The Ajax exodus has begun - will Onana be the next star to move on?

The Cameroon goalkeeper is ready to confound the stereotypes and prove a success at the highest level in Europe

10:20am on Monday 13th April 2020
Solace Chukwu

While evidence of alien life remains sketchy at best, it is not a stretch to imagine how a quiet community might react if an abandoned alien spaceship was to crash-land in their town. 

Predictably, Europe's elite reacted to Ajax's stunning run to the semi-final of last season's Champions League in much the same way: first with wonder and curiosity, then with apprehension and then, finally, by cannibalising it for parts.

Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong were the first to go, ripped out by Juventus and Barcelona respectively. Last week, Chelsea announced a deal for Moroccan wizard Hakim Ziyech, and over the weekend it was reported the club are bracing for further departures in the summer.


Andre Onana statistics, fixtures, results and FC Rating

Ziyech has been too good for Ajax for too long

It is sad, but reflects perfectly the state of modern football. The days of democracy in Europe’s top competitions are over, and increasingly we are confronted with a hegemony of the uber-wealthy. However, amid this modernisation and shift in paradigm, some old tropes endure to this day. One such pervasive belief is in the error-proneness of African goalkeepers, the result of which is their relative paucity in European football.

Part of what made Ajax’s run so fascinating was its bucking of that trend, with

Cameroon international Andre Onana minding the goal as they tore through some of the continent’s more illustrious sides. And while the likes of De Ligt, Ziyech and Dusan Tadic were drooled over, their 23-year-old goalkeeper kept things tight at the back and marshalled a defence featuring youngsters like De Ligt and Noussair Mazraoui.

However, while there was an almost immediate rush to prize away the more impressive performers, Onana courted nowhere near the same level of interest. This is particularly remarkable considering that, what with the demand on goalkeepers to be proactive and play with their feet, being trained at Ajax ought to stand him in good stead.

23 yrs - GK - Ajax
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Onana is not lacking in self-awareness by any stretch, and ahead of the second leg of the Champions League semi-final against Tottenham last season, he was matter-of-fact in calling out the (un)conscious bias against African goalkeepers.

“I don’t see the difference between white and black goalkeepers. They’re the same – they make mistakes,” he said. “Everyone makes mistakes.

“We don’t have a lot of black goalkeepers at the top and people already have in their mind that black goalkeepers are not confident or they make too many mistakes.

“It’s something we have to change.”

In terms of timing, it was somewhat unfortunate these comments preceded one of his less convincing showings in that run, as Spurs came from 2-0 down on the night to win 3-2 at the death and break Ajax hearts. Onana, although not overtly at fault for any of the three goals, certainly underperformed in terms of his shot-stopping, finishing with a FC Rating of 5.1.

To his credit, he has not backed down, and in November he reiterated his stance, telling RMC: “Clubs do not have faith in black goalkeepers.”

While it is clear that African goalkeepers have historically not gotten a proper crack of the whip in Europe, Onana comes from the one country on the continent that consistently goes against the grain in terms of goalkeeping pedigree.

Clubs do not have faith in black goalkeepersAndre Onana

Cameroon has produced some of Africa’s finest goalkeepers through history. Thomas Nkono famously inspired Gianluigi Buffon, but had an excellent rival through the 1980s in Joseph Antoine-Bell; Jacques Songo’o was part of a historic Deportivo La Coruna title triumph and won the Zamora trophy; Carlos Kameni played at a high-level in La Liga for over a decade after being personally scouted by Nkono himself.

Whereas academies introduce a sense of structure to kids in Europe, in Africa the first contact with football is on the street, where diving around on hard ground is hardly appealing. Most African goalkeepers only become that late in their development, and as such naturally do not have the level of confidence as their European counterparts.

While this is true, it is also true that even those that buck this trend don’t exactly have the doors thrown open for them. Vincent Enyeama, for instance, was one of Africa’s finest goalkeepers for close to 10 years, but spent much of his career in Israel, before belatedly joining Lille at 29 and excelling, coming as close as anyone has to disturbing a now 27-year-old Ligue 1 clean sheet record.

More than any other, Onana is well-placed to break through that glass ceiling. Indeed, the courage to openly challenge the status quo speaks to an assertiveness that should make him an attractive proposition for many sides.

From a performance point of view, he is an impressive shot-stopper and boasts

tremendous reflexes. In a pair of 3-0 wins over Lille and Valencia in this season’s Group Stage, he received FC match ratings of 8.1 and 8.2 respectively; despite the margin, Ajax relied on some strong saves from Onana, most notably from Jonathan Ikone and Ferran Torres.

His ability when coming for crosses allowed Ajax last season to keep a Juventus side that had battered Atletico Madrid with an aerial assault in the previous round at bay, despite parading Daley Blind in the centre of defence.

This is particularly relevant, as there is a very good chance he joins his mate Ziyech at Stamford Bridge. Even aside the fact the Chelsea faithful have responded favourably to the idea, Frank Lampard’s patience with record-signing Kepa Arrizabalaga seems to have collapsed under the weight of underwhelming performances, and so there is an opening there.

Onana’s stronger command of the area and shot-stopping ability, allied to a more robust physique, would not only make for a welcome improvement on Kepa, but see him quite at home in the Premier League.

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