It was a moment that illustrated the difference Andre Onana will make to Manchester United and one of the few good things to come out of Saturday’s defeat.

Midway through the first half of that disappointing display at Tottenham Hotspur, Cristian Romero hastily cleared a United corner to send Dejan Kulusevski away on a counter-attack — or what would have been a counter-attack, had Onana not been stood 40 yards off his goal line waiting to intercept.

The United goalkeeper chested down the loose ball, took another touch to steady himself and — from just inside his own half while under pressure from Kulusevski — switched the play with a raking crossfield pass to the edge of the Tottenham penalty area, finding Alejandro Garnacho in space. United were on the attack again.

Garnacho did not make the most of the opportunity, hitting a low cross into the legs of Micky van de Ven. The pass deserved better.

Still, it was everything United supporters have been told to expect from their new €51million (£43.6m, $55.4m) signing; from Onana’s willingness to position himself a long way off his line, his vision to spot a team-mate in space, his confidence to play that ball, and then his execution of the pass itself.

“At one point, Aaron Wan-Bissaka was ‘goalkeeper’ and Onana was right-back,” Gary Neville remarked on commentary for Sky Sports, watching a replay of the pass. “You can see why.”

If United’s collective start to the 2023-24 campaign has underwhelmed, Onana’s has not.

It might be a low bar to clear but there is a strong argument that the 27-year-old has been United’s most impressive player across their opening pair of Premier League matches and there is no doubt as to the biggest change he has implemented.

Distribution was never one of his predecessor’s strongest points. David de Gea’s unceremonious departure at the end of last season was, in part, down to his uneasiness in possession, which put a cap on United’s ability to build up from the back.

Take this example from the first half against Tottenham, where Lisandro Martinez takes the goal kick by knocking a short pass to Onana.

Tottenham’s Richarlison and James Maddison are free to press Onana now the ball is live. When they do, Onana passes to Raphael Varane, who has moved from the right of United’s defence into space between Richarlison and Maddison.

Richarlison almost cut out the pass to Varane — highlighting how risky this type of play is — but United came away unscathed, successfully circumventing the first line of Tottenham’s press in just two passes.

It is the type of risky yet rewarding play that was previously unimaginable with De Gea.

Whereas Onana’s predecessor hit nearly two-thirds of his goal kicks more than 40 yards in the Premier League last season, his replacement only kicked a third that distance in the opening weekend win over Wolverhampton Wanderers and Saturday’s defeat at Tottenham.

A look at a map of Onana’s pass distribution in those two games shows how regularly he is passing into that central space on the edge of United’s box that Varane moved into. Only one area of the pitch has been a more popular destination for his distribution: the right-back position.

Is this the blossoming of a new build-up partnership between Onana and Wan-Bissaka? Maybe. Maybe not.

Despite some notable improvements in possession since winning his starting place back earlier this year, Wan-Bissaka’s limitations on the ball are well-documented.

Wolves and Tottenham appeared happy to leave him in space to receive the ball and instead try to stifle United’s build-up by cutting off routes to those who are more comfortable in possession. When the opposition effectively shuts down United’s first phase build-up in this way, it can be better to go direct.

And luckily, long-range passing is still a key weapon in Onana’s arsenal, as demonstrated by that spectacular crossfield pass to Garnacho. If that is the most impressive example of Onana’s passing range so far, it is not the only one.

Shortly before half-time on Saturday, Onana clipped another ball over the Tottenham midfield and it almost arrived on a plate for Marcus Rashford, only for Van de Ven to intercept on the stretch and prevent the United centre-forward going through one-on-one.

During the first half against Wolves, Onana stood well outside the penalty area and went long in search of Garnacho down the left wing.

The ball bypassed the first lines of the Wolves side and set Garnacho away on the shoulder of their defence. Had the 19-year-old winger taken the ball more cleanly, United would have been in behind.

Onana may have arrived as the answer to United’s problems playing out patiently from the back, but he is just as happy to pick a pass and go long. That is partly why there is relatively little difference between De Gea’s passing data and Onana’s early numbers, which are obviously drawn from a tiny sample size.

While De Gea ‘launched’ — ie, kicked longer than 40 yards — around a third of all his passes (not just static goal kicks) in the Premier League last season, Onana has launched a quarter of his. In fact, Onana’s passes have been a yard longer on average.

The key difference is not quantity but quality. De Gea was often punting to relieve pressure, whereas his replacement has the vision, confidence and ability to pick out team-mates further up the pitch in positions where they can exploit gaps in the opposition.

That is not the only change in the goalkeeping department, though. Another major criticism of De Gea was his reluctance to stray far from his line.

Whereas De Gea averaged 0.84 defensive actions outside his penalty area per 90 minutes last season, Onana has come out to clear up danger twice in each of his first United appearances.

Again, the sample size is small, but that is in line with the most proactive sweeper-keepers in the Premier League last season.

Onana has not been afraid to dash off and snuff out danger inside his own penalty area either. Against Wolves, a neat one-two between Pedro Neto and Pablo Sarabia at the start of the second half sliced through United’s defence.

Neto continued his run into the box, into what would have been a prime position to cut the ball back for Matheus Cunha for a tap-in if only Onana had not charged out of goal.

Onana’s speed — an underrated attribute for a goalkeeper — allowed him to make up the ground, smother the ball and kill the chance.

Nobody is pretending this is revolutionary but it is the type of proactive goalkeeping that United have lacked in the past. It is risky — look at Cunha’s positioning if Neto makes the cross — but so is allowing a cross to come into the box in the first place.

This risk-versus-reward dilemma is fundamental to Onana’s game. Since signing the goalkeeper he wanted, Erik ten Hag’s message to Onana has been simple.

The manager expects his No 1 to be a leading voice in the dressing room; he wants Onana to make demands of the defenders playing in front of him; most of all, Ten Hag wants him to play with as much freedom as he did during their time together at Ajax.

That means taking advanced positions outside of his penalty area at times when United are in possession, with all the attendant risks that brings. The 3-1 pre-season victory over Lens provided a case in point.

When Onana was lobbed from just inside the United half that day after a wayward Diogo Dalot pass exposed his positioning, it would have been easy to drop deeper and play more conservatively from then onwards.

Instead, Onana resolved to stay faithful to Ten Hag’s instructions and to his own principles — to keep playing high up the pitch, ready to take responsibility if or when it went wrong. That type of personality is what Ten Hag wants in his players.

“He always says, ‘The mistake is next to me’,” says one source who knows Onana well and spoke on condition of anonymity to maintain relationships. “For sure, one day he will make a big mistake in a United shirt but he’s prepared for that.”

Onana’s risk-taking and Hollywood passes are a staple of the modern goalkeeper but as we are so often told, their priority should always be to keep the ball out of the net. Until the last couple of years of his Old Trafford career, De Gea’s reflexes and agility were rated among the very best in the world.

Onana has not arrived with the same reputation but he has proved himself to be an excellent shot-stopper over his career, particularly at short distances when chances are easier to convert and a goalkeeper’s reactions have to be quick.

Post-shot xG (PSxG) is an expected goals metric based on the quality of a shot on target — i.e. where it is placed — and therefore gives an approximation of how likely a goalkeeper is to save it.

During last season’s run to the Champions League final, Inter were expected to concede 17.6 goals according to PSxG. Onana only conceded eight times — the best shot-stopping performance of any goalkeeper to play a substantial number of games in last year’s competition.

And so far in the Premier League, Onana has picked up from where he left off. Only six of Wolves’ 23 shots at Old Trafford were on target but United’s new goalkeeper was equal to all of them, beating away two in quick succession at close range from Fabio Silva.

The fast, sharp reactions required to stop these shots at close range are Onana’s speciality and were on display again last Saturday.

Shortly after falling behind to Pape Sarr’s strike — which the PSxG model projects had a 96 per cent of going in, giving Onana little chance — the United goalkeeper denied Destiny Udogie with his legs from a narrow angle and at close range.

Onana has not faced many attempts from distance so far but Kulusevski tested him from outside the box towards the end of the second half at Tottenham. The shot was not Kulusevski’s best but Onana gathered it comfortably, catching the ball and then securing it by dropping to the floor.

After two games, the difference between United’s PSxG and their number of goals allowed is +1.5 — second only in the top flight to Fulham, whose goalkeeper is last season’s statistically most impressive Premier League shot-stopper, Bernd Leno.

It would be no surprise if Onana is still towards the top of that table come the end of the season. The Cameroonian’s shot-stopping ability is evidence that more traditional goalkeeping qualities do not need to be sacrificed to fit the modern mould.

Yet if there is an area in need of improvement in Onana’s game, it is his judgement when it comes to claiming crosses. This is not exactly a new problem for a United goalkeeper. De Gea had the same issue, albeit his deficiencies were of a different nature.

The Spaniard would often hesitate when presented with the opportunity to claim a cross, whereas Onana is far more proactive. This has advantages and disadvantages.

For all the praise that Onana’s start deserves, arguably the most notable moment of his United career so far was his clumsy attempt to claim a cross in the final moments of the win over Wolves.

A tangle with 6ft 7in (200cm) striker Sasa Kalajdzic should have resulted in a Wolves penalty. Referee Simon Hooper and the two video assistant referees on duty were stood down for the following round of Premier League fixtures as a result of their failure to award a spot kick.

It is not the first Onana fumble in a United shirt of this type, either. The Cameroonian flapped at a cross by Morgan Guilavogui during the pre-season win over Lens, then collided with Florian Sotoca while scrambling to reclaim the ball.

Is it better to largely stay on your line and only come for crosses you are absolutely certain of claiming? Or should a goalkeeper be more proactive? One of those certainly leaves you more open to criticism than the other.

And yet Onana has stuck with this assertive style of cross-collecting, not even reining it in the minutes after his potential foul on Kalajdzic.

When Hugo Bueno sought to spread panic inside United’s penalty box again moments later, Onana acrobatically dived to claim the Wolves full-back’s cross with both hands ahead of a crowd of players on the edge of the six-yard box.

Maybe Onana’s confidence during the penalty incident was not entirely misplaced, either. Shortly before it, he had out-jumped and outmuscled Kaladjzic to collect Max Kilman’s floated cross from the left.

A less aggressive goalkeeper would not have got themselves caught up in the penalty controversy, but could easily have conceded on either of these chances by electing not to come for the ball or by hesitating as they did so.

Conceding a penalty is a more obvious and egregious mistake to make than staying on your line and allowing an opponent to take a shot. On the other hand, coming out to claim the ball will always be the more authoritative play.

That dilemma is a neat encapsulation of the shift in United’s goal over the summer. It is a change that will take some getting used to. Onana’s style of play means he will not always get things right. But amid a difficult start to the season at Old Trafford, his performances have been a big positive.

(Top photo: Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images)