Monday, 21 February 2011

Goalkeepers.

Being a goalkeeper myself, I have some pretty strong views about the number one shirt at Arsenal - and what a lot there has been to discuss these past few years. We’ve never really replaced David Seaman with a reliable keeper. Possible solutions have ranged from the mad, to the misfiring to the inept. I’ll leave you to decide who comes under what heading.

In recent months however, I thought things were settling down between the sticks. Lukasz Fabianski was given a starting slot due to yet another ‘confidence-injury’ for Almunia. Installed as the automatic first choice he found some form, showcasing the talent that ArsenĂ© Wenger constantly assures us is on display in training week in week out. More recently the youngster Wojciech Szczesny (the man with the name only spelled correctly via copy and paste) came in and made a more than reasonable case to be considered our number one - a natural talent if ever I’ve seen one.

However, the goal conceded at with Leyton Orient on Sunday evening has brought the quality of keepers at Arsenal into the fans’ consciousness once again.

Late on in a game that the Gunners had dominated for 85 minutes, Orient’s ‘super-sub’ Jonathan Tehoue skipped through a static Arsenal back line and fired in a rasping shot from 15 yards to earn the East London side a draw and an unexpected replay.

Now, the paragraph above reads like any dramatic late equaliser. The fresh legs of an attacking substitute getting away from tiring defenders and smashing in the winner. However, when you see the goal you very quickly realise the important role the Arsenal keeper, Manuel Almunia, had in the outcome - the ball flying through his legs.

The shot was hit with venom - hard and true - but it was from a distance of around 15 yards and straight at the unobstructed keeper. A goalkeeper of any pedigree should not be letting the ball pass through his legs from there. Almunia’s view was not blocked, he saw the shot from start to finish and managed somehow not to get anything on it. If I had let that goal in at Hackney Marshes on a Sunday morning I know my team mates would be disappointed with me.

A bad mistake from a keeper that has been poor during the past two seasons.

Almunia’s performances have been erratic and when he plays he looks like a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders. He’s short of confidence and indecisive. This undoubtedly has an effect on the back four. An in-form keeper can give defenders confidence and enable them to concentrate solely on their game, knowing the man behind them has things under control. A poor, indecisive keeper can have entirely the opposite effect. This is definitely the case with Almuina at Arsenal. Remember last season when Gallas couldn’t even bring himself to look at the Spaniard?!

But look, is it really all that bad? We didn’t go out of the cup, we should win the replay in front of our own fans and I think we have plenty going for us between the sticks.

I listened to 606 on Radio 5live for the first time in years after the Orient game and was astonished to hear Arsenal fans questioning why Wenger didn’t go out and spend big on a keeper either last summer or during the January transfer window. Isn’t it blindingly obvious why not? Have they not been watching the side this season?

We have two brilliant young goalkeepers in the squad.

Whatever has happened in the past, upon being considered the outright number one Fabianski has flourished this season. Before the aforementioned shoulder injury cut his season short, Lukasz was fast becoming a fans favourite and was on course to make a comeback of Eboue proportions (but while being actually quite good - if you see what I mean).

Szczesny has shown over the past month that he has a natural talent like no other we have seen at the club for years. To my mind he is now the number one and it is up to Fabianski to win his place back next season.

Almunia has had his day and he knows it. If it wasn’t for Fabianski’s unfortunate injury and subsequent surgery, he would have been sold in the January window. If he didn’t have any confidence before, when he was our number one, imagine how he feels now.

However, the fact still remains - if Szczesny gets injured, Almunia, now our third choice keeper, is back in. That must have been on ArsenĂ©’s mind when deciding to give him game time at the weekend.

I’m generally against rotating keepers. In the past, we’ve done it in the cups to keep the number two happy. We all know that Almunia is done though - he will be leaving in the summer for sure. Christ - even Almunia knows this. I see no merit in playing him in games such as yesterday. We have nothing to gain and everything to lose from his presence in the side.

Ultimately, if Szczesny is our number one, which his undoubtedly is, he should play in all our games from now to the end of the season. He’s not going to suffer from fatigue, indeed he will benefit from playing in as many games as he can during these formative years of his career, and his presence has a calming effect on the whole of the back four, which in turn positively impacts on the rest of the side.

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