Perhaps it was a piece of calamitous goalkeeping in an away defeat in Europe that made Erik ten Hag’s mind up. David de Gea came out of his box, failed to control the ball and Youssef En-Nesyri was able to place the ball into the empty net from long range, Abbeylivenetwork.com gathered.
Manchester United required a new goalkeeper. Three months after Sevilla ejected them from the Europa League, on their return to continental competition, United lost again due to a goalkeeping error. Different goalkeeper, different type of mistake, admittedly. But if Ten Hag’s diagnosis was that United needed a footballing goalkeeper, given De Gea’s struggles with the ball at his feet, the issue this season is that they have not had a goalkeeping goalkeeper: not anyway, yet.
But, as errors from United’s supposed shot-stoppers go, this was more Massimo Taibi against Southampton than De Gea versus Sevilla. As Leroy Sane’s feeble shot slipped under Andre Onana, the first of seven goals in the Allianz Arena felt the most important. The Cameroonian accepted as much. “It’s my responsibility; because of me, we didn’t win,” he said. “I have to recognise that we didn’t win because of me. after my mistake we lost control of the game. It’s a difficult situation for me, I let the team down.” If the last line of the defence has offered no defence for himself, his honesty is at least admirable. “That is good,” said Ten Hag.
Yet United had hoped the manager could compliment an old ally for his performances on the pitch, not in the post-match interviews. Instead, the scoreline – Bayern Munich 4-3 Manchester United – appeared deceptive, flattering to Ten Hag’s team, indicative of bad goalkeeping. But Bayern knew they had a problem with Manuel Neuer injured: they spent the summer on a futile search for an upgrade to Sven Ulreich.
But United thought they had a solution: an expensive one, too, given that Onana was available on a free transfer a year earlier. They paid an initial £43m for perhaps the best goalkeeper in last season’s Champions League; though very much not, if expected goals are the measure, in Serie A for Inter. Thus far, his save percentage in the Premier League is a lowly 65.5. He had conceded three goals in the Champions League before making a save. “In the second half, he made great saves so he shows his capabilities,” said Ten Hag. Those second-half stops, however, are not why Onana’s night will be remembered.
And thus far, the defining moments of his United career are not saves, either. Since publicly blaming Harry Maguire for a goal in a pre-season friendly against Borussia Dortmund, Onana has been rather more culpable himself. He was lobbed from 50 yards against Lens. He should have conceded a penalty against Wolves for flying into Sasa Kalajdzic. Perhaps he could have done better for Lisandro Martinez’s own goal against Tottenham. Peter Schmeichel, United’s greatest goalkeeper, blamed Onana for Declan Rice’s decisive goal for Arsenal. Certainly Joao Pedro’s strike for Brighton looked saveable. If they weren’t hideous blunders, there is the suspicion another goalkeeper would have saved some of them; perhaps, some might say, an in-form De Gea.
Ten Hag sought to downplay what he saw as an aberration at the Allianz Arena; as well he might, given that Onana’s struggles reflect on him in a way De Gea’s certainly did not. The sense was that Ten Hag was lumbered with the Spaniard, but he chose his successor. “Of course, he knows he has to stop that ball but the way Sane came through cannot be,” the manager argued. “If there is one mistake, don’t make it bigger than it is.”
Yet it was wretched, it was against Bayern, a European superpower in the Champions League, and it was when an otherwise out-of-form United side had started well. Onana’s mea culpa was a reflection of that. “I think he shows he takes the responsibility and that shows personality,” Ten Hag said. That personality could equip Onana to play for United; then again, Fabien Barthez scarcely lacked personality and his Old Trafford career was curtailed by the man who bought him.
Now there is a sense in which a United manager has never had more options. A shortage of fit outfield players was the primary reason why United had three goalkeepers on the bench against Bayern. With four goalkeepers in the squad, they conceded four times in a Champions League game for the first time since 1994. Perhaps it was a case of quantity not quality though the other three were blameless for their supposed superior’s failings. That Ten Hag bought another goalkeeper, Altay Bayindir, on deadline day could offer an alternative. Yet his pursuit of, and reunion with, Onana indicates his former Ajax charge will be afforded the chances to recover from his dreadful start.
But there may have been a goalkeeper watching on and wondering what might have been. And if United do change their minds, De Gea is still available on a free transfer…