Arsenal Goalkeepers: a Frank Assessment of the 2010/2011 Season So Far
Leading into the season, there was a general consensus that Arsenal needed three things: a new Goalkeeper, a central defender to cover Vermaelen and Djourou/Koscielny and a holding midfielder in act as backup for Alex Song. Speculation is rife that Arsene Wenger tried very hard to sign Pepe Reina from Liverpool, but the Merseysiders refused to sell to a rival. Then Arsenal refused to pay an extra £2,000,000 (on top of the slightly meagre £2,000,000 they had already offered) for Mark Schwarzer, of Fulham. Was this decision justified or could it ultimately be the decision that costs Arsenal the Premier League title?
Manuel Almunia - the Spaniard started the season as Arsenal’s first choice goalkeeper, much to the chagrin of many of the Club’s fans. On the first day of the season, he was definitely suspect for Liverpool’s goal; a powerful near-post effort from David N’Gog. A powerful shot, yes, but no top class keeper should be beaten at his near post. A bad start.
But he did improve as games went on. Over the next six games, Arsenal would drop points just once, succumbing to a last minute equaliser against Sunderland, for which Almunia could not be held responsible. Then came a fateful day at the Emirates Stadium, as West Bromwich Albion came to town. The flailing stopper felled Peter Odemwingie to concede a penalty, but saved Chris Brunt’s poor spot kick to go some way to redemption. This was until the second half, in which he confirmed every suspicion that he was a man not up to the job of being part of a Premier League winning team. Odemwingie scored, then one minute later, Gonzalo Jara, with few options in the box, seeing a gap between Almunia and the post, he went for it. To his shock, and the shock of everyone else in the ground, rather than save it, the Spaniard didn’t save the ball, but more let it hit him en route to the net. The calamitous afternoon would not end there. Odemwingie chasing a loose ball in the Arsenal penalty area - one which Almunia should have claimed. Rather than return to his goal, he elected to follow the Nigerian, who sent the ball across to Jerome Thomas for 3-0. Disaster. He would not feature again until January and not again in the League until April. Officially, this was due to an injury, but words from people at the club suggest it was a demotion.
His first game back was against Huddersfield Town, which passed with no problems. His next game was away at Leyton Orient. He had little to do throughout the game, but in the last minute, Jonathan Tehoué lashed a shot towards the net, which Almunia somehow managed to let under his body to allow Orient to level the score. The replay was elementary. After Wojciech Szczesny dislocated his finger at the Nou Camp, Almunia was thrust back onto the front line. He gave a good shot-stopping performance, but it is not inconceivable that Szczesny would not have let Messi’s first goal past him.
With Szczesny injured, it was Almunia’s job to be the number one ‘keeper. His League return was, somewhat ironically, against West Brom. If Baggies’ fans had fond memories of him before this game, they would only grow by the end of it. 3 minutes in, the home side won a corner. Between Sebastien Squillaci, Laurent Koscielny and Almunia there was no communication and they conceded a goal. In the second half, Youssuf Mulumbu punted the ball hopefully upfield. Despite an awkward bounce, Squillaci had the ball under control and had Koscielny and Sagna either side of him. The situation was totally under control until Almunia flew from his goal, pushed the 30-year old Frenchman off the ball, leaving Odemwingie - Almunia’s tormentor once more - with a completely open goal. There are no words for how ridiculous the circumstances of that goal were. Truly. Even worse for Almunia was Jens Lehmann’s assured performance against Blackpool, making his exploits look (somehow) more amateur.
Verdict: assuming that his mistakes were the cause for dropped points (perhaps unfair), Almunia’s mistakes caused Arsenal to:
drop 2 points at Liverpool;
drop 2 points against West Brom (September);
go to a replay against Leyton Orient;
and a further 2 points against West Brom in March.
Points gained at his hand: none.
6 points dropped at his hand, in just 8 League games; he was demoted to third choice after a shocking performance against West Brom and only regained his place due to Szczesny, Fabianski and possibly even Vito Mannone being injured. On the whole, a season which showed why so many were calling for Arsenal to sign a new goalkeeper.
Lukasz Fabianski - the Pole’s performances last season provided no foundation for hope, in terms of future Arsenal goalkeepers. On top of the numerous errors last term, his pre-season and first game were very poor showings indeed. In his first game, a 4-1 Carling Cup victory over Tottenham, Fabianski failed to save a very weak Robbie Keane shot, meaning that Spurs had pegged Arsenal back to 1-1. It looked as though his poor performances would carry on from the 2009/2010 season. However, after Almunia’s ‘injury’, Fabianski became first choice goalkeeper ahead of a Champions League trip to Partizan Belgrade. He was beaten by a Cleo penalty and had little to do for the rest of the match, until Partizan were awarded a penalty. It would be Cleo to take it again and had he scored, Arsenal’s lead would have been diminished to just one goal with a nervy final 5 minutes ahead of them. But Fabianski made an excellent save to turn the penalty round the post. After this, the Pole’s confidence looked to have increased tenfold. Even from the resulting corner, he leapt from his goal to catch the ball with ease.
His next game was a 2-0 loss to Chelsea, for which he was at fault for neither of the two goals. As the weeks progressed, the promise of Fabianski of which Arsene Wenger has spoken seemed like it was finally coming forth. He looked strong and calm between the posts, but it was not without a blemish. In a home match against Newcastle he showed further flashes of his initial start to the season. When none of his defence picked up on an open Andy Carroll as a cross was floated into the box, Fabianski flapped in vein to get the ball but the former Newcastle striker beat him to it and scored. Arsenal lost 1-0. Though he recovered well from this setback, playing a pivotal role in away wins at Everton and Wolves. For the rest of his season he made no clear errors. His last game was against Manchester City in which he had almost literally nothing to do. He suffered a shoulder injury which required surgery and would have no part in the rest of Arsenal’s season.
Verdict: assuming that his mistakes were the cause for dropped points, Fabianski’s mistakes caused Arsenal to:
drop 3 points at home to Newcastle.
He recovered brilliantly from a very poor start; finally beginning to look a commanding presence in his area to go with excellent shot stopping ability. It was extremely unfortunate for him that his season was ended so prematurely, just when he was starting to look solid and dependable. It looks as though next season that he and Szczesny will fight it out for the number one shirt (and with Almunia looking very likely to leave, this can be seen in a more literal light too).
Wojciech Szczesny - signed from Legia Warsaw at just 16 years old, Szczesny has always had huge potential. Last season he was incredibly impressive in his loan spell at Brentford and has always been earmarked for greatness. On a personal level, I had only seen him play once before this season - a Carling Cup match with West Brom when he was just 18 - his command of his area was a marvel for someone of such a formative age. His first appearance came in the same cup competition as his first match for Arsenal and the team eventually emerged as 4-0 victors. Szczesny went quite a way to showing why he has been so hyped. He produced a fantastic fingertip save from a long range Alan Smith piledriver to tip it over the bar and then made a very good save from a Joey Barton free kick. The potential was evident for all to see. His next game was the next of Arsenal’s Carling Cup run. He had very little to do in the match against Wigan Athletic but with Fabianski’s strong showings in the League, the number one slot seemed out of his reach for the time being.
Then Lukasz Fabianski suffered a thigh injury on the eve of Arsenal’s trip to old Trafford. Szczesny’s League début would come against Manchester United; this would faze many 20 year olds, but not Szczesny. One key feature of the Pole is his confidence and self-belief are those of a man well beyond his years and experience but certainly not beyond his ability. He performed admirably at Old Trafford; the visitors fell to a 1-0 defeat courtesy of a looping Park Ji-Sung header, but he made a Schmeichel-esque one-on-one save from Anderson, spreading himself as United’s Danish legend was so famed for doing. He looked strong on his début, despite not having an exceptional amount to do.
Fabianski returned to first choice after his recovery until he suffered the injury which left his season over. Here was Szczesny’s chance and he grasped it with both hands (no pun intended). In the first of his run of starts, Arsenal drew 1-1 to Leeds United. The away side went ahead through a penalty and while they were still in the lead, Luciano Bechio headed directly at Szczesny’s goal. The Pole produced a magnificent reaction save to parry the header away. The next game was a 1-0 loss to Ipswich, in which he was beaten by a strong Tamas Priskin finish, one which he had little chance of saving. The next goal that went past him was a 25 yard rocket from Bradley Johnson. Few goalkeepers in the World would have reached it. In his time between the posts, many fans were more confident and relaxed with him than they had been with the previous two occupants of the position, despite his youth. Between this and the Carling Cup final, only an offside Louis Saha effort, two Joey Barton penalties, close range finishes from David Villa and Leon Best and a rifle from Cheik Tioté would get past him. The number one shirt was, and still is, well and truly his property.
He speaks with great love and affection for Arsenal and London and has said that he would be more than happy to spend his whole career at the Emirates. Seeing the return of Jens Lehmann at age 41 (21 years his senior) has prompted the idea that he could occupy the role for the next generation; he’s definitely got the talent, the drive, the ambition and the potential.
This is all bypassing the disaster that was the Carling Cup final. After just 5 minutes, Szczesny could easily have been sent off for a foul on Lee Bowyer, but had a stroke of luck when the Birmingham City midfielder was incorrectly ruled offside. Nikola Zigic made the breakthrough for Birmingham through a corner after he lost his marker, Johan Djourou. This left Szczesny hopelessly flapping at the loose ball and Birmingham a goal up. Arsenal levelled and were dominating proceedings until the 89th minute. A weak header into the box bounced tamely towards the goalkeeper, who had Laurent Koscielny in front of him. Koscielny set himself to clear the ball but upon either seeing or hearing (or even both) Szczesny behind him, he pulled out half way through the clearance. Unfortunately, he still got a slight touch on the ball, which altered its path, meaning rather than drop into the waiting Szczesny’s arms, it bounced off his shoulder straight into the path of Obafemi Martins, who described it as “the easiest goal ever”.
He was excellent in Arsenal’s 2-1 home victory against Barcelona. As Lionel Messi charged down his goal, he stood his ground and eventually forced the Argentine to place the ball wide. He remained reliable and solid through the rest of the game and presence in the box and judgement played a huge role in the home side limiting the La Liga champions to just one goal. The second leg in the Nou Camp was almost more anticipated than the first leg had been. 20 minutes in, Daniel Alves fired a free kick at goal. When the goalkeeper caught it, it seemed elementary. Then he threw the ball straight into touch and the look of anguish on his face told its own story. He was taken off and ruled out for up to 6 weeks with a dislocated finger. A sad end to what could have been a wonderful night for both the team and himself.
Verdict: personally, I attribute the Carling Cup final débâcle to Koscielny rather than Szczesny, meaning he cost the team no points or wins. Add to this excellent performances against Barcelona, Manchester United and many other teams along the way, it was clear that Arsenal have a potential great of goalkeeping in their hands. It was announced that he may be ready to feature for Arsenal in their clash with Liverpool and the relief with which the vast majority of fans treated this is worth a thousand words. He has made a huge impression and one which will last.
But did Arsene Wenger miss a trick by not signing an experienced goalkeeper at the start of the season? Over the three ‘keepers, 9 points have been lost: 9 points which would mean Arsenal would be top of the League at this point in time, but at the same time, they may have lost many more points had it not been for the excellent showings of Fabianski and Szczesny. I believe that if signing a new goalkeeper would have halted or affected the development of the latter Pole, it was the right decision not to buy. His talent is undeniable and if he continues his development at the club, there will be no need to buy a goalkeeper for many years to come.