A one man team.
That’s all they are.
One man, picking up the ball in defence, dribbling past his opponents with contempt (and of course avoiding the unintentional obstacles of his idiot team-mates, which is often more problematic) before scoring yet another goal as crucial as it is breath-taking. Or maybe there are times when the simpleton, technically deficent lemmings he shares the same dressing room with can snap out of their ineptitude for long enough to – unwittingly or otherwise – get the ball in his general vicinity, at which point he will perform some piece of outlandish skill to make it look like a good pass. Hard work these one-man teams are, but at least only for one man.
Robin van Persie will no doubt be Arsenal’s player of the season and despite the team’s much highlighted struggles, he may also be crowned the league’s best. It’s merited. The volume, quality and importance of the goals he has scored this season has been stunning. I would add ‘unique’, but this is the club that savoured the brilliance of Thierry Henry in the recent past, so this Gunner doesn’t quite stand alone in club’s annals.
There is no reason to attack van Persie for his brilliance, but the ‘one man team’ notion often mentioned in conjunction with his goals does a disservice to many – not least his manager, his team-mates and anyone who views football as more than an excuse to go down to the pub. One of the team-mates most ignored by this solo-act theory is Wojciech Szczesny.
The young Pole has been outstanding throughout the season. Even during the early part of the campaign when Arsenal produced some awful performances and even worse, spawned a wave of those briefly amusing ‘8-2’ jokes (sample: I’d 8 2 be an Arsenal fan right now). God, I’d 8 2 still be reading these on my twitter timeline in about 45 seconds.
Even in the dark days of getting beaten by a team managed by Steve Kean, Szczesny was making excellent saves. He was commanding his penalty area like a Premier League veteran rather than a novice. Sadly the rest of the team were failing abjectly to perform their jobs and his contribution was often overooked in favour of the ‘Arsenal in crisis’ storyline that’s much more likely to shift newspapers.
He has maintained his high level of performance throughout the season, with a couple of important recent displays underscoring the value of his contribution. Against Liverpool, van Persie’s brace, featuring a brilliant late winner, was the talking point, but in the first half, Szcezsny made a string of remarkable saves to keep his team in it. The double save of Kuyt’s penalty and follow-up was the pick of the bunch and arguably the season, but in the first half he got fingertips to several goal-bound shots to stop the match descending into a procession for the hosts. In both games against AC Milan, he made telling contributions and without him the stunning comeback they almost pulled off would have been ruled out long before the tie came to the Emirates.
A large part of the reason for the improvement is the fact that the boy did a lot of growing up over the summer. Less in a Stand By Me sort of way and more in coming to terms with the standards expected in the Premier League. One telltale sign of his development has been just how often he has been thrust in front of the camera for media duties. When he broke on to the scene, a couple of hot-headed moments on the pitch and a couple of ill-advised tweets hinted at a fiery character not yet experienced enough to know when to let it slide.
On Soccer AM a couple of weeks ago, Everton great, Neville Southall commented that at the top level technically, “all goalkeepers are much of a muchness. It’s what’s going on in the mind that makes the difference.” That point of view may be underplaying the differences in ability, but the point about a player’s psychology is valid. This season, Szczesny has added maturity to the natural ability that was always apparent. Already he has shown qualities of leadership and seeing him being appointed club captain at some point in the future would be about as surprising as Didier Drogba going to ground under minimal contact.
Arsene Wenger hinted towards issues growing up when paying his no. 1 a compliment after the aforementioned Liverpool match. “For me, he is an outstanding talent with an outstanding future. But talent without effort is nothing. he knows that and I have to make sure he knows that,” said the Frenchman, skirting around the fringes of criticism. He’s young and there are going to be mistakes. For all his improvement there are areas he needs to work on. His distribution could be improved and – as with several goalkeepers – a touch more composure wouldn’t go amiss. It will come in time.
It’s a privilege to see a player of the calibre of Robin van Persie perform at the levels he currently is, but Arsenal are far from a one man team. Without Szczesny’s contribution, the dream of more Champions League football would long since be over and replaced with a battle to rise above mid-table obscurity. Szczesny has come along leaps and bounds in the last year. He’s one man the team should be able to rely on for years to come.