Andre Onana was so distraught, his face crumpled in the turf, that he had to be hauled to his feet by Sergio Reguilon. It was as if he could not bear to contemplate his error, still less the potential consequences. Only 24 hours earlier, the Cameroon goalkeeper had faced awkward questions about whether his value to Manchester United lay more in being “good with his feet” than in his ability to perform crucial saves. And now came the cruellest twist, as he flapped at Leroy Sane’s speculative shot and let the ball slither agonisingly beneath his hands.
Cue the character assassinations. Cue the endless mocking memes. Onana was brought to United on the pretext that he was an upgrade on David de Gea, but after six games and 14 goals conceded, he is already drawing invidious parallels with his Spanish predecessor. His howler in Bavaria, gifting Bayern Munich a lead that they never relinquished, threatens to cast the longest shadow over a United season growing more torrid by the day.
Still, you could not fault him for honesty. Onana argued afterwards that he had failed his team-mates, and that it was his error that had tipped the balance of the contest. “This is the life of a goalkeeper,” he said, philosophically. It is rare for a player under this level of scrutiny to appear for a post-match interview, never mind shouldering the blame alone. If nothing else, he deserves praise for accepting responsibility.
Unfortunately, the recent past reminds us how this story tends to end for United goalkeepers. At his nadir, De Gea was so hapless that Roy Keane threatened to march into the dressing room and swing some punches. You hope that Onana is spared the same contempt from the sidelines. For a start, he is already so racked with self-reproach that any further kicking would be gratuitous. But it is also plain to see that United’s malaise, their slide into brittle mediocrity, extends much wider than any one man.
Onana’s struggles are but one symptom of a systems breakdown. United’s resistance was not just soft between the posts, but all over the pitch. Twice they scored unexpectedly and twice Bayern, sensing their opponents’ soft underbelly, punished them afresh. In terms of pure skill, Jamal Musiala, slaloming past defenders at will, was leagues ahead of anything United could offer. A 4-3 scoreline hinted at some gloss for Erik ten Hag, suggesting his team had only been narrowly shaded by the Bayern behemoth. But in reality there was a chasm in class.
The concern, as so often, is that United no longer seems to be the place where a player’s ability is enriched. On the contrary, it is now a club where even the richest fruits go to wither on the vine. Onana, at 27, has been an accomplished goalkeeper at this level for Ajax and Inter Milan, reaching a Champions League final just three months ago. He appeared to be worth every penny of the £47.2 million spent. And yet after a few weeks at United he finds himself depicted as a walking calamity. Once, walking into Old Trafford was the rarest of privileges. Today it feels like entering a Bermuda Triangle of talent.
Man Utd demonstrated all the structural cohesion of icing sugar
It was instructive this week to read the reflections of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on his short, trophyless reign as United manager. There were many bleak days during the Norwegian’s time in charge, especially towards the end. None cut as deep, though, as a 5-0 home defeat to Liverpool. On that most chastening of days, the fault lay primarily with the centre-back partnership of Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof. Fast-forward almost two years, and who do you suppose was starting for United at the Allianz Arena? Why, Lindelof again. For a club so publicly committed to improving and rejuvenating, it is still carrying an absurd amount of dead weight.
Resilience: this was the quality most commonly ascribed to teams of the Sir Alex Ferguson vintage. They held firm when it mattered and they knew what it meant to scrap. The side assembled by Ten Hag exhibit neither of these traits. As soon as Bayern dialled up the heat, they demonstrated all the structural cohesion of icing sugar. For much of the second half, the gulf in attacking quality bordered on an embarrassment. Ironically, it was Onana who kept the result from being more lopsided with his two sharp saves from Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting.
What is Ten Hag’s answer? For his players to “look in the mirror”, he says. It is an inadequate solution. Solskjaer confronted a similar predicament to the Dutchman and his conclusion, eventually, was that some of his players thought they were better than they truly were. That itself is a damning reflection on the recruitment policy at United, who once attracted the best but who now draw those with an inflated sense of their own worth.
Onana, arguably, is not one of them. He has the courage to identify when and how he has fallen short of expectations. If only such candour could be shown at every level by United, a club so plagued by dysfunction that the goalkeeper, frankly, should be deemed the least of their worries.
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