Wojciech Szczesny arrived in the Arsenal first-team for the away trip to Manchester United in 2010 as the goalkeeper Arsene Wenger’s side had needed. It was of no great concern that here was a player whose only real consistent experience in competitive play came via a loan spell at League One Brentford, nor did it matter that the game was indeed away at Old Trafford; there weren’t any fears that the occasion of Szczesny’s league debut could mentally cripple him for the coming months. Here was finally a goalkeeper who exuded confidence and made the back four a far more stable unit.
For a short time, Arsenal’s goalkeeping woes were allayed. Szczesny looked set to become the team’s No 1 for the next decade at least, provided, of course, the club could negotiate an extension to the player’s contract. It was ability mixed with an unwavering determination to prove that he was indeed one of the best of his age group. Szczesny had launched out of the starting gates and was sprinting well before he had learned to walk.
The blame, however, doesn’t totally lie with the player. It should never have taken up until this point for Arsene Wenger to take action to ensure the player remained grounded. When the competition for places is as close to non-existent as you’re going to get at Arsenal, players become complacent and youngsters never learn from their mistakes.
It was never a problem in the past for Wenger; he was fortunate to inherit David Seaman and surprisingly got it right with the signing of Jens Lehmann. But unlike Szczesny, both of those players were veterans with a wealth of experience at club and international level. They knew when complacency would see them out of the team, they understood how important their position was to the team, and, confidence aside, they had the maturity to know how to come back stronger from poor spells of form.
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It’s about management teaching the youngster to harness his ability and confidence and not jeopardise games by taking on a cavalier approach. The writing has been on the wall for a long time that a slump in form like this would happen, and it’s only fortunate that Wenger can turn to Fabianski for the remaining games of the season.
Wojciech Szczesny isn’t totally a lost cause either; quite the opposite. Here is a goalkeeper who has grown into the player he is – including a full international with Poland – due to the parts of his career spent with Arsenal. He has often shown fierce loyalty to the club and the kind of exuberance you’d expect to find in a young player.
There are a number of excellent examples in Europe to prove that young goalkeepers can indeed be relied upon heavily as a team’s first-choice, and they haven’t kept their place because they’ve lacked confidence. As a club with plenty of ambition, Arsenal will encourage Szczesny to stand barrel-chested and look fear in the eye: there’s absolutely nothing wrong with displaying the cool head that’s needed to be a success at this level.
But many young goalkeepers across Europe either have a good level of competition behind them or a manager who knows how to keep them grounded. Far be it from me to take anything away from the way Wenger manages young players, but the manager’s loyalty has often blinded him in the past. More than anything, Szczesny needed a nudge, through any number of means, to make sure he remained focused throughout the course of the campaign. It was even more vital at Arsenal due to the genuine lack of reliability in the goalkeeping position.
One of the most pointless marks of praise for a goalkeeper is that he is a good shot-stopper, as you’d expect that from any professional goalkeeper. But in the case of Szczesny, he does have the talent to be mentioned in the same bracket as Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Bernd Leno and Thibaut Courtois; the results of which will only come to the fore based on the environment that surrounds him at Arsenal.
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