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The Independent UK
The Independent UK
Miguel Delaney

Andre Onana’s moment of magic can be catalyst to reverse more than one difficult recent run

Getty Images

As Jordan Larsson stepped up for that final kick, it felt like Andre Onana was the only person in Old Trafford who was in any way calm. He stood there in a composed manner, as Steve McLaren shouted instructions, and Alejandro Garnacho walked away in the knowledge no one on the pitch had noticed him scuffing the penalty spot. It was as if everyone wanted to exert their will over a set piece that was really just between the kicker and the goalkeeper.

There were grander reasons for that. Manchester United needed this win over Copenhagen to possibly progress in the Champions League, and didn’t want to fail on a night that was all about perhaps their greatest ever player. There was also something more personal, that Sir Bobby Charlton would no doubt have appreciated.

There was a will that Onana should be the difference, not just that Larsson should miss. It could be sensed in the deafening roar that greeted his save, as the goalkeeper guessed right to send the shot wide.

It saved the win on an important night, and could well be an important moment in Onana’s United career. The psychological significance certainly shouldn’t be underestimated.

This was what he’d been waiting for. This was the response he needed, the love he required.

Because, as Erik ten Hag admitted after the game, Onana knows he hasn’t been at his own best level. It’s obvious his confidence has been affected.

There was ironically a reminder of David De Gea, and not just because the Spanish goalkeeper also endured an uncertain start at United way back in 2011.

One of the reasons De Gea was ultimately ousted was because of a decline that began in 2018. Having been brilliant for Jose Mourinho that season as a pure shot-stopper, staying deeper, he then went into a Spanish national team that demanded he play out from the back. He couldn’t, and it clearly eroded his self-assurance, to the point that De Gea began to make mistakes he hadn’t for years. That persisted for years more.

Onana had meanwhile been largely signed for his footwork, only to not really get to use it to best effect in his first few games. He had been signed too late in the window, and there were too many changes to the defence. Onana didn’t have that chemistry with his centre-halves. It meant he often had to punt the ball long, removing one of the qualities he is most respected for. That obviously began to affect his confidence, to the point he started to make errors that he hadn’t at Internazionale.

It was almost a classic negative spiral – that might well have been arrested with that save. That’s why it might have been so big, even beyond the emotional night.

Andre Onana’s confidence can only have been boosted by his penalty save
— (Getty Images)

There is some symmetry in how United now face Manchester City in the derby this Sunday. Pep Guardiola’s first major move in England was to replace Joe Hart with Claudio Bravo due to the need for good footwork, only for the Chilean to almost immediately start struggling. The first major mishap was in fact at Old Trafford, and that first Manchester derby between Mourinho and Guardiola. Bravo was all over the place, misplaced kicking leading into poor handling, and gifting United a way back into the game.

He never really recovered to be City No 1. Although some respectability was restored in how Bravo became a fine cup goalkeeper, he had been usurped by Ederson. There was never that same trust.

Guardiola had a theory about how that happened, given that Bravo had previously been a European champion with Barcelona.

The Catalan believes that goalkeeper is such an individualised position, leaving the No 1s so isolated, that an early mistake at a big stadium can have long-term effects on their confidence. This is clearly what happened with Bravo.

It looked like it might have been happening with Onana. It is entirely possible, however, that Guardiola’s theory can work the other way. A first great moment in a big stadium can have a huge positive effect. It can restore confidence.

Ten Hag praised Onana, saying he had “showed personality”. He stood up, by getting down superbly. That didn’t just push away Larsson’s shot but will have temporarily pushed out all memory of so many of the goalkeeper’s recent errors. He will be bolstered by the knowledge of this. Onana showed his value.

He secured a win on a night when United needed a victory for all manner of reasons. Two of those were bigger than any one individual, but the moment undeniably meant most to him.

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