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.