Almunia to end an eventful eight years with Arsenal

Manuel Almunia

At the end of the season, the curtain will quietly come down on one of the most infuriating careers in the history of Arsenal Football Club. It’s an event that will pass most football fans and countless Gooners by. Manuel Almunia will leave the club. His departure will be one tinged with ambivalence. During his eight years in North London, the Pamplona native aided the cause enough to be applauded, but equally throw enough occasional spanners in the works to be wished a good riddance.

When Arsene’s suspect record in identifying top class keepers is brought up, Almunia is often a common stick used to beat him. There were too many moments of brilliance for it to be a mistake of recognising talent. He came from Celta Vigo unheralded and inexpensively. He provided cover Jens Lehmann initially and chances eventually came his way, most notably and unexpectedly when Lehmann got sent of in the 2006 Champions League final against Barcelona. In his performances, it was evident talent was there, but although some of Wenger’s outfield bargain buys could cover up their shortcomings amidst the team effort, Almunia had no hiding place.

If Wenger was guilty of anything, it was probably keeping the faith for too long. Almunia got second, third, fourth chances and far beyond. So much so that the position seemed to become a blind spot for Wenger the like of which rivaled only his immense capacity not to be looking when one of his players was involved in a controversial incident. With a young Arsenal side finding its way, Wenger seemed content to stick with Almunia, even if it cost a few points here and there.

The Good And The Bad of Almunia

The range of mistakes added to the frustration. It wasn’t as if there was one major flaw in his game that could be worked on and eventually cured. At times it was poor handling, at others it was suspect positioning and it was always interspersed with questionable decision-making. All things considered, it suggests that Almunia’s major issue wasn’t technical, it was more mental. He seemed to lack focus at key moments and it hurt the team.

But there were good times and that’s where the mixed feelings come into play. There were occasions when the Spaniard showed immense athleticism and reactions to pull off some remarkable saves. Two Champions League ties with Barcelona were amongst the better days. He was immense in the 2-2 draw in March of 2010, but possibly even better at the Camp Nou in 2011 when he came on from the bench to replace the injured Szczesny and produced some vital saves to give Arsenal a great chance of claiming an unlikely win.

Let’s not forget that there was once a clamour for him to do the necessary paperwork to become England’s first choice. Although just how much of an endorsement that is will depend on how highly you rate the likes of David James, Paul Robinson and Scott Carson.

The start of a long goodbye came in the early stages of the 2010/11 season in a game with West Brom at the Emirates. After a characteristically patchy first half in which he gave away a penalty and then saved the resulting spot-kick, he had a miserable second half. He fumbled badly to hand the Baggies their second goal and then rushed out of his goal like a manic comedy fireman attempting to put out a miniscule inferno resulting in gifting the visitors the goal that proved to be the winner. Since then it’s largely been Szczesny and Fabianski vying for the start, with the Spaniard an under-used third choice.

Mixed up with the good and the bad came a bizarre feud with Jens Lehmann. The Spaniard wasn’t the first person to ruffle Lehmann’s feathers and he won’t be the last. It kicked off when Wenger dropped the German during the 2007/08. Lehmann was angry and let his manager know about it via the German media. He also took aim at Almunia, who looked to be guilty of little other than being in better form than his rivals, declaring “Almunia has not yet shown he can win matches for us.” In response, Almunia was pragmatic and somewhat dismayed. “To have someone here who hates me is just amazing. Every morning I wake up I know it is going to be the same. But I don’t care any more. I come into training and work with Łukasz Fabiański and Vito Mannone. They are better than him anyway,” he responded at a later date.

He hits the highway after eight years and 175 appearances for the club. His stint runs roughly parallel with the monkey on Arsene’s back that is the long trophy drought. He’s far from the only reason for the trophyless spell, but his departure will be welcomed, if only for the fact it represents much sought after progress in the goalkeeping ranks. He still qualifies for English citizenship by the way.

Szczesny of Arsenal voted goalkeeper of the season

Wojciech Szczesny

Readers of ministryofglove.com have voted Arsenal goalkeeper, Wojciech Szczesny as the Premier League goalkeeper of the season. Szczesny (21) earned 35 per cent of the votes, David De Gea of Manchester United came second on 29 per cent with Michel Vorm of Swansea back in third on 11 per cent.

The young Pole’s natural ability has been apparent since his loan spell with Brentford in the 2009/10. When he finally made his Premier League debut for Arsenal against Manchester United at Old Trafford in December of 2010, he was a better keeper again from his time at Griffin Park, but not without his flaws. He experienced his ups and downs. In February of 2011, against Barcelona in the first leg of Champions League Last 16 at the Emirates, he pulled off a string of excellent saves to keep the Gunners in the tie and incredibly, lay the foundations for an unlikely win on the night. He received undue criticism for his role in the goal that handed Birmingham the Carling Cup later in the month, but in general, his performances suggested he still had some growing to do.

Thankfully, that growing up has happened remarkably fast. I don’t know how he spent the summer of 2011, but when he returned to the Emirates Stadium in August, he looked a bigger, more composed and authoritative figure. Previously he had the tendency to get involved when he didn’t need to – both on and off the pitch – but that feistiness has by and large been curbed and channeled into the more productive direction of leadership.

As a sign of his emerging influence at the club, it’s notable how many times he has been the one chosen for media duties, both in the build-up and after Arsenal matches. Despite only turning 22 years of age this coming Wednesday, he feels like one of Arsenal’s senior players and the role suits the more mature Szczesny perfectly. He comes across as focussed, but level-headed individual.

In this campaign he has been brilliant. Even as Arsenal stumbled their way through the early part of the season, he was excellent, making saves that eked out points for his team and stopped the club’s morale from being annihilated entirely. When Robin Van Persie clicked into gear, Arsenal’s season got up and running, but the good form of Szczesny was what ensured his goals went towards victories rather than smaller – or no – returns.

Szczesny has been brilliant this season and the underrated factor in Arsenal’s resurgence. With youth on his side, he has the time and capacity to develop further. If he gets a slice of good luck and good health, he has the potential to become an Arsenal and Premier League legend.

David De Gea was voted into second place on the poll. The Spaniard certainly has claims to the comeback of the season. His Old Trafford obituaries when being written after a poor adaptation to life in the Premier League, but since Christmas, his form has improved markedly and been crucial in forging the five point advantage United currently enjoy at the top of the table. He now cuts a more confident and comfortable figure than the forlorn young man in the glare of a critical spotlight a few months back. To draw what may in time prove to be an apt parallel, Sir Alex Ferguson wasn’t overly effusive about Peter Schmeichel’s first season at Old Trafford and that worked out pretty well for all concerned. It’s premature, but with more learning to do, De Gea has shown he has the potential to have a long and successful career at the Theatre of Dreams.

Brendan Rodgers purchase of Michel Vorm was arguably the best bit of business conducted in the Premier League this season. He made his debut in the Swans 4-0 thumping at the hands of Manchester City, but the Dutchman came away from the game with immense credit. The stats say he made 11 saves that night and it’s hard to overstate how important those saves where. Had he made only five or six of those saves and Swansea went on to lose 8-0 or 9-0, immediately the squad would have doubted their ability to compete in the Premier League and almost certainly would not have enjoyed the season of free-flowing football they did. He came up big at crucial times several times during the campaign and Rodgers next managerial trick will be keeping him away from the grasp of clubs with more financial clout than the Swans.

The results in full

Szczesny (Arsenal) – 35.38%
De Gea (Man Utd) – 28.72%
Vorm (Swansea) – 10.77%
Krul (Newcastle) – 8.46%
Friedel (Tottenham) – 7.44%
Hart (Man City) – 5.38%
Al Habsi (Wigan) – 2.82%
Ruddy (Norwich) – 1.03%

Szczesny is playing a leading role at Arsenal

Szczesny

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.

Szczesny Stars For Arsenal – 10 Goalkeepers Who Had A Good 2011

10 Goalkeepers Who’ll Look Back On 2011 with Fondness

Szczesny

Tim Krul (Newcastle)
Much improved on the Krul of old. For years the talent was obvious but the confidence was lacking. Last season was a case in point whereby his ability to make big saves was undermined with rushes of blood to the head and a string of inexplicable decisions. The 2011-12 season has seen a much improved Krul. He has developed an air of genuine authority and dominated his penalty area like never before. He has had a string of truly exceptional performances for Newcastle and established himself as one of the best in the league.

Wojciech Szczesny (Arsenal)
Not dissimilar to Krul, Szczesny seems to be a more commanding and mature presence this season than the earlier version we had seen. After an impressive start to his Arsenal career, he made a handful of slip-ups that in some quarters warranted the application of the lazy and grossly unfair label of being ‘another Wenger keeper’. Since then however, he has responded superbly and his superb performances early in the season prevented a bad start to the season being a whole lot worse. Since then, Robin Van Persie has taken centre stage, but the contribution of the young Pole is not to be underestimated.

Michel Vorm (Utrecht, now Swansea)
Dutch football has few issues in producing top class talent, but the record of that talent flourishing in the Premier League is more patchy. Vorm had caught the eye while at Utrecht and thankfully his transition to English football has been more Van Nistelrooy than Kezman. His speed, agility and athleticism have lit up the league and already Swansea know they’ll have a job on their hands fending off the advances of the cash-rich vultures in the summer. Buy of the season? There’s a few months to go, but he’s already established a useful lead.

Manuel Neuer (Schalke, now Bayern Munich)
2011 wasn’t exactly his breakout year, but it did see him claim his place amongst the world’s elite. He was outstanding in Schalke’s unlikely run to the semi-finals of the Champions League and since he has handled the move to Bayern Munich very well, particularly in view of some of the pointless vitriol aimed at him by a small minority of Bayern ‘fans’. It’ll take another decade of high quality performances to establish himself as one of the greats in Bayern’s storied history, but the early evidence is he’s well positioned to do it.

Marc-Andre ter Stegen (Borussia Monchengladbach)
These are halcyon days for German goalkeepers and amidst a range of young custodians currently impressing in the Bundesliga, ter Stegen is arguably the most remarkable. He made his senior debut for the club as an 18 year old back in April of this year and has since has establish himself as not only first choice, but one of the most exciting goalkeeping talents in European football. Agile, aggressive and with a penchant for vocal organisation of his defenders, he’s very much in keeping with what we’ve come to expect from a German goalkeeper and it’s only a matter of time before he puts pressure on Neuer for the starting berth with the Mannschaft.

Ochoa

Guillermo Ochoa (Ajaccio)
The football world has known about Ochoa for several years now, but after a minor drugs controversy the interest of Europe’s big clubs dropped of substantially. Cognoscente of this fact, the Mexican made the surprise move of joining unfashionable Corsican outfit Ajaccio over the summer. Ochoa has always indicated this is intended as a step in the rehabilitation of his reputation with a view for moving up the ladder of European football at a later date and so far the gamble has paid off. Although his team sit at the bottom of the league with the worst goals conceded record, he has been in exceptional form, putting in a number of excellent displays to at least give the campaign a semblance of respectability. Ochoa will be moving on at the end of the season (if not sooner) and his performances in 2011 will be a large part of the reason why.

Thibaut Courtois (Genk, Atletico Madrid via Chelsea)
For Courtois 2011 merely continued the whirlwind that began the year previous when he broke through during Genk’s championship winning in Belgium. Immediately he stood out as something special, but there was still a degree of surprise when Chelsea snapped first and signed him for a fee rumoured to be around the £8 million mark. It was going to take a while before he truly challenged Petr Cech for the starting spot, so he was sent out to Atletico Madrid to learn his trade. This season has been typically turbulent for the red and white half of the Spanish capital, but the youngster has emerged with great credit for a series of athletic and mature displays. Given the startling collapse in Cech’s form, the eyes of the Chelsea coaching staff will be watching closely in coming months. If the call comes in 2012, Courtois might well be able to answer it.

Willy Caballero (Malaga)
As both clubs have regularly occupied the same tier of Spanish football in recent years, it feels a little odd to say that Malaga plucked Caballero from obscurity when they signed him as emergency cover from Elche earlier this year. With their petro-dollars however, the Anchovies have become an undisputed big fish of La Liga and Caballero has established his own place in the pond with a few months of solid performances. In a league filled with supremely talented goalkeepers, he doesn’t stand out as the most naturally gifted of players but he has an uncommon determination about him and that invaluable knack of always being able to get some part of his body in the way of the ball. The millions burning a hole in the pocket of the owner may mean they soon go more a more high profile name between the posts, but for the moment Caballero is a reliable part of the revolution.

Jason Steele (Middlesbrough)
Young, gifted and English has been something of a curse for goalkeepers in the last couple of decades, but this season Steele has suggested there’s something more to him than bluster and a nation’s desire to build up young goalkeepers only to knock them down. Boro have the best defensive record in the Championship this season and although he can’t claim all the credit for that, he has certainly played his part in it. You couldn’t exactly classify Tony Mowbray’s men as rampant free-scorers and as such, Steele’s saves have been hugely important in seeing his team through games that are balanced on a knife-edge. He’s got the agility and reflexes to become a top class keeper and although the plan will be to go up with Middlesbrough, he may find himself in the Premier League next season regardless of how the promotion push goes. There’s going to be a few blips along the way, but Steele has enjoyed a good year and it may be the first of many more.

Brad Friedel (Tottenham)
During his last few months at Aston Villa, Friedel gave the impression he was a goalkeeper coming to the end of his career. He was still capable of producing a moment of brilliance, but the legs seemed heavy and his limbs unable to execute the impulses of his brain. Were it not for financial difficulties, retirement may well have been the order of the day, but some bad investments have necessitated extending his career into his 5th decade. Unsurprisingly, Harry Redknapp wasn’t put off by his age and the risk has been rewarded with a series of high quality performances for Spurs. Again, he may not be around for much longer, but he’s enjoying a wonderful Indian summer and fans of goalkeeping would be well advised to enjoy it while they can.

A quality save from Ruddy against Arsenal

I have to admit I had my doubts about how John Ruddy would perform in the Premier League, but I’m happy to eat a large slice of humble pie. He has been excellent and a big positive for Norwich. There has been a couple of blips, but he’s made the step up well and with age on his side, has a lot more potential for development.

He made this save against Arsenal. It showcases a lot of his attributes. Initially it looks like the striker has him beaten, but he shows great spirit to stick with it and get a hand to the shot. Great footwork, speed and above all, attitude. Sadly it was in a losing cause this time, but the Canaries will need more of the same from him for the rest of the season.

Manuel Almunia Howler Exposes Arsenal

Manuel Almunia Howler

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.

WATCH THE ALMUNIA MISTAKE HERE

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.

The Carling Cup Final From A GK Point Of View

Szczesny & Foster
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.