Ajax has had a history with sweeper-keepers in the form of Gerrit Bals, Heinz Stuy, Stanley Menzo, Edwin Van der Sar, Jasper Cillessen and now Andre Onana. Born in Cameroon, his talents were nurtured at Barcelona in La Masia before being polished at De Toekomst. Onana has traveled a road where talent like his is nurtured and not balked at. He cost Ajax points when he lost the ball against Groningen and also had incidents where he rushed out of the box too early against AZ Alkmaar at home and NEC Nijmegen away, but those mistakes are considered collateral damage for the marginal gain of having a keeper that can use the ball at his feet. At 21-years-old, he has been the perfect replacement for Jasper Cillessen and has the potential to be a great keeper.
André joined the Samuel Eto’o Academy aged 13 and moved to Barcelona before being spotted by Ajax and moving to Amsterdam at the age of 18. After a few years with Jong Ajax in the Eerste Divisie and playing in the UEFA Youth League, he then replaced Cillessen at the start of this season when the Dutchman moved to Barcelona. In a document released by one of Johan Cruyff’s closest confidantes Tscheu La Ling, it was revealed that coaches at Barcelona believed that they had goalkeepers who were more talented than Onana while there were murmurs around the Ajax academy that the Amsterdammers had more talented goalkeepers than the Cameroonian as well. Those assumptions have been proved wrong this season, with Onana making the Ajax’ goalkeeping spot his own.
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Onana can still be erratic with his kicking under pressure but he thrives in Ajax’ well-rehearsed and coordinated build-up schemes, especially when both centre-backs are marked and he can play the ball into midfield. He can also set counters with his throws after crosses and corners as he has improved at claiming the ball and punching the ball since his debut with Ajax. His feet are not just used for passing as he is also adept at saving shots with his feet. His shot-stopping style can seem unorthodox at times but has helped Ajax in some of the tighter games. His starting spot when the Amsterdammers are in the attacking phase is normally at the edge of his own box where he can rush out to sweep up long balls and is available for a pass during the build-up phase.
He is fluent in both English and Spanish which has allowed him to communicate with centre-back Davinson Sanchez, also creating a bond off the pitch. For a goalkeeper so young and only in his first season, he is confident in one-on-one situations while he manages to get strong hands behind shots for the most part. His positioning on his goal-line can sometimes fail him as for some goals, he has proved that he needs to read situations better, especially from crosses into the box. His ability to save one-on-ones was proved earlier this season in De Klassieker when Bilal Basacikoglu stole the ball from Daley Sinkgraven to then have his shot smothered by Onana.
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Onana has also managed to get an assist this season after he made a save off an Alireza Jahanbakhsh opportunity and then played an accurate long ball to Amin Younes, who provided the finish. It was a signal that he finally seemed at home as Ajax’ first choice goalkeeper, recovering well from a mistake earlier in the game that allowed AZ to score. Jasper Cillessen was haunted by a record of facing 101 penalties without saving one, while Onana tipped his second penalty against Go Ahead Eagles wide and became the first Ajax goalkeeper to save a penalty since Kenneth Vermeer in 2013. The Cameroonian shot-stopper is confident in his abilities which allows him to recover well from making mistakes.
When Ajax faced NEC Nijmegen at the Johan Cruijff ArenA, Onana was constantly linking with Sinkgraven to beat NEC’s first wave of pressure and play the ball out of the back effectively. In a Europa League group stage home match against Celta Vigo, he played a ball to Theo Bongonda who then sent a shot wide. When Ajax lost their foothold in that match where they lead 3-0 to finish 3-2, he was livid and articulated his disappointment to his teammates for them to regain their focus and see the game out. Against Groningen in a home match, he read a free-kick situation well as Yoell van Nieff attempted his own version of Fabio Aurelio’s free-kick for Liverpool in the Champions League against Chelsea, with the Cameroonian tipping the shot against the post.
Matthijs de Ligt also played a short back pass which was latched onto by Steven Bergwijn who could not get his shot past Onana. The young goalkeeper will also be remembered for the move that led to Bertrand Traore’s goal against FC Kobenhavn when he received the ball from a centre-back to calmly lay on a pass to Lasse Schone who passed back to him for the young goalkeeper to play the ball into Donny Van de Beek in the midfield line to beat pressure and create a neat combination for Schone and Van de Beek.
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He also made some incredible reaction saves against Lyon to prevent them from scoring a second while he also saved a one-on-one from Nabil Fekir as he stood tall in a Europa League semi-final. If one is talking about Onana saves, his magnificent save away to Legia Warsaw where he dived and held a shot perfectly could possibly be his best of the season.
“Andre is going through a wonderful development. Some people hoped for it, but certainly, not everyone expected this. He did not go against AZ at all in the opposite direction and in the mistake against Groningen – even if played more – but it’s his mistakes he can not make. Anyway, I’m very pleased with the development of Andre. Only applies: when facing the elite, such errors are punished, but the way he manifests and deploys the team, I can only be positive about it, ” said Peter Bosz to Ajax Life earlier in the season.
Onana has kept 20 clean sheets in all competitions, 7 of them have been away from home while at the beginning of the year, he went on a run of 7 games without conceding. Before Ajax lost to FC Twente in December, he went on a run of 5 games without conceding. He makes 28 passes at a success rate of 75% with 5 accurate long balls per game according to WhoScored. He has only conceded 30 goals in 43 games in his first season of football in the Eredivisie and the Europa League. He makes an average of 2 saves per game and 3 saves per goal and has a 100% average claim success according to Squawka. He also has an 80% distribution success including throw-outs, kicks from hands and goal kicks.
— AFC Ajax (English) (@AFCAjax_EN) March 17, 2017
Onana managed one of his seven away clean sheets while he was being racially abused by Vitesse Arnhem fans, as that is just a signal of the mental strength that he possesses. He is still in the early stages of his career but at 21-years-old and with a phenomenal first season at Ajax, it is no wonder that Technical Director, Marc Overmars flew to Spain to negotiate a contract extension for the youngster. Onana makes mistakes but his ability to continue playing with confidence and authority has allowed him to be one of the pillars of an Ajax side on the rise. He is a goalkeeper groomed to work with the ball at his feet but that does not overshadow his spectacular shot-stopping ability making him the next great Ajax sweeper-keeper.