I like Jamie Carragher. He’s an excellent pundit, a football obsessive, always engaging. He looks good lurking around a lighted plinth in designer man-trainers waiting to point at things on a massive screen. He’s perfect for that Sky studio role: steeped in English club-football culture, but also buzzing with modernity, tactical details, patterns you couldn’t previously see.
But I do think he’s wrong about André Onana and the politics of shouting at Harry Maguire. In his newspaper column this week Carragher offered a well-reasoned defence of Maguire, railing against his status as chief public whipping boy, with the strong central point that he should simply be rested for his own good.
In the middle of which, as an example of hateful mob behaviour, he talked about Onana shouting at Maguire during a pre-season friendly. Carragher seems convinced Onana was doing this to curry favour with United’s fans, playing to the gallery, showily distancing himself from the chief object of enmity.
It is bold satirical stuff from Carragher. Very deliberately, and with an arch sense of dramatic irony, he is of course doing exactly the same thing Onana is accused of; putting his hand on Maguire’s shoulder against the mob; and with the other hand beckoning the mob in to have a pop at Manchester United’s goalkeeper.
Be kind! Don’t blame individuals! To make this point even more powerfully I will now explicitly blame Onana, who seemed to be doing OK at his new club, but now stands accused of chronic unprofessionalism and sabotaging a senior teammate.
This is all very knowing and super-smart, and not in any way contradictory. Just as Milton created a Satan in Paradise Lost so seductively human the reader is literally tempted into sympathy, so Carragher is “performatively” embodying the vice he seeks to expose. The word brilliant gets thrown around the place. But this is deep, self-referential moral satire. It’s high-risk internal dialogue. Plus the bit about doing Rigobert Song in training was really good.
But I do still think he is wrong about Onana. First, because this is just the way Onana plays. He likes to shout at and cajole his defenders. He did it all the time at Internazionale. It is presumably part of the reason United signed him and thus something his manager explicitly wants him to do.
He is also hardly alone in being showy with it. Jordan Pickford never stops with this stuff. Conor Coady spent his entire international debut, literally from the first second, yelling at his teammates in a deserted stadium in Denmark. The whole English leader-legend trope is a kind of performance, for the benefit of fans, manager, teammates, personal mythology.
Why single out Onana? Why assume a Cameroonian, two weeks into his United career, understands the Maguire dynamic to such a high level of detail the issue right at the front of his mind in his second game isn’t organising his defence but making Dave from Bury like him?
The real point about Onana is that he has the hardest job in football, a role so fraught the only reasonable response is sympathy. Onana’s chief task, as ever, is to keep the ball out of the net. But he is also here to do other things. To reinvent Manchester United’s entire tactical plan, to liberate the forwards and midfield, to interfere with the opposition press, to regear his team’s away form. And to do all this simply by being better than David de Gea at passing the ball.
Onana will, of course, do this instantly, in the glare of one of the most angsty, big-stage football clubs in the world. He will do it while adapting to a new team, new country, new colleagues, while also having good health, good luck and no random events along the way. Be good. Also, be transformative. Do it instantly. Without, and this is key, ever making any mistakes. Welcome, André, to the impossible job.
Little wonder this state of basic confusion was present in his tricksiest moment to date, Taiwo Awoniyi’s brilliant goal after 90 seconds at Old Trafford in United’s last home game. Onana started off in his designated sweeper position. This was abruptly abandoned as he realised United’s defensive strategy in that moment was to see if they could give Awoniyi so much space he simply tired himself out running into it.
In full retreat, Onana seemed to perform four or five separate acts of goalkeeping within the same movement: faking to dive, pre-diving, faux-diving, like a one-man virtuoso playing the spoons and the accordion while also juggling a set of steak knives. Somehow he ended up levitating above the Old Trafford turf in a seated position as the ball rolled beneath him, a moment of anti-gravity, created, like so many things in this drifting ghost club, by the power of pure, multifaceted confusion.
It is Onana’s misfortune to stand at the meeting point of two tides of confusion. Most obviously, the role of goalkeepers has changed so dramatically. The ability to embody the new tactical reality is a major part of being signed and selected. Hence a tendency to overstate the point, a subculture of prancing, wasp-waisted matadors, for whom every pass and drag-back and chop-turn feels like a desperate bid for approval. So your brand new game-changer might just shout and point a little, without intending it as an assault on the thin line between civility and chaos.
The second element of force majeure is the fact Manchester United itself is a drowned world, a meat grinder, a talent furnace. Just scroll down that list of pressed men, drifters, ghosts still trapped inside the machine. Here we have an organisation so dysfunctional from the top down that only the rarest, luckiest, most diamond-hard of young footballers is going to make it without being bent out of shape.
And in the end we have come full circle here, because this is also an appropriate defence of Maguire, who turned up with an absurd price tag, promoted a little above his ceiling, but who is also a prisoner of United’s anti-energy; expected, as all new players are, absurdly, to fix this unfixable place.
Onana may or may not end up blooming in that soil. Despite having already been peeled, sliced and swept into the refuse bin by some notable TV pundits, he is clearly a good goalkeeper. He was United’s best passer in the defeat at Arsenal. Either way the real question, as ever, is what is this place going to do to him?