Steven Davies writes a detailed scout report about Andre Onana, Ajax’s highly regarded goalkeeper
When Dutch international, Jasper Cillessen opted sign for Barcelona for just over £11 million on 25th August 2016, many wondered what the future would hold for his former club Ajax – who, caught in a rare moment of ill-preparation, appeared to have no clear successor waiting in the wings or coming off the conveyor belt of talent that is the club’s world renowned youth academy – De Toekomst.
Instead, in the weeks leading up to Cillessen’s departure, rumours abounded of Ajax looking to bring Tottenham Hotspur’s experienced back-up, Michel Vorm back to the Netherlands and, when that particular move failed to materialise it came as little surprise when the club brokered a deal with Newcastle United for their Dutch international ‘keeper, Tim Krul. Having having signed a new one-year extension to his contract on Tyneside, Krul joined Ajax on a season-long loan deal with a view of playing top-tier football having suffered relegation from the Premier League the previous season, his parent club were unable to provide.
One player who was omitted from all of these discussions was the then 20-year-old Cameroonian ‘keeper, Andre Onana. Ajax coach, Peter Bosz – in what many viewed as simply a stop-gap measure, opted to thrust the youngster between the sticks in the wake of Cillessen’s departure for Cataluña while Krul recovered from a long term injury.
Who is Andre Onana?
Born in Nkol Ngok on 2nd April 1996, Andre Onana was just thirteen years old when he joined Barcelona in 2010 after being discovered through the Samuel Eto’o Foundation.
In January 2015 – having spent five years in the Barcelona youth system, it was announced that Onana was to join Ajax for a fee of £128,000 later that year. However, the transfer was soon brought forward with Onana making his senior debut for Jong Ajax in a 2-1 home victory over Achilles ‘29 on 9th February 2015 before spending the remainder of the 2014-15 campaign and the season that followed turning out for the club’s reserve side in the Eerste Divisie – Dutch football’s second tier.
Despite being held in high regard in Amsterdam, Onana’s often erratic performances led few to seriously believe that he was to become Jasper Cillessen’s long-term successor. The young Cameroonian posted just four clean sheets while allowing 64 goals in his 37 outings for Ajax’s second team prior to the start of the 2016-17 campaign.
However, whether by luck or design, when Ajax found themselves in-between first choice options between the sticks. With Cillessen – after a prolonged period of indecision, having eventually opted to open negotiations with Barcelona over securing a switch to the Nou Camp shortly after the beginning of the season, it was to the then 20-year-old that new Ajax coach, Peter Bosz opted to turn. Onana made his first team bow in a shock 2-1 home reversal at the hands of lowly Willem II on 20th August.
Talent Radar Accolades
While hardly a stranger to the first team picture – having been named as an unused substitute on ten occasions following his switch from Barcelona’s youth ranks in early 2015, Onana, understandably, appeared somewhat out of his depth.
Yet, following Cillessen’s departure and the subsequent arrival of the not yet fully fit, Tim Krul on loan from Newcastle United five days after Onana’s somewhat ignominious debut, there appeared little option for Bosz other than to continue with the young Cameroonian until Krul was match-fit.
The trouble was, of course, that due to the serious nature of Krul’s injury, nobody at Ajax knew just how long that would take which, in the end, proved a blessing in disguise for the club. Ajax unwittingly found themselves a new number one while waiting patiently for their perceived number one to be made available for selection.
Indeed, despite making a shaky start in the first team, Onana would bid his supposed replacement farewell in January 2017, when Krul – having finally regained full fitness, found himself unable to force his way past the impressive young ‘keeper who had, by that point, made the number one shirt (#24 actually) at the Amsterdam ArenA his own. This left the Dutch international little option but to seek first team football elsewhere – Krul later opting to join AZ Alkmaar on loan for the remainder of the season.
So what had changed?
You only have to look at Onana’s impressive statistics.
Over the course of the 2016/17 season, Onana played 46 games in all competitions for the Ajax first team. During that time, the young Cameroonian – who also made his full international debut for his country in a 2-1 win over Gabon in an international friendly that took place in Limbe on 6th September 2016, conceded just 36 goals and, along with the exciting young back-line ahead of him also posted an impressive 21 clean sheets. The form of Onana was also a big reason why the club ended the campaign boasting the joint-best defensive record in the Eredivisie – a distinction shared with outgoing back-to-back champions, PSV Eindhoven.
What is his Style of Play?
Ajax, are a club synonymous with ‘Total Football’ – a tactical theory in which any outfield player can take over the role of any of their team mates, which was made famous by a Rinus Michels-coached Netherlands side littered with Ajax players during the 1974 FIFA World Cup held in Germany in which the Johan Cruyff-inspired Dutch came within a whisker of becoming World Champions – narrowly losing out to the hosts in the final, held at the Olympiastadion in Munich on 7th July 1974.
Despite the Dutch ultimately coming up short in the final, the footballing world was captivated by this new, dynamic style of play with the likes of Barcelona in particular adopting and later adapting it to suit their own needs in the development of their young players.
This footballing ethos has endured for over forty years in Amsterdam and plays a key role in the identification of talent both home and abroad when the club reels in its expansive scouting net each year.
Ajax’s style of play is possession based with high ball circulation beginning with the goalkeeper and back four. It is an ethos which involves a great deal of movement off the ball and numerous small passes via triangles of various sizes that systematically isolate and eliminate opposing players with the overall aim of forcing the opposition closer and closer to their own goal until the weight of pressure finally proves too much. When defending, the club’s style switches to a pressing game to ensure both a quick turn-over of possession and a swift resumption of the attack.
Within the above system, players are schooled in the art of moving into other positions when the opportunity arises while their colleagues are conditioned to fill in for their team mates when such instances occur to provide defensive cover should an attack then break down.
The position of goalkeeper, however, is unique amongst those on a football field.
Davy Klaassen and Andre Onana celebrate their victory in the Europa League semi-final (Photo credit: PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images)
While agility and sharp reflexes are, of course, a must, it is a position where age is no barrier and the ability to read a game takes greater priority over that of speed or skill on the ball, yet, within the Ajax system, the position of goalkeeper is also where each attack is born.
From the seven-year-old’s with stars in their eyes, all the way up to the likes of Dutch legend, Edwin van der Sar and Jasper Cillessen, the club’s goalkeepers are schooled from an early age in the use of their feet in much the same way as their outfield colleagues. The Ajax style requires them to be called upon on numerous occasions throughout the course of any given match to recycle the ball, relieve pressure on those ahead of them and, not only spot attacking opportunities, but set them in motion as well.
Having spent five years in the youth ranks at Barcelona – whose development of young players mirrors that of Ajax, prior to making the switch to Amsterdam, Onana is well versed in the role of the modern sweeper-keeper, and his distribution, while sometimes erratic, is no doubt one of the key reasons behind his recruitment by the club in early 2015.
What are his Strengths?
Despite not being the tallest of goalkeepers – standing at just 1.87 meters, the 21-year-old Cameroonian more than makes up for his lack of stature with his impressive feats of agility.
For examples of which you need look no further than the dying moments of two of Ajax’s crucial home victories during the group stage of their impressive UEFA Europa League campaign this term – miraculously tipping substitute Jean-Luc Dompe’s spectacular curling effort from just outside the area – which seemed destined to earn Standard Liege a point in the third minute of added time, over the bar to preserve three vital points for Ajax. He safeguarded another win two minutes from time by denying Theo Bongonda at his near post after the 21-year-old Belgian had got the jump on Joel Veltman during Ajax’s 3-2 win over Celta Vigo at the Amsterdam ArenA on 3rd November.
In addition to keeping his club’s quest for continental glory on track, Onana’s impressive reflexes also came to Ajax’s rescue on more than one occasion in the league. He denied substitute Adnane Tighadouini’s goal-bound drive from the edge of the area at his near post in the second minute of added time to preserve three valuable points against Vitesse Arnhem and palmed a spectacular bicycle kick from Dutch international, Luuk de Jong around his right hand upright to preserve Ajax’s slender lead during their clash with reigning back-to-back league champions, PSV Eindhoven on 18th December.
As well as possessing impressive agility, the 21-year-old rarely comes up second best when placed in a one-on-one situation which he showcased by bailing out his centre half, Davinson Sanchez when the young Colombian was dispossessed by Ridgeciano Haps. The young centre-back was caught into two minds by the marauding full back near the by-line – Onana quickly came off his line to narrow the angle before denying the 23-year-old with a strong left hand to prevent the visitors falling two goals behind with only a quarter of an hour gone against AZ Alkmaar on 6th November.
However, it is one thing to be able to repel a full back at close quarters but quite another when your opponent is a lightning-quick forward who has left your defence for dead and is bearing down on your goal during one of the biggest matches of your career.
Yet, during this season’s first instalment of De Klassieker, Onana was able to see off Feyenoord’s Bilal Basacikoglu – despite the young Turk having found himself in the clear following a poorly judged attempted clearance from Daley Sinkgraven, only to then be denied by the young Cameroonian in the visitor’s net who stood tall to keep the scores level in the 12th minute of a match which eventually ended all square.
Onana saves Luuk de Jong’s shot. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
Judgement is a key attribute for any top goalkeeper and generally takes two forms – the ability to read the play and be able to judge when it is necessary to come off your line and help your defence in defusing an attack before it becomes a threat to your goal or by fielding a cross in open play or from a set piece.
Certainly, Onana’s ability to come off his line and defuse would-be attacking situations before they develop is beyond doubt and illustrated in his perfect reading and subsequent claiming of Edmilson Junior’s cross – despite the intervention of Ishak Belfodil, ahead of Mathieu Dossevi in the 67th minute of Ajax’s narrow UEFA Europa League victory over Standard Liege. It was also portrayed during his side’s four goal trouncing of Heracles when – with his side 3-1 up, Onana hared off his line to deny Jaroslav Navrátil after Kristoffer Peterson had scythed his way through the Ajax rear guard before teeing up the Czech with a square ball that left the 25-year-old with only the young Cameroonian to beat 23 minutes from time.
What are his Weaknesses?
There is an old saying that suggests that you have to be a little crazy to be a goalkeeper. This is of course referring to the fact that ultimately, all blame tends to be placed squarely upon the shoulders of the goalkeeper whenever a goal is conceded. Thus, it is those who are able to take such criticism – unfounded or not, in their stride and not let one mistake turn into a horror show, that rise to the top of the game in this most scrutinised of positions.
At just 21-years of age, mistakes are to be expected.
Yet, what is more crucial is how a young goalkeeper reacts to such mistakes.
To best illustrate this point, it is useful to draw a comparison with another young goalkeeper who found himself in a similar situation to Onana – FC Twente’s Joel Drommel, who found himself thrust into the first team during the early months of the 2015/16 campaign amidst a period of great turmoil for the club both on and off the field.
The then 18-year-old Dutch youth international was handed his senior debut in a home match against Ajax – a game which ended two-a-piece. He went on to feature twelve more times at first team level over the course of the remainder of the campaign before a five-goal hammering at the hands of Vitesse Arnhem saw the young ‘keeper swiftly replaced by previous number one – Nick Marsman. His confidence was well and truly shattered after posting just two clean sheets in 13 outings in all competitions, while shipping a whopping 33 goals in the process.
The above, of course, is not the ideal way to blood a young goalkeeper, yet, if one is to make it at the highest level of the game it could be argued that they must be able to persevere, irrespective of the circumstances they find themselves in or the obstacles that are placed before them.
Andre Onana has by no means been immune to such mistakes, which his poorly judged dummy during the away match at Groningen that ultimately cost Ajax two valuable points in their pursuit of eventual league champions, Feyenoord, clearly illustrated.
However, the real difference between the two is Onana’s strength of character – a prime example of which came in Ajax’s 3-0 away success at Go Ahead Eagles where the young Cameroonian – having seen Davinson Sanchez clip the heels of Marcel Ritzmaier in the area leading referee, Pol van Boekel to point to the spot, kept his cool to deny Leon de Kogel’s subsequent penalty.
This point is borne out by the fact that in almost every game Onana plays the young ‘keeper is prone to the odd lapse in judgement. Yet, despite making these errors, very few lead to goals and most originate from the fact that Onana is being proactive in defending his goal or trying to alleviate the pressure on those ahead of him and are not due to reluctance, indecision or hesitancy – three things which often hamper a young goalkeeper’s progress as they attempt to make the step up to the first team.
Being a goalkeeper is a constant mental battle and as such it is those precious few who can silence the voices within and without that eventually rise to the highest echelons of the game and it is here that you will one day no doubt find Andre Onana.
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Steven Davies is a 34-year-old teacher, writer and Sheffield United fan who began contributing to outsideoftheboot.com in January 2017. While being an avid observer of the global game, Steven primarily specialises in the coverage of Dutch football and is a member of the team at totaldutchfootball.com
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