André Onana’s form has revitalized Manchester United

André Onana’s start to life at Manchester United was consumed by criticism over his unconvincing goalkeeping, with the mistake in Munich being at the forefront of many high-profile errors in the first few months of his career in England.

Some showed sympathy for the Cameroonian goalkeeper due to the constant changes in the backline’s personnel that disrupted the chemistry between the members of the defensive unit. Communication is an essential building block to lay the foundations of an impenetrable defence, but it was not an aspect United could establish due to regular injuries.

Nevertheless, Onana was susceptible to unforced mistakes in the first few months of the season, so the criticism was warranted. However, the trajectory of Onana’s performances has since reversed, and it is nearing the time when critics must begin singing his praises and ensure that they are as loud as their early voices of disapproval.

André Onana’s historical performances

A portion of the United fanbase was taken aback by Onana’s initial underperformance in red because it was not too long ago before he guided Inter Milan to a Champions League final. In the Italian team’s memorable run, Onana was instrumental in solidifying their defensive form.

The data highlights just that – Onana completed the most saves (47), maintained the highest number of clean sheets (8), and prevented more goals (7.6), according to the ‘post shot xG’ (PSxG) metric, than any other player in the competition.

Onana did not reproduce the same form in the Serie A, where he conceded 2.7 more goals than the expected value. However, more broadly, Onana has showcased an excellent goalkeeping ability since FBref began recording advanced goalkeeping metrics.

Therefore, the current upward momentum in performances for United should not come as a shock despite the early hiccup. Onana also commanded a hefty €50 million fee because of his composure in possession and rare passing expertise with the ball – making him a valuable asset for managers who want their teams to build out from the back.

Erik ten Hag hoped to instill such principles at United. However, due to constant injuries and a few unsuitable pieces in his team, the Dutch manager has not yet implemented his ideal football philosophy – limiting Onana’s influence with the ball.

A turnaround in form and fortunes

At the start of the new year, United nestled in eighth place – eleven points adrift of the top four – having only scored 24 goals in 21 Premier League matches. The team has looked toothless in attack and vulnerable at the back. However, in the following four games, ten Hag’s men have conjured four wins – scoring eleven goals and conceding five.

Although the defensive output does not seem impressive, Onana was necessary for their victories – with his showing against Aston Villa the standout performance

The graph below illustrates the five-game rolling average of goals and expected goals (PSxG) conceded by Onana in the domestic leagues since the start of the 2022-23 season. The detail to look out for is the divergence between the two trend lines – indicating over or underperformance.

If the expected goals value (green) is above the goals conceded figure (red), it indicates overperformance since the goalkeeper conceded fewer than expected – with the opposite true if the red line is above the green.

Concerning the graph below, Onana faced fewer shots last season as Inter was a more defensively assured team than United currently is. However, his performances did not fluctuate – conceding as many goals as expected most of the time – represented by the narrow margin of divergence between the trend lines.

At United, this has varied from period to period – with phases where Onana has either significantly overperformed or has fairly underperformed relative to statistical expectations.

But to blame the volatility purely on Onana would be unreasonable. As mentioned earlier, the Cameroon international has not had a regular backline throughout the season. Moreover, the early storm of reproval by the public would have unsettled the goalkeeper’s confidence, which he seems to have recovered.

United is also conceding a high volume of chances (1.66 expected goals against per game) and shots (4.76 shots on target conceded per game) – both of which are the ninth-worst record in the league – making it difficult for Onana to prevent goals.

Furthermore, it is generally difficult for goalkeepers to match or beat the PSxG values by conceding fewer goals over a long period due to an inherent drawback of the metric.

It is because high-quality chances are given a statistical value of less than one with the rational assumption that irrespective of how easy a goalscoring opportunity may be, the unpredictable nature of football makes it possible for a player to miss that chance. Raheem Sterling will attest to the same with his hapless miss in the Champions League quarter-finals against Lyon in 2020, standing precedent as one of the most famous examples.

Therefore, when attackers convert chances, which is more likely than not, it puts goalkeepers at a disadvantage since they will have underperformed, according to the statistics, despite it being almost impossible for anyone to execute a save.

Accordingly, overperformance in the PSxG metric deserves praise, but slight underperformance should not alarm fans either. Instead, it is a fair standard that the goalkeeper has performed in line with how he should. Keeping this in mind, Onana’s statistical display at United remains solid. Another validation of this is Onana’s ranking in the top five goalkeepers in the Premier League for goals prevented according to the advanced metric.

The eye test reflects this as Onana has looked more reliant in goal, and although there is still room for improvement, he is no longer the reckless player that cost United multiple points earlier in the season.

The Cameroonian goalkeeper will certainly develop and regain the formidable form he showcased at Inter as the United rebuild gains momentum. Onana will prove to be an essential cog in ten Hag’s machine, and when that time comes around, the early critics must change their tunes and deliver Onana his deserved praises.

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