André Onana was culpable as Manchester United threw away a two-goal lead – twice – against Galatasaray on Wednesday. So, is his shot-stopping fallibility really a worthy sacrifice for what he brings with the ball?
Manchester United emerged onto the sodden Rams Park turf in Istanbul on Wednesday to the sight of an impressive tifo created by the Galatasaray fans that read ‘Welcome to Hell’, evoking memories of banners mocked up in November 1993 when Alex Ferguson’s men were dumped out of the European Cup at the Ali Sami Yen.
United generally coped well with the hostility this time, with only one player appearing to find himself in “hell”; the problem was that was all they needed to throw victory away and leave themselves once again on the brink of elimination from Europe’s elite competition.
André Onana endured another extremely difficult night, not necessarily because he was given lots of hard work to do, but rather his errors were once again costly.
At 2-0 up, he allowed Hakim Ziyech’s low free-kick past him despite it being hit almost down the middle of the goal. Then, at 3-1 up, Onana misjudged another Ziyech free-kick. With an awkward parry down low, he essentially slapped the ball into his own net.
Through Kerem Aktürkoğlu’s subsequent piledriver, Galatasaray salvaged a 3-3 thrilling draw despite twice trailing by two goals. It meant United became the first team in Champions League history to score at least three goals in each of their three away group stage matches without winning any of them.
United’s performance here was largely positive, however. They often looked bright in attack, scoring three well-worked goals courtesy of Alejandro Garnacho, Bruno Fernandes and Scott McTominay, and yet they woke up on Thursday with just a 6.0% chance of making it through to the last 16, according to the Opta supercomputer.
It’s obviously not all on Onana, but rightly or not he’ll be seen as one of the chief culprits if United are ultimately eliminated from the Champions League in mid-December because his form in Europe has been somewhat alarming, and that’s even when you take into consideration the last-gasp penalty save at home to FC Copenhagen.
On Matchday 1 of the Champions League at the Allian Arena, he allowed a Leroy Sané shot from outside the box to squirm under his arms, gifting Bayern Munich the lead after United had begun well; the Bundesliga giants went on to win 4-2.
His two errors leading to goals – that Sané strike and Ziyech’s second free-kick on Wednesday – is the joint-most among goalkeepers in the Champions League this season, and that’s without counting Ziyech’s first free-kick, which may not have technically been considered an error by Opta, but it’s not unfair to suggest he shouldn’t have conceded it.
Onana has also made four errors leading to shots in this season’s competition, one more than any other goalkeeper.
It all feeds into a wider narrative of questionable performance levels in the Champions League. His 56.3% save percentage is the seventh-worst among goalkeepers who’ve played at least 180 minutes, no keeper has conceded more than him (14 excluding own goals), and according to Opta’s goals prevented metric, Onana has conceded 2.4 more goals than the average goalkeeper would be expected to from the quality of shots he’s faced – only Antwerp’s Jean Butez (3.6) has a poorer record than the Cameroon international.
What makes his output even more surprising is the fact he was so good in the Champions League last season, registering a competition-high 7.8 goals prevented (excluding penalties and own goals). His record in the Premier League this term is better than you might expect as well, with only Thomas Kaminski (6.3) deemed to have prevented more goals than Onana (3.7) according to the same model.
Now, United are facing slightly more shots per game in the Champions League (15.4) compared to the Premier League (14.6), but the fact they’re allowing opponents exactly the same non-penalty expected goals (xG) per game in both competitions (1.53) suggests Onana’s issues in Europe aren’t down to Erik ten Hag’s team leaving him more exposed. Furthermore, the average xG value of United’s non-penalty shots faced in the Champions League (0.10) is actually lower than in the English top flight (0.11); he’s simply making more big errors on shots he should be keeping out. The “why” to that is more difficult to pinpoint, though the data certainly shows it’s reasonable to expect better.
But of course, one of the main reasons United specifically went for Onana in the summer was his ability with the ball at his feet. None of this has taken that fact into account, though when you analyse Onana, that side of his game is impossible to ignore.
“From every area of the team, I want productivity,” Ten Hag said in his first pre-season at United. “That’s the most important thing, that players take the initiative on and off the ball, in offence and defence.”
This extended to the goalkeeper in that Ten Hag wanted his team playing out from the back; last season, only Tottenham (62%) and Brighton (61%) saw a greater proportion of their goal-kicks end within their own penalty area than United (57%) in the Premier League, but David de Gea’s weakness in terms of distribution still meant they were limited in this respect.
It wouldn’t take much for him to resort to booting the ball long, with 38% of their goal-kicks going beyond United’s own defensive third; this season that’s down to 28% because Onana is far more confident in his ability to pick out teammates between the lines.
This can also be shown by looking at Opta Vision data in the Champions League; Onana’s 34 line-breaking passes is third-most among all goalkeepers in the competition, a continuation of his fine output last season when he made 32 more (85) than any of his contemporaries.
Interestingly, though, De Gea was involved in the third-most (41) open-play sequences that ended in a shot of all goalkeepers in the Premier League in 2022-23, or 1.08 every 90 minutes, which is exactly the same rate as Onana this term. So, in that respect, Onana hasn’t seemingly had the transformational impact fans may have hoped for yet, but it would be unreasonable to lay this at the feet of the goalkeeper. For starters, absences to a host of key players through the spine of the team, not to mention a dearth of reliable goalscorers, have arguably prevented them from making significant gains in this area.
Nevertheless, with 43.7 touches and 25.6 successful passes every 90 minutes in the Premier League this term, on average Onana has seen more of the ball and found a teammate more often than any other Manchester United goalkeeper in a single campaign on record (since 2006-07). Clearly, the rest of the team generally sees him as a reliable presence in possession, and there’s an argument his distribution leads to fewer errors on the ball in the defence as well.
Harry Maguire, for instance, has enjoyed a mini-resurgence in recent weeks and appeared less wobbly than last season when playing in front of De Gea. Granted, that’s anecdotal and is difficult to back up with data, but United defenders collectively committed an error leading to a shot once every 2,482 minutes in 2022-23; in 2023-24 that is happening once every 3,474 minutes.
So, although there are absolutely some positive aspects to Onana’s start at United, those glaring errors are proving extremely costly, which brings us to a key question: how are you supposed to determine whether a goalkeeper’s passing ability makes up for shot-stopping fallibility?
The answer – if there even is one – probably revolves around how successful the team is collectively. Manchester City’s Ederson is a good example to look at because last season he actually conceded 4.7 goals more than he’d be expected to in the Premier League according to Opta’s expected goals on target (xGOT) model, but the noise around his performances remained quiet. Of course, City are set up to play one way, and that’s a style they excel at because it’s been cultivated over several years by an elite coach; it happens to suit Ederson’s passing ability well, and because they’re so good, the odd mistake here and there can be overlooked because they’re almost irrelevant.
United, on the other hand, remain a team without a particularly discernible playing identity beyond wanting to play it out from the back, and they’re also a squad built by several managers with different ideologies.
Only three teams who finished in the top half of the Premier League last season faced more shots than United (481), so there was always a likelihood their goalkeeper’s shot-stopping skills would be called upon reasonably regularly.
Until United are dominating most games and sweeping teams aside, if either ever happen again on a consistent basis, Onana has no option but to improve his reliability between the posts or he’ll be replaced just like De Gea.