Szczesny is playing a leading role at Arsenal


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


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.


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.

Goalkeeper World Rankings

Best Goalkeeper In The World Rankings – May 2011

Goalkeeper Rankings
1. (1) Iker Casillas (Real Madrid and Spain)
2. (4) Edwin Van Der Sar (Man Utd)
3. (3) Gigi Buffon (Juventus and Italy)
4. (5) Pepe Reina (Liverpool and Spain)
5. (2) Petr Cech (Chelsea and Czech Rep.)
6. (6) Victor Valdes (Barcelona and Spain)
7. (7) Hugo Lloris (Lyon and France)
8. (10) Manuel Neuer (Schalke and Germany)
9. (9) David de Gea (Atletico Madrid)
10. (8) Joe Hart (Man City and England)

Goalkeeper World Rankings

So there’s a deal done. The successor has been identified and the dotted line has been signed. You didn’t have to squint too tightly to read between the lines to see what Fergie was getting at. Whilst his team-mates had been begging Edwin van der Sar to reconsider his retirement plans, Sir Alex Ferguson responded like a man who has already bought the gold watch and arranged the catering for the retirement shindig. ‘Go away and enjoy your life, I’ve got my plans in place’ was the gist of what Ferguson was saying and such was the solemnity and unambiguity of his statements, that it was clear if he doesn’t have a replacement already secured, the process is at an advanced stage.

Having reached his forties still capable of excelling at the highest level, the calls for van der Sar to stay on are understandable. For much of this season I was worried that my assessment of the Dutchman’s performances was being coloured by over-sentimentality. Knowing we wouldn’t be seeing him for much longer, the temptation to eulogise decent performances into amazing displays of athleticism is always there, but van der Sar has been so utterly understated and reliable, the praise is warranted. He hasn’t made string of breath-taking saves (although to his credit, he still maintains the agility to do so), but his handling has generally been flawless, his command of his penalty area is supreme and his calmness has diffused throughout a defence that can do with all the reassurance it can get. As his long career reaches its final few games, van der Sar remains one of the best in the world and will be going out on a high. Just how much silverware is involved with this high will surely depend on how van der Sar maintains his level of performance throughout the month of May.

As enjoyable as van der Sar’s performances has been, there’s no doubt who remains number one in the world. Real Madrid didn’t come out of the El Classico series with huge credit, but again Iker Casillas did little wrong. He remains the world’s best and although there have been a sprinkling of mistakes in his performances, he retains a remarkably capacity to recover – both in the short-term sense of making a secondary save to cover for an initial mistake and in the long-term sense of showing mental strength when things don’t go quite right.

It’s been a controversial stance for some time (namely with Shaka Hislop who disagrees whole-heartedly!), but I still rate Gigi Buffon very highly. Throughout his injury troubles I felt it unfair to demote him down the rankings based purely on absence and I maintain that position. When he plays, he retains his talent and his form has been an important part in keeping Juventus in the hunt for an unlikely Champions League place. With Liverpool enjoying a resurgence, Pepe Reina is looking as sharp as ever. When things weren’t going well for the Reds, Reina wasn’t to blame, but playing in a more confident team has rubbed off on him. Petr Cech takes a small drop, mainly because of a couple of mistakes for Chelsea and the Czech Republic in the last few months. Overall however, he has still had an outstanding season and without him Chelsea would be struggling for European football next season, let alone a Champions League spot or even the title challenge they have somehow managed to string together. Joe Hart has dropped a few places, but that’s based on mistakes earlier in the year. It’s been a while since I’ve updated the rankings and although he has been better and still capable of producing amazing saves, those mistakes stick in the memory.

Manuel Neuer is the flavour of the month in goalkeeping circles lately. His performance in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final with Manchester United rightly earned the plaudits, but clearly the pundits who heaped the praise on him haven’t been watching him much in the Bundesliga where he has been putting in similar performances for much of the season. He hasn’t rocketed to the top of the rankings for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I try to make these rankings less knee-jerk and more long-term and as such, my views are based on watching over a reasonably extended period of time. Secondly, I still worry Neuer is more accident prone than is ideal. Every goalkeeper is allowed an occasional mistake, but there is a suspicion that for all his amazing saves, the Bayern bound goalkeeper still suffers from blips on too frequent a basis. In his defence, since first becoming aware of him a few years ago, the mistakes have been reduced dramatically and the sheer volume of work required of him behind the leaky Schalke defence means he’s in the firing line more often than some of his contemporaries on the list.

Although yet to make his debut on the list, Wojiech Szczesny deserves a mention for responding so well after disappointment in the Carling Cup final followed by injury in the Champions League. Criticism of him for going off at the Camp Nou was nonsensical as no-one truly knows the level of pain someone else his experiencing. Sure some people may have experienced dislocated fingers with little discomfort, but Szczesny’s personal physiology and medical history mean it’s may not be the same for him. He looks reliable and assured and Arsene Wenger looks to have solved his goalkeeping issues.

The Best Young Premier League Goalkeepers 2010-11

MOG Premier League Awards
It’s awards season and in the absence of any goalkeepers actually making the PFA Player of the Year or Young Player of the Year shortlists, here’s a look at the best performing goalkeepers of the season. It’s not exactly a list of the most talented goalkeepers, but rather the ones who have consistently performed to the best of their abilities. I haven’t ranked them, but here’s my shortlist of young goalkeepers.

Asmir Begovic
After a worrying start to the season, Begovic has turned things around at Stoke

Asmir Begovic
Usurping such an established Premier League performer as Thomas Sorensen should tell you all you need to know about how good a season it has been for Begovic. Having initially got his chance due to injury to the Dane towards the end of last season, he got the nod as the team’s first choice for the new season and he hasn’t disappointed. What makes his progress this season particularly remarkable is the inauspicious way in which the season began after a controversial absence from a League Cup tie in August. At that point, Tony Pulis suggested an early exit from the Britannia Stadium only six months after joining the club wasn’t out of the question, but the bridges have been rebuilt and the Bosnia and Herzegovina international has become a firm favourite thanks to a string of good performances. He’s tremendously agile and commands his penalty area with the confidence of a Premier League veteran. It wasn’t looking likely last August, but Begovic has the potential to be a reliable performer for the Potters for many years to come.

Wayne Hennessy
The story of Wayne Hennessy’s season sadly mirrors that of his club a little too closely. Wolves have played good football, performed well throughout, but just not got the results they would have hoped. That’s a general assessment of how Hennessy has got on too. In numerous games during the season he has made several good saves only to be beaten by that crucial goal that turns a win into a draw or a point into nothing. To say he has been perfect would be disingenuous, but he has been very good and responded well after moments that he won’t be overly fond of recollecting. Last weekend was a case in point because after getting beaten to a cross by Jermaine Beckford, he pulled off a couple of excellent saves to keep Wolves in the game. Not for the first time this season, it was in vain, but all the scrapping around hasn’t been for nothing and until last weekend at least, Mick McCarthy’s men had one of the better goal differences of the teams locked in the relegation battle. It’s still not looking too bad and Wolves are going to need Hennessy’s smart reflexes and agility in the closing games of the season. If he can keep a couple of clean sheets and Wolves can capitalise with a couple of goals at the other end, safety is a possibility. Hennessy is certainly good enough to hold up his end of the bargain.

Simon Mignolet
Missing a goalkeeper of Craig Gordon’s quality would normally deal a crippling blow to a team’s chances of having a good season, but such has been the ease with which the Belgian has stepped into the breach, it’s barely been noticed. A string of fine performances from Mignolet helped the Black Cats to a lofty position in the table and although that position has taken a serious dip in recent weeks, one more win should see Steve Bruce’s men safe and surely most fans would he happy with that considering the solid foundations that have been laid this season. This season also saw him make his competitive debut for Belgium. At the age of 22, he’s could already be amongst the Premier League’s best, but the best thing is he is open to serious improvement. He has the natural talent – as seen from his fine reflexes and agility – and under the guidance of Sunderland goalkeeping coach, Nigel Spink, he should become even better. He could do with being a little more assured in his handling and hang on to the ball at the first attempt more often, but Mignolet looks to be on course for the very top.

Honourable mentions
Wojciech Szczesny – did very well when thrown into the deep end for Arsenal, but a mistake in the Carling Cup Final followed soon after by a virtually season-ending injury has seen it finish on something of sour note. Tim Krul was more than capable in replacing Steve Harper for Newcastle and has the talent to be unhappy with sitting on a Premier League bench. It’s hard not to mention Joe Hart for Man City who pulled off some truly breath-taking saves in the course of the season. He started the term well, but a string of mistakes have brought some serious question marks. He has the ability, but his attitude and concentration have undermined him.

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.