successfully so. One of those issues was the goalkeeper situation. In the end, after season-long speculation, United have done the right thing by releasing David de Gea and buying Andre Onana.
The move from a goalkeeper who’s best attribute of shot-stopping has been under par for 4 years and other attributes of distribution, claiming and sweeping have regularly been among the worst in the league, to a goalkeeper who’s on-ball technicals and execution rival some of the best playmakers in the game – teases a massive upgrade and play style change for Erik Ten Hag’s Red Devils.
But apart from the vague expectation that Onana is an upgrade, especially on distribution, the understanding of his ability and potential for each goalkeeping trait and how his performances could translate from his previous teams – is still a bit of an unknown
In this piece, I analyze every aspect of Onana’s game and try to explain why he will be the catalyst to a new era at Manchester United.
Born in Cameroon, Onana joined Barcelona from the Samuel Eto’o academy at the age of 14 in 2010. He was loaned twice due to non-EU limits before finally switching to Ajax in 2015. 39 apps for Jong Ajax later, Onana was made the starting keeper of the Ajax main team for the 16/17 season at the age of 20 by manager Peter Bosz. He had 46 appearances in that season and his first team status continued for 4 seasons after that, most notably under Erik Ten Hag from 2017 to 2022.
In February 2021, Onana was banned from playing for 12 months by UEFA after testing positive for Furosemide, a banned substance. Onana said he took his wife’s medicine by mistake and Ajax joined him in appealing against the decision. The ban was reduced to nine months by the CAS in June. In the summer of 2022, Inter Milan picked up Onana on a pre-agreed free transfer. 22/23 was a confirmation of Onana’s abilities as he completed a successful season which culminated in Onana showing his abilities in the Champions League final in May 2023. A bid of £43.8m plus potential £3.4m in add-ons later, the Cameroonian finds himself united with Ten Hag in the red side of Manchester.
I’ll be going through the 4 major aspects of a goalkeeper’s game and highlight how good Onana is at each one of them. I’ll start with the aspect our previous #1 was often criticized for – distribution.
No better way to show the improvement United will be making in distribution, than the pass maps of their previous and current goalkeeper in each respective season-end finals versus the same opposition. Onana attempted more passes with better success & his pass map shows his comfort in short distribution, esp to wide players, which de Gea is poor at. De Gea went long most of the time. Also, note the pass start locations. Half of Onana’s passes are from outside his penalty box, while a few are from outside Inter’s defensive third! 90% of De Gea’s passes are from within his box.
Being better than de Gea is one thing, but where does Onana stand in Europe?
Among the very best. In open play, not only does he boast high pass volume but he also plays a lot of short passes. This number could only go up as he often went long to Dzeko, Lukaku or Lautaro at Inter, which might not be the case at United. Statistically speaking, Onana is very comfortable handling large pass volumes while executing many short passes as well.
His distribution radar for Inter compared to Serie A goalkeepers in 22/23 confirm much of the same – he’s an excellent passer. The xGBuildUp and positive outcome stats especially stand out and that brings me to our next point. (Credit: Statsbomb)
What really stands out with Onana’s distribution is that he’s not just a good passer, he is a proper playmaking element in build up. His sense of movement to receive, ball manipulation to drag opponents where he wants and then make the best decision is akin to how deep-lying playmaker midfielders dictate the game. Onana puts himself in good positions, baits opponents and then picks out the best pass to advance the game, whether it’s a simple sideways pass to the CB, a longer pass to a fullback or midfielder or an ambitious ball to an attacker.
I’ve picked out a few match examples from Inter’s final 22/23 league game versus Atalanta.
This sequence explains a lot of what makes Onana a great build up goalkeeper. He waits initially after receiving to drag an attacker towards him before passing to the fullback. When the ball comes back to him, notice how he moves to position himself to receive comfortably in space. Another pass to the opposite side opens up space at the center, which Onana quickly picks out and helps his team burst through the space created at the center and reach the halfway line.
A simple example of how Onana waits for the opponent to press before displaying the ability to whip out a pass around the angled run in the space that the striker was trying to block. Onana always finds the empty man even under pressure from forwards.
Another interesting sequence. Onana stands to bait the opponent to press him and pulls multiple attackers on either side to press the defence with some short crisp passes to his center-backs. With the opponent midfielders pressing high and leaving space behind them, Onana has the composure and vision to pick out a direct long pass to Lukaku amidst all the chaos and create a pseudo-transition for his team with the Atalanta goal in sight.
In summary of this section, I haven’t seen distributors as good as Onana in my lifetime and the control and technique at which he operates borders on playmakers of old like Xabi Alonso and Michael Carrick. Onana runs the build up, baits the opponent and always finds a way for his team to progress.
I’m going to rate all 4 goalkeeping traits on a scale of 1 (worst in Europe’s top 7 leagues) to 10 (best in Europe) in this article. The first trait is blemishless.
Andy Cole on André Onana: “I don’t care if you can do 10 kick-ups, a goalkeeper needs to be able to save the ball.” [MUTV]
We’ve seen some version of this statement often on social media, that aims to deride a goalkeeper who is a great distributor for not having the trait that is seemingly a goalkeeper’s main job – saving goals. For one, the concept of shot prevention needs to be understood. A proactive action from a goalkeeper like a good sweep, a strong claim or enabling good build – can prevent a shot from being taken in the first place.
As per John Harisson of goalkeeper xG fame, 68 per cent of De Gea’s workload last season was shot stopping, 28 per cent was shot prevention and just four per cent was distribution. A well-rounded keeper can provide more value in preventing shots other than relying on shot-stopping alone. With Onana, the percentages for shot prevention and build up will definitely go up, reducing the burden on shot-stopping.
That said, shot-stopping needs to be good for a team to compete for titles. But is Onana bad at it? Not quite.
One measure of shot-stopping is PSxG-GA. PSxG refers to post-shot expected goals that a goalkeeper is expected to concede. When you subtract this from the goals they actually concede, you get a sense of how much value they are adding with their shot-stopping. The statistic has a few gaps (like not accounting for goals without shots) but over many seasons, it largely tells a consistent tale.
Let’s look at Onana’s PSxG-GA per 90 and percentile compared to league’s goalkeepers for the last few years.
22/23: -0.11 (42 percentile in Serie A)
21/22: ~Not enough data~
20/21: +0.21 (89 percentile in Eredivisie)
19/20: +0.23 (85 percentile in Eredivisie)
18/19: +0.02 (77 percentile in Eredivisie)
He played less than 10 games in 21/22 due to his ban. If we look at the rest, fbref data seems to suggest that Onana was comfortably in the top quarter during his time at the Dutch league and has dropped to average in the Italian league last year. But there’s more to this than meets the eye. Inter suffered 3 own goals in 22/23 which simply assigned Onana a –3 without him actually having had any chance to save it. If we account for that in the data, his 22/23 Serie A PSxG-GA per 90 jumps to +0.1 and his percentile rises to 62 percentile.
Now let’s take a look at this stat in the Champions league for each year.
22/23: +0.58 (94 percentile in UCL)
21/22: ~Not enough data~
20/21: +0.40 (85 percentile in UCL)
19/20: +0.83 (99 percentile in UCL)
18/19: +0.43 (88 percentile in UCL)
The Champions league data seems to suggest a much clearer top 15 percentile shot-stopper across 4 seasons. At the very least, we have a GK who seems to be excellent for shot stopping across 4 seasons in the Eredivisie and Champions League, while being above average in the Serie A.
Let’s take a look at his 22/23 Serie A save plot to see if there’s any issues there.
This doesn’t seem to suggest anything out of the ordinary except the fact that Onana conceded some really tough shots in the red zones and was largely safe in saving in the blue zones. It seems from this map that opponents finished a lot better than expected against Onana in 22/23.
And we have the data for that too.
Inter’s opponents overperformed their shooting by +2.5 over their expected goals in 22/23. Inter were also 8th for crosses allowed into the penalty area. They sat deep and invited a lot of pressure and suffered shooting overperformance by opponents in the league. These factors coupled with the own goal anomaly indicate that a lot of Onana’s perceived shot-stopping drop in the league for Inter were due to factors outside his control.
I took a look at many Onana matches last season to confirm this and the results only confirmed the same – Onana is a good shot-stopper. There wasn’t any glaring deficiencies in his game to write home about.
His most impressive display from a shot-stopping POV came in the UCL group game against Bayern where Onana suffered 11 shots on target and 3.5 xG but ended up saving 10 of those shots in a game where Bayern completely battered the Inter defence. Here’s a montage of all his saves from that game.
A variety of saves here. What is noticeable is Onana’s ability to hold on to the ball if it’s anywhere near his body. This was apparent in many other games too. Only shots that were towards a corner required a parry and usually it would be a safe parry away from danger.
To close this section, I see no issues with Onana’s shot stopping from footage and after diving into the data, he seems like a clear top 20 percentile shot-stopper in Europe, so that’s how I’m going to rate him.
When I did my ‘Search for a GK’ article earlier this year, Onana didn’t come up with a high score. One reason was the above mentioned shot-stopping drop. The other was very low values for sweeping stats. And once again, I’m here to tell you that it is simply a conscience of Inter’s gameplay. Again, let’s look at his numbers across seasons.
Sweeping actions per 90:
22/23: 0.5 (5 percentile in Serie A)
21/22: ~Not enough data~
20/21: 1.85 (89 percentile in Eredivisie)
19/20: 1.71 (94 percentile in Eredivisie)
18/19: 1.14 (73 percentile in Eredivisie)
Avg distance of sweeping actions:
22/23: 12.5 (18 percentile in Serie A)
21/22: ~Not enough data~
20/21: 18.6 (95 percentile in Eredivisie)
19/20: 17.3 (98 percentile in Eredivisie)
18/19: 15.6 (81 percentile in Eredivisie)
Once again, we see a clear difference between Ajax numbers and Inter numbers. This stat has a huge correlation with how high a team’s defensive line is. The lower the line, the lesser the space and opportunity to rack up sweeping actions.
A good example of his sweeping came at the Qatar 2022 World Cup where Onana broke the record for the most touches (26) outside the box by a goalkeeper in a single game at the World Cup in a 1-0 loss to Switzerland.
Onana does have the odd mistake when he sweeps as a result of overzealous activity outside the box. But he’s slowly been improving on that compared to a few years ago and there was no instance of such a mistake in the 22/23 season. Overall, once again, I’d give a safe 8.
Once again, let’s dive into the data head-first.
Crosses stopped %:
22/23: 5.3% (58 percentile in Serie A)
21/22: ~Not enough data~
20/21: 6.0% (95 percentile in Eredivisie)
19/20: 9.2% (94 percentile in Eredivisie)
18/19: 6.2% (90 percentile in Eredivisie)
This is a stat that is dependent on crosses faced. The larger the number of crosses faced, the tougher it is to boast a high cross stop %. Inter faced 439 crosses in 22/23 in the league. In 20/21 Ajax faced just 283 crosses. This massive increases in crosses faced is the reason, Onana’s cross stop % seems lower than before.
From footage analysis, I noticed a few gaps in his cross-claiming technique
- He isn’t as proactive as one would think. There are some occasions where he doesn’t attack the aerial ball when he could have. Obviously, he’s still miles better than David de Gea, but I’d say that someone like Diogo Costa is a more aggressive claimer than Onana
- He often doesn’t attempt to catch high balls, instead preferring to punch or slap them away. While a few out-of-reach crosses are understandable, it does seem like Onana often goes this route when a clean claim isn’t an option. The technique where he flaps at the ball especially doesn’t seem very reliable and the ball does wind up in the box to an opponent at times. It doesn’t happen often, but it is one cause for concern
As you can see from this montage of cross claims, for almost 70% crosses, he is able to collect cleanly. But the few that are in a crowd or face some competition to beat, he ends up punching or flapping at the cross. The end result is often okay, so I wouldn’t be too harsh. But if a flapped cross dropping to a dangerous area happens 1 in 10 times, I wouldn’t be surprised.
Overall, I’m not worried about his claiming. He is proactive, gets most of them cleanly and often parries the ones he doesn’t. It’s good without being great. I’d have to rate it a step below his other traits.
Cross claiming: 7/10
To sum up my scores on the four major goalkeeping traits for Andre Onana,
Cross claiming: 7/10
I’d say that Onana is comfortably in the top 20 percentile of Europe’s op 7 leagues, with a good chance that he could be in the top 10 percentile as well. This puts him at 2nd to 4th best in the Premier League and I think that’s a fair conclusion – he comes in as the top 4 keepers in the league and has a chance to be in the top 2 (Alisson being unshakable at top spot would be my guess for the future). Which makes the £43.8m+£3.4m fee Manchester United paid for Onana seem like a very good deal. At the very least, United fans can sleep with the knowledge that they are getting a massive upgrade on their previous #1.
(Credits: Statsbomb, fbref, Optaanalyst, Flixier)