The links between Barcelona and the Netherlands run deep. Only last summer, the Blaugrana signed Ajax midfielder Frenkie de Jong, continuing a fine tradition which has seen Johan Cruyff, Michael Laudrup, Frank and Ronald de Boer, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Patrick Kluivert, Marc Overmars, Edgar Davids and Jari Litmanen represent both clubs. You can add André Onana to that list – and you might soon be able to again.
Ajax’s No.1 played for Barça between 2010 and 2015 at which point he moved to the Dutch capital. Now, Onana is one of the finest goalkeepers in Europe. He looks certain to be this summer’s big goalkeeping transfer.
“Don’t get me wrong, I am very happy with Ajax and I am very grateful to the club,” Onana told Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad.
“It was five great years here, but now my time has come to take a step. I don’t yet know what will happen, but my ambitions and agreements are clear.”
Where next for Onana?
The 24-year-old has been linked with two clubs in particular: Barça and Chelsea. For the latter, Kepa Arrizabalaga has never justified his world-record £71.6million transfer fee since moving to London.
Earlier this year, Blues boss Frank Lampard dropped the Spanish international in preference of Willy Caballero for six games through January and February.
Meanwhile, at the Camp Nou, Marc-André ter Stegen is long-established as the No.1. According to Sport, however, contract talks have ground to a halt. The Catalans feel talks cannot continue until they know the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. Ter Stegen believes he is underpaid and the 28-year-old could leave with his contract up in 2022.
That would create an opening for Onana to return to the club where he was schooled for five years at the start of the decade. There was even interest last summer – according to Onana.
“Barca came back for me this summer,” he said. “It’s my home, I was part of that club. They always want one of their own to re-sign.”
However, Onana’s links with Barcelona stretch back further still. He played at the Samuel Eto’o Academy in the former striker’s native Cameroon before joining the famed La Masia setup as a 14-year-old.
“I’m very thankful for what he did for me coming from his foundation,” Onana told OmaSportsTV earlier this season. “I’m happy for him. He had a really good career and I can only wish him good luck for the next step.”
Onana’s own next step will surely take him away from the Amsterdam ArenA. The top-level view is this: Onana conceded 21 times in the Eredivisie before the season was cancelled, against an expected conceded goals (xCG) total of 23.6. Given Ajax’s standing at the league’s summit, he is far from the busiest goalkeeper in the Netherlands – that ‘honour’ belongs to Fortuna Sittard stopper Alexei Koșelev.
As a result, Onana’s average of 2.08 saves per 90 is the lowest of any goalkeeper to have played in the Eredivisie this season. But having the concentration levels to stay alert during long periods of inactivity is a skill in itself and one he’ll require at his next destination.
When called upon, a combination of excellent positioning, good agility and impressive reactions make Onana a thoroughly reliable shot-stopper. As the Netherlands’ dominant force this season, Ajax don’t concede many high-value chances but, when they do, Onana is usually equal to them.
Take, for example his stop to prevent Heracles forward Cyriel Dessers putting the hosts in front against Ajax earlier this season. A low cross from the left somehow finds its ways to the Belgian on the edge of the six-yard box. But Onana is alert to the danger – even if his defence should have stopped the cross – and spreads himself to smother the shot.
An eerily similar opportunity falls the way of AZ’s Frederik Midtsjø in the penultimate game before the season was cancelled. Again, Onana reacts quickly by spreading himself and makes a superb block with his foot.
Keeping the ball out of the net is a given when you’re talking about a keeper who’s going to cost around £50million. And when said player has been schooled at Barcelona and Ajax, good distribution is every bit as much of a given.
Onana is supremely confident with the ball at his feet, demonstrated in the stills below.
Just two minutes into Ajax’s UEFA Europa League win over Getafe, Onana decides to venture out of his box to take up playmaking responsibilities. He launches a raking pass over the top which finds Ryan Babel on the edge of the visitors’ penalty area. In doing so he takes five Getafe defenders out of the equation.
A little over ten minutes further into the same tie, Onana dribbles the ball around the onrushing Getafe attacker before pinging another sweeping pass – this time left footed – out to Ajax winger Ryan Gravenberch on the far side.
It should come as no surprise that across all club competitions in 2019/20, Onana’s pass completion rate stands at 88.3 per cent from 20.56 passes per 90. Kepa, for context, completes 91.2 per cent of 21.65 passes while Ter Stegen’s average is 90 per cent of 27.05.
One area for improvement, though, is Onana’s decision-making. He can get sucked into playing a long ball when a short pass would suffice. The above are Hollywood examples and for every one of those, there are plenty which don’t find their intended recipient.
Onana sometimes lacks conviction when coming for crosses or balls into the box too. But it’s worth remembering he is still a baby in goalkeeping terms at just 24.
Overall, though, he is good with hands and with his feet. Those qualities mean he is ready the follow in the footsteps of other notable Ajax alumni.