Andre Onana is increasingly concerned he could struggle to win back his place at Manchester United if he goes to the Africa Cup of Nations with Cameroon next year.
Onana’s position is under fresh scrutiny after an error-strewn display in United’s chaotic 3-3 draw against Galatasaray.
It was the latest in a series of blunders by Onana this season and the goalkeeper is thought to fear his situation at Old Trafford could be further complicated if his understudy Altay Bayindir takes full advantage of his potential absence for a month in January and February because of the African Nations in Ivory Coast.
Cameroon are due to kick off their tournament against Guinea on Jan 15 and Onana would stand to miss four Premier League matches and a potential FA Cup fourth-round tie were his country to reach the final on Feb 11.
Onana quit international football after a falling out with the Cameroon head coach, Rigobert Song, that saw him return home from the World Cup in Qatar early 12 months ago. He agreed to return for the final African Nations qualifier against Burundi in September amid pressure from the government and Cameroon FA and is expected to be named in the squad for the tournament.
However, Onana is thought to be reluctant to be away from United at a time when he is determined to come through his troubles and prove just why manager Erik ten Hag asked the club to invest £47 million in the summer to sign the goalkeeper from Inter Milan.
Turkey goalkeeper Bayindir – who has yet to make an appearance for the club since his £4.3million move from Fenerbahce on Sept 1 – is desperate for a chance to show his worth and knows Onana’s possible absence early next year could provide that opportunity assuming it does not come before then.
It’s time for ten Hag to drop Onana now
The simple truth is that, if an outfield player had committed the volume of individual errors that Onana has for Manchester United this season, he would have been dropped before now.
If Ten Hag has already considered giving his first-choice goalkeeper some time out of the team, then he has resisted the temptation to date.
After Onana’s latest blunder show in Wednesday’s chaotic 3-3 draw against Galatasaray in Istanbul, though, it has become harder for the United manager to tip toe around the issue any more.
Ten Hag’s patience and support have been admirable but there are games to win and, with the December fixture list looking unforgiving, that is precisely what Ten Hag needs to be with his goalkeeper.
There are enough insecurities running through this team, and there has been enough turbulence in the back line owing to persistent injury problems, without players second guessing a goalkeeper who spreads unease.
While a number of Galatasaray players exchanged words with Onana at the final whistle, including his former Ajax team-mate, Hakim Ziyech, whose free-kicks the Cameroonian had failed so miserably to keep out, the only United player to console him was the man who would likely replace him between the posts should Ten Hag swing the axe.
Altay Bayindir had wandered on to the pitch to offer Onana some comfort and deserves credit for doing so, just as it was sensible man-management from Ten Hag not to publicly single out his No 1 for blame in the aftermath of a bruising result.
Throwing players under the bus is no way to foster trust and unity, and Onana will need some love, but a period out of the spotlight may be the best thing for him at the moment.
Starting Bayindir, who has never played in the Premier League before and, like Onana, only arrived at the club in the summer, will bring its own risks. But are they any greater than keeping faith with Onana right now?
Galatasaray are not the first opponents to adopt a shoot-on-sight policy against United this season and it is hard to believe Newcastle, whom they face in a forbidding fixture at St James’ Park on Saturday night, will resist a similar approach.
Thereafter, United have Chelsea, Bournemouth, Bayern Munich and Liverpool to play – not the kind of run you want when your goalkeeper has a crisis of confidence.
Equally, with Onana likely to be missing for part of January and perhaps February owing to the Africa Cup of Nations, Bayindir is probably going to have to come in at some point, so why not now?
But will Ten Hag get ruthless? Given the way he stuck rigidly behind David de Gea last season, even when the errors began to multiply and the Dutchman had resolved that he needed a new goalkeeper, it is not certain.
Having committed £47 million to sign Onana from Inter Milan in the summer, 12 months after he was available on a free transfer, Ten Hag doubtless feels a loyalty to the player and needs the signing to work out. Equally, he may be more inclined to focus on the three clean sheets Onana has kept in United’s last three League outings than Wednesday’s aberrations and his other mistakes.
He may also believe Onana requires a show of faith more than ever just now. It is a huge dilemma for the Dutchman.
But Ten Hag’s other summer signings have paid a price for not delivering so it should not be any different with Onana, whose gaffe against Bayern Munich in United’s opening Champions League Group A match in September, for which he apologised, would set the tone for things to come.
Mason Mount was having to get used to life on the substitutes’ bench before another injury put him out of contention altogether and Sofyan Amrabat’s start against Galatasaray was a rare one.
It does not mean Ten Hag was wrong to bring in a new goalkeeper and the sudden revisionism over De Gea serves no purpose. United’s rather botched handling of his departure was unfortunate and the Spaniard deserved better after such service.
But there was hardly an army of United fans arguing demonstrably against his exit and plenty who felt a change was required between the posts for Ten Hag to evolve the team’s build-up play from the back.
At the same time, De Gea’s departure necessitated the arrival of an upgrade and, while these are still early days for Onana, he has so far fallen well short of the standards required.
At 27 and having played in a Champions League final as recently as June, Onana’s struggles cannot be put down to inexperience, the naiveties of youth or physical development issues, as was the case when a 20-year-old De Gea was first finding his feet in the Premier League.
United were supposed to be buying the ready-made goalkeeper but, from his suspect handling and strange positioning and set-up, to his erratic style and wandering focus, Onana looks anything but. Even the attribute for which he was best known, his distribution, has been far from convincing.
Ten Hag may be wary about demoting his No 1 but United cannot continue to indulge so many slip ups and expect it not to impede progress.