In the 81st minute of Saturday’s defeat against Aston Villa, Frank Lampard gave €40 million recruit Amadou Onana his first minutes in an Everton shirt, replacing Demarai Gray with the Belgian midfielder as part of a double substitution which also saw Dele enter the fray. With the Toffees trailing 1-0 at the time, it was a clear sign of attacking intent from the boss, as he switched the team into something reminiscent of a 4-2-4 with Onana and Davies in midfield, Gordon and Iwobi on the flanks, and Dele accompanying Rondon up top as a second striker.
Onana’s first touches didn’t come until the 85th minute thanks to a few stoppages and timewasting after his introduction. Regardless, he began his Everton career by collecting a pass from Alex Iwobi about 30 yards from his goal and then elected to turn back and dish it off to Conor Coady after Kamara and Bailey quickly closed him down. Safe and simple.
His next sequence wasn’t so safe. After playing a one-two at the back with Mason Holgate, the English defender fed him the ball near the center spot, where he was surrounded by the opposition. He decided to try and drive past Villa's new boy Kamara, who got a toe on the ball, causing a turnover that led to the Villains’ second goal. Watching this back, it’s clear that the best decision would have been to hit a first-time ball with his left foot to the adjacent Tom Davies who likely would have had time to turn and find Alex Iwobi on the right wing.
However, Holgate didn’t exactly pass Onana into a great situation, and it’s clear that Lampard’s instructions to the Belgian before his introduction were to get on the ball and make things happen. Although ill-advised, that’s what he was attempting to do in this passage of play. So to sum it up, yes, Onana did not play the situation how he should have, but the blame for this goal cannot fall on him.
The defending that followed the turnover by Tarkowski and Holgate was horrific, as both moved to close Buendia down, ignoring the run being made by Ollie Watkins, and the rest is history. That could partly also be blamed on the switch to a back-four having played with three in the back until that point.
Amadou’s disappointment about his mistake was clear, but it did not take him long to right his wrong. Just seconds after the subsequent kickoff, Onana gathered Salomón Rondón’s knock-down header and powered past Kamara and Diego Carlos to the byline before fooling the latter with a chop back inside. Emiliano Martinez ensured Dele could not apply the final touch, but under pressure from Alex Iwobi, his former teammate Lucas Digne could not do anything but turn the ball into his own net. This moment was just a glimpse of the ability that Onana possesses. It’s rare to see a player with his physical attributes that also possesses the acceleration and ball skills to pull this off against two big-money defensive additions, and it definitely excited all Evertonians watching around the world.
Onana didn’t get on the ball again until the 92nd minute when he received another knock-down from Rondon and fed the ball into the box to the feet of Dele, who unfortunately miscontrolled, letting John McGinn nip in and end the move.
The Nearly Moment
The perfect debut nearly happened in the 96th minute. Jordan Pickford’s long ball found the head of guess who; Salomón Rondón yet again, who flicked it on in the direction of Dele. Although it was too far beyond the former Spurs man, Calum Chambers curiously let it run, and nearly allowed Amadou Onana to score a late, late equalizer. Chambers, however, made a last-ditch tackle that deflected the debutant’s effort wide. Due to this recovery and the positioning of Martinez, the chance only had an xG value of 0.09, but it certainly felt like a missed opportunity for a stellar start to the youngster’s Everton career.
Regardless, Onana’s positioning is a positive to take, as he was ready to pounce on whatever came to him at the back post. Although we know that he is not an attacking midfielder by trade nor by archetype, it’s clear he has the ability and willingness to make late runs into the box, reminiscent of a certain tall, Belgian, Everton midfielder of the past. I believe Lampard views Onana mainly as a #8, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the boss give him the freedom to arrive late and cause havoc in attack.
That would be Onana’s final contribution other than fouling John McGinn in the dying moments of the match.
To conclude, I thought Onana’s debut was encouraging for a 15-minute cameo. Yes, we certainly would have preferred if he didn’t produce a giveaway that led to what ended up being the winning goal, but the “assist”, along with his other contributions showed glimpses of what he can become for Everton this season. Although he is clearly a prospect for the future, I fully believe that Thelwell & company would not have spent that amount of cash on a player who they did not plan to rely on as an important member of the team this season.
With the arrival of Idrissa Gueye once again seeming imminent, it will be interesting to see how Everton’s midfield shapes up going forward, but I fully expect Onana to see lots of action this year as the Toffees aim to steer clear of a relegation dogfight. How the Belgian can be best utilized is still unknown, but I’m certainly excited to see him don the Royal Blue shirt this season and beyond.