How do you solve a problem like Onana? You don’t drop him…

Ian Watson
Andre Onana is consoled by Sergio Reguilon during Manchester United's defeat to Bayern Munich.
Andre Onana is consoled by Sergio Reguilon during Manchester United's defeat to Bayern Munich.

There is nothing to be gained from dropping Andre Onana. The Manchester United keeper needs the faith of Erik ten Hag now more than ever – but he can’t expect his fortunes to magically improve…

Andre Onana has not enjoyed the best start to his career at Manchester United. In truth, he’s endured a torrid two months that have led to calls for the £42million summer signing to be removed from the Old Trafford goalmouth.

Onana could hardly complain if Erik ten Hag made him sit on the bench and think about what he’s done since arriving from Inter Milan. The Cameroon keeper’s mistakes have stretched across the Premier League and Champions League, bringing into question Ten Hag’s future as well as his own.

But dropping Onana would do little but shine an even bigger spotlight on the new arrival. The keeper needs to feel the manager’s confidence, not his wrath, even if Ten Hag has to fake it.

Onana could offer some advice on faking it; goalkeepers have to portray an air of confidence that very often strays into arrogance. Onana’s performances, in front of his goal and the microphones, have often illustrated a character with self-belief to spare. But, under the type of glare that would make anyone blink, Onana seems to be doubting himself at precisely the wrong time.

“Sh*t happens in life,” he said after a dreadful error against Bayern Munich where he held his hands up and accepted the blame for one of a series of miserable Manchester United defeats this season. “I have to be strong, learn from it, and move on,” he added.

Onana has always said the right things but his reactions, becoming visibly more distraught with each mistake, increasingly illustrate the cracks in what was perceived to be unshakable confidence.

The error that he got away with – immediately at least – could prove to be one of the most damaging. Passing straight to Dries Mertens prompted Casemiro to bundle over the Galatasaray forward, giving away a penalty and a numerical advantage for the last 15 minutes of last week’s defeat. Mauro Icardi missed the penalty – but Onana seems to be haunted by the memory of his misplaced pass.

Against Brentford on Saturday, more than half of Onana’s passes went long – which doesn’t play to his supposed strengths. Perhaps it was a ploy, an instruction from Ten Hag based on the makeshift back four and a reflection more on those receiving a short ball than the keeper passing it. If so, that’s on the manager. Otherwise, Onana has to remember why he was bought.

A large part of his appeal is the role he plays as the spare man in the build-up and the selection and execution of his short-to-medium range passing. Generally, that side of his game has been perfectly competent – until, against Galatasaray, it wasn’t.

Ten Hag, United fans and pundits need to accept that building up from the back is a risky business. Turnovers, like sh*t, happen and when they do, some allowances have to be made for the keeper being asked to double as a playmaker. Like any aspect of goalkeeping, it comes down to limiting errors – you will never eradicate them completely.

Onana needs to heed his own advice: “Be strong, learn from it, and move on.” Right now, judging from his body language, it seems like he’s struggling to park the mistakes and process them at a more appropriate time than the 90-plus minutes he’s supposed to be minding Ten Hag’s net.

The trust of his manager will be crucial to helping Onana achieve that and make a success of his United career. Ten Hag has little option but to trust him. What’s the alternative – bench him for Altay Bayindir, a goalkeeper even less accustomed to the Premier League and the blinding spotlight trained on the Old Trafford goalmouth?

No, Ten Hag can’t kid anyone – like Mikel Arteta attempted – that his goalkeeping position can be a shared role. Nor is chopping and changing helping other Premier League clubs. Neither Brighton keeper is thriving amid rotation; David Raya is under pressure already at Arsenal; while Brentford are likely to encounter similar problems after Mark Flekken’s ropey start led to Thomas Strakosha being given a belated Premier League debut at Old Trafford.

The Bees keeper, as a fellow member of the Union, must have felt some sympathy for Onana when Mathias Jensen’s weak shot squirmed underneath the United stopper’s right hand. Confident or not, Onana committed a basic technical error, failing to shift his feet to drive into his take-off. Onana fell towards the ball more than dived at it, making the goal appear 18 yards wide, not eight. It looked wrong because it was.

It was hardly Onana’s first technical mistake, and his method in dealing with one-on-ones – which seems to be to stay deep then sit down – clearly isn’t working either.

This is where Onana must earn Ten Hag’s trust rather than simply expect it. David de Gea failed to address some obvious flaws in his game on the training ground and he paid by being unceremoniously shown the door. Many who long for De Gea’s return appear to have forgotten that.

David de Gea was replaced by Andre Onana at Old Trafford this summer.

The current international break would have allowed Onana to spend some quality time on the grass at Carrington with United’s goalkeeping coaches, but the 27-year-old has instead been called up for Cameroon’s friendlies against Russia and Senegal. Onana is said to be reluctant to spend a month away from United during AFCON in January. Now would have been a better time to decline his country’s call.

De Gea can be an inspiration for Onana. The Spaniard had a shocking start of his own that lasted 18 months before he eventually settled and went on to break United’s record for the most matches played by a goalkeeper. No one expects a dozen years’ service from Onana, but the ex-Ajax keeper is not a two-month project. Onana needs to earn the faith of his manager and his team-mates. He can’t do that from the bench.

Read more: Premier League keepers ranked: Andre Onana is 17th best as Vicario impresses again