All looked rosey in Arsenal’s goalkeeping garden at the turn of the year, but it hasn’t taken long for a familiar thorn to pierce Arsene Wenger’s side. It’s difficult to send too much criticism the way of Wenger for suffering the misfortune of a series of injuries to his goalkeepers, but the obvious question is how have Arsenal found themselves in a situation where they are again left with the choice between Manuel Almunia and Jens Lehmann in the midst of a title challenge? On Saturday the weakness came to the fore as Arsenal dropped two valuable points at the Hawthorns and were probably grateful not to have dropped all three.
In this instance, Almunia made a baffling, unnecessary and woefully misjudged attempt to clear a through ball that didn’t appear to be overly threatening. Peter Odemwingie wasn’t in the mood to turn down such generosity and Arsenal found their title bid in a hole from which they just about rescued it from.
One of the great problems with Almunia is that he makes such a wide variety of errors. Sometimes it’s his hands, sometimes it’s his angles, sometimes it’s his kicking, on Saturday it was his decision-making. He has to be a goalkeeping coach’s nightmare. There are just so many areas of his game where there is potential for weakness that once you get one aspect in order, the chances are there’s another facet of his game that has been exposed. It’s been the story of his career at Arsenal.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Almunia is we all know he can do it. At his best, he’s amazingly agile and commendably brave. You can possibly see why Arsene Wenger has stood by him so resolutely for so long. Against Barcelona, he showed his ability and his performance was so good, it still mattered when Nicklas Bendtner fluffed a glorious chance to snatch it for Arsenal is the closing minutes. We just don’t see it often enough and it’s his lack of consistency rather than a lack of ability than has been so detrimental to Arsenal in the past.
Sadly, it’s here where the criticism of Wenger is warranted. He has had ample opportunity to buy a top quality replacement, but has regularly turned down apparently suitable options. Maybe the emergence of Wojiech Sczeszny convinced him a long-term solution to his problem was on the horizon, but no matter how highly he rates the young Pole, he will make mistakes and needs someone in the squad to take the pressure off as he finds his way in the first team.
When your emergency cover starts to look like a better option than your current number 1, some of the blame has to fall on the manager.