Arsenal are interested in Ajax goalkeeper and Cameroon international André Onana, as first reported last month by Charles Watts and recently confirmed with more detail / elaboration by Chris Wheatley. The reports come amid speculation that Bernd Leno may want out of North London and that he’s unlikely to sign a new deal when his current contract expires two seasons from now.
There’s a slight issue with Onana: in February, UEFA suspended him for 12-months for a doping violation. The Court of Arbitration for Sport heard his appeal today, but his lawyer feels a reduction in length of suspension is the best they can hope for. Per a statement from Onana and Ajax when the suspension was issued, the keeper mistook his wife’s medication for aspirin, which resulted in a positive test for the diuretic Furosemide. Diuretics are sometimes used as masking agents for other banned substances, hence why many are banned by governing bodies.
Part of Arsenal’s interest stems from goalkeeping coach Inaki Cana’s familiarity with Onana from their shared time at La Masia, Barcelona’s famed academy. But Cana also encouraged the club to sign Alex Rúnarsson based on familiarity from crossing paths earlier in their respective careers, and well, that move hasn’t really panned out for the Gunners.
That said, Onana has put up some impressive numbers, ranking in the 99th percentile for post-shot expected goals minus goals allowed, a measure of shot-stopping (but also luck) and the 96th percentile for save percentage per fbref.
Since the start of the 2018-19 UEFA Champions League campaign (when Ajax reached the semi final), André Onana has prevented 13 goals, more than any other keeper in the competition during this period based on Opta's xGoT conceded metric. pic.twitter.com/yjuFUHuCKY— Harvey Downes (@HarveyDownes92) June 2, 2021
With Leno still under contract for the next two seasons, goalkeeper isn’t a pressing need. And even though I wrote a few weeks ago that I expected Leno to be the starter next fall and that Arsenal would be well-served to fill other spots with whatever budget they may have this summer, I think signing André Onana could prove the type of shrewd move we’ve been aching for Arsenal to make.
Reports are that the suspension might be driving Onana’s price down, which is understandable given that right now he won’t be eligible to play until February 2022. But that suspension doesn’t really matter to Arsenal, whether it gets reduced or not. They don’t need a new starting keeper for the fall. What they do need, however, is to have a succession plan in place for Bernd Leno’s eventual departure. Getting a younger, possibly better keeper at a below-market price seems like a no-brainer to me.
Arsenal could also be helped by Onana being out of contract with Ajax at the end of next season. According to Charles Watts, Ajax would want around £12M for the £30M+ rated keeper should his suspension be reduced, and that they could go as low as £7M if it isn’t.
Not to excessively question the reporting of a journalist way more connected than I, but something seems a bit off. Ajax have historically bought, developed, and sold players well. It’s hard to imagine them taking less than half a player’s valuation on a transfer. But money is tight, finances are weird, Onana’s contract situation is tough, and he’s got a doping suspension on his record. Perhaps Ajax are looking for any kind of return to be rid of a difficult situation.
The transfer rumor also gives me occasion to once again share one of my favorite pieces of football writing from the past season — Rory Smith’s excellent piece in the New York Times about why there aren’t many Black keepers at the highest levels of the game and how that might be a market inefficiency fueled by a misplaced historical bias driven by racist undertones. André Onana could be poised to become the next African keeper to excel in the Premier League.
The whole situation — the suspension, his contract status, the potential market inefficiency, and the cut price — strikes me as the kind of opportunity a savvy club would take advantage of. Make it happen, Arsenal.