There is no hiding place for an out-of-form goalkeeper. Andre Onana may still have Erik Ten Hag’s public support, but time and patience is not on his side.
It is not sustainable for Manchester United to have a goalkeeper consistently making so many routine errors. The longer this continues, the more vulnerable he will become.
Outfield players can ease their way into a new team to find their best form. Some signings can be indulged for a year before they are judged, managers pleading for understanding if they are struggling early on.
Goalkeepers are too important to be indulged. As the last line of defence, lapses must be occasional rather than a recurring trend.
When keepers lose confidence, everyone smells it; fans, team-mates, the opposition and the media.
When faith erodes it rapidly becomes a massive problem for a side and the manager. Great goalkeepers turn defeats into draws and draws into narrow victories, especially at the biggest clubs. For a team hunting the biggest trophies, the art of being a world-class keeper is to do the little you are required to do brilliantly well.
Unfortunately for Onana, at the start of his United career he has been responsible for turning victories into draws, and draws into defeats.
Unlike in the great United teams of the past, he has too much to do and the more he has to deal with the more likely it is that another mistake is in the post.
United’s perilous Champions League predicament is a direct consequence of his errors. Onana cost the team home and away against Galatasaray and was poor against Bayern Munich in the opening group game. Yes, he made a last-minute penalty save against Copenhagen at Old Trafford, but the numerous minuses far outweigh that one positive.
The performance in Turkey was unacceptable for a Manchester United goalkeeper. You would not expect an Under 18 keeper to make the basic handling error for Galatasaray’s second goal. If a youth keeper was promoted and played like Onana on Wednesday evening, he would probably never feature for the first team again.
Onana has cost United too many cheap goals. The hope that the worst was behind him after a poor start to his Old Trafford career has been blown out of the water and Wednesday was a huge step backwards. Onana has already developed a reputation for being a liability. That will take a long time to overcome and reverse.
On a personal level, I feel sorry for him. The criticism is not intended to be cruel. It is a reflection of the standards expected at the top of the professional game. You cannot play for Manchester United and avoid this level of scrutiny, especially when the stakes are as high as they were in Istanbul. Huge fixtures are settled by small margins.
Many of us have been there after a poor game, knowing your contribution has been decisive to the outcome of a match.
In January, 2008, I accepted responsibility for a Liverpool Premier League defeat to West Ham. The game was meandering to a goalless draw. We had a corner in the last minute, West Ham broke away on counter-attack and in chasing Freddie Ljungberg I clipped him and gave away a penalty.
Mark Noble scored, West Ham won 1-0 and the trip home was horrendous, sitting there believing the defeat was solely down to me.
After ten years in the Liverpool first team, there was some consolation from having credit in the bank. No-one was suggesting it should be the end of my Anfield career. Nevertheless, it was a horrible feeling and not a word could be said to improve my mood.
Onana must have felt similarly lonely at full-time and on the plane back to Manchester on Wednesday night. It is not a good place to be but Ten Hag must be concerned moving forward.
— Football on TNT Sports (@footballontnt) November 29, 2023
No manager understood the importance of a reliable goalkeeper more than Sir Alex Ferguson. Ten Hag might ask himself ‘what would Fergie do?’ and there is plenty of material to guide him.
From Jim Leighton through to Massimo Taibi, Mark Bosnich and Fabien Barthez, Ferguson was ruthless when he believed his keeper was costing games. It did not matter if he signed the No 1, even for a decent fee. You either met the required level or you were out.
I have long backed the argument that the most influential, game-changing signing that enabled Ferguson to win his first Premier League title was Peter Schmeichel.
One of Schmeichel’s greatest United performances was at St James’ Park, where Ten Hag will lead his side on Saturday. His display in 1996 was critical to United winning the title ahead of Kevin Keegan’s entertainers.
Newcastle are appropriate opponents this weekend having benefited enormously from the consistency of Nick Pope. Pope may not be considered world-class by those beyond St James’ Park, but you can be sure Eddie Howe rates him as one of his most astute purchases. He is a big part of why Newcastle have gone from the bottom half of the Premier League into the Champions League.
There was a marked contrast between Pope and Onana in midweek.
The best keepers generate confidence while the most susceptible create tension.
Manchester City found a new level after Pep Guardiola signed Ederson. Liverpool evolved from nearly-men under Jurgen Klopp to European champions the season they signed Alisson, having lost the Champions League final in 2018 because of Loris Karius’ goalkeeping errors. Karius never played another senior game for the club after the Kiev final.
Mikel Arteta’s signing of David Raya was no flippant gesture for the sake of it. He studied his squad and decided he will not win the title with Aaron Ramsdale. The jury is still out on Raya, but it underlines the importance of a trustworthy No 1.
The time was right for David de Gea to leave Old Trafford last summer. He gave sterling service, but it was understandable the club looked for a younger keeper, presumably on a much lower salary. Ten Hag also wanted someone more adept with his feet.
Recruiting an inferior keeper makes no sense, however. Ten Hag cannot disguise the reality that United have suffered because of Onana’s avoidable mistakes.
It is admirable for a manager to stand by a player in the face of mounting criticism. There is also a fine line between that being a sign of strength or weakness. Onana must massively improve in the coming weeks and months, otherwise the derision will shift from an erratic keeper to the manager who keeps picking him.