One v One – Szczesny v Foster
Wojciech Szczesny must feel like he has the world at his feet. A week and a half after resisting wave after wave of Barcelona attack to put his team in a great position to advance to the quarter-finals of the Champions League, he will line out at Wembley with a chance of claiming the first bit of silverware in a senior Arsenal career that is precisely 15 games old. The young Pole has risen rapidly to the top of the Gunners’ goalkeeping pecking order, but such have been the maturity and confidence of his performances, he doesn’t strike you as a man struggling to keep his head above water. His all round game is strong – his agility good, his hands reliable and he’s quick to spot danger. He’s not yet perfect however. His distribution needs work and if I’m being picky, some mouthy comments on Twitter and vocal incidents on the pitch hint at a temperament that’s someway short of ice cool. The arrival of Jens Lehmann as a short-term addition to the Arsenal coaching staff isn’t likely to smooth out this aspect of his game, but goalkeeping coach, Gerry Peyton would be well advised to work on keeping his attitude in check.
When Szczesny looks down the pitch on in the Carling Cup final – aside from the likelihood of seeing Lee Bowyer maim someone – he’ll see a cautionary tale. The very use of that phrase has connotations with tragedy and despair, which is not the case, but at the age of 27, Ben Foster’s career hasn’t yet continued on the stellar trajectory the early hype suggested it might. In the lifespan of a goalkeeper, he’s young enough to change that, but the development needs to come soon. It’s difficult to criticise Foster for the hype generated by his rise. Whilst an agent may have used it as leverage in various transfer and contract negotiations, he wasn’t taking full-page ads in newspapers telling the world how amazing he thinks he is.
Being English and an employee of Manchester United is enough to get the hype machine whirring busily. At a young age, when there’s not a whole lot of first team experience to go on, it can create an ’emperors new clothes’ effect where the obvious shortcomings are overlooked simply because of (a) the overwhelming desire for a good English goalkeeper and (b) a club like Manchester United have seen enough talent to deem him worth recruiting. Foster had a couple of good seasons with Watford, but playing in a side in which survival was the objective, he was always likely to be given more leeway than at a club were two high pressure games a week are the norm and winning is taken as a right. At Manchester United, where every match is essentially huge and any dropped points are a reason for full-scale post-mortem, the stakes are much higher and the tolerance for errors much lower. Following some good early promise, too much was expected of him too young and he was immediately onto a hiding to nothing where disappointment was almost guaranteed.
He’s still a very, very good goalkeeper, but as yet, he hasn’t done enough to be considered one of the very best in England. Let alone Europe or the world. He lacks the explosive spring and agility of genuinely top class keepers and his hands let him down a little too often. His reactions are very good and often are enough to compensate for suspect technique. This isn’t about bashing Foster. It’s about warning about the pressures facing a young goalkeeper and how difficult it can be to meet the expectation heaped on you based on a handful of games. Other people were writing cheques he couldn’t cash and he is now – rather harshly and through little fault of his own – finds himself in the category of the under-fulfilled potential. It’s very much the ‘build ’em up to knock ’em’ down philosophy so prevalent in certain quarters of the media.
Szczensy is flavour of the month at the moment, but the race is long and things don’t always go to plan. The fulsome praise he’s now receiving could easily turn to stinging criticism. How he handles it will be a key factor in determining the success of his career.