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

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As Jordan Larsson stepped up for that final kick, it felt like Andre Onana was the only person in Old Trafford who was 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 some kind of will on a set-piece that was really between the kicker and the goalkeeper, doing their utmost to influence something largely beyond them.

There were grander reasons for that. Manchester United needed this win over Copenhagen to persevere 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 personalised, that Sir Bobby Charlton would no doubt have appreciated.

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

It saved the win on an important night, and could well be an important moment in his 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 knew he wasn’t at his own best level. It’s obvious his confidence was affected.

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

One of the reasons De Gea was ultimately ousted was because of a decline that really started back 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 assurance, to the point 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 it 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 that was in it.

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Through that, 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 effect in the other way. It can restore confidence.

Ten Hag certainly lauded how Onana “showed personality”. He stood up, by getting down superbly. That didn’t just push away Larsson’s error but will have temporarily pushed out all memory of so many 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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