Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has finally put the club’s supporters out of their misery and named his number one choice goalkeeper for the foreseeable future, and rather surprisingly it’s young Polish stopper Wojciech Szczesny who has come out on top in the battle for the number one jersey. But does he have what it takes to make the role his own over the next few months?
Casual observers have long since calculated that the one major flaw in Arsenal’s starting eleven, their Achilles heel, was the fact that they didn’t possess a top notch ‘keeper – at least one of sufficient enough calibre to enable the club to challenge for honours at the end of the season.
When Manuel Almunia was the undisputed first choice last season, he was an obvious weak link. If you took into account every other side in the top flight last term, Almunia would have struggled to get into almost every other team’s starting eleven, baring perhaps the completely hopeless Brian Jensen at Burnley. Far too often, the Spanish goalkeeper let down a manager that had placed enormous faith in his abilities, when seemingly no one else did.
Wenger stated that: “At the moment Wojciech is no.1. He has done nothing for me to take him out, but I can rotate the goalkeepers. In the cups I play sometimes different goalkeeper as well.” As far as statements of support go, it’s hardly glowing in it‘s wording is it? But it’s not in what Wenger has actually gone on record as saying that‘s most interesting here, it‘s the fact that he‘s finally given a definitive answer at all that‘s the most intriguing thing of all.
Wenger is famously cagey when dealing with the press. This guarded nature only leads to uncertainty on the terraces about what their manager is truly thinking at times; it’s fair to say that over the goalkeeping issue at least, Wenger has kept the Emirates faithful guessing over the last year or so as to where his loyalties truly lie and who his preferred first choice number one is.
Shortly before the start of the season Wenger questioned Almunia’s mental strength, which at the time looked as if it may end the ‘keeper’s stay at the Emirates. Wenger conceeded that “Manuel Almunia is a talented goalkeeper. In training he is superb, the only problem is that he gets nervous during big matches, thereby making silly mistakes.” At a huge club such Arsenal, displaying mental fragility is a huge blot against your record and it seemed as if Almunia had tried Wenger’s seemingly infinite patience for the very last time.
Lukasz Fabianski has been unlucky with injury this season after finally establishing himself in between the sticks at the beginning of the season. His error-prone ways looked to be a thing of the past. During what has to be regarded as Fabianski’s first real extended run in the first-team since signing for the club in 2007 from Legia Warsaw, the Pole looked a decent goalkeeper, capable of making crucial saves when it mattered – but he’ll have to force his way back into the starting eleven all over again now when he comes back from injury, and a frustrating period on the sidelines beckons once more for Fabianski.
Szczesny looked to be at loggerheads with the Arsenal management earlier on during the season after supposedly threatening to quit the club in November unless he secured more playing time. Szczesny stated: “There were some offers, but I’m not interested right now. It’s not that I don’t want to extend the contract, I just don’t want to hold talks at this point. I have enough money to live and I can’t complain about that, but I will only be happy if I play. Everything depends on how many games I play.”
A strong statement it has to be said, especially for a precocious 20 year-old ‘keeper; a position widely regarded to be the most difficult to break into any side at a young age. At the time, Szczesny was most definitely the club’s third-choice goalkeeper and this looked to be tantamount to career suicide, but since November he’s been the least injury-prone of Arsenal’s stoppers, and as a result, he’s forced his way into Wenger’s plans. It seems with the goalkeeping situation at Arsenal, it is at times, quite literally the survival of the fittest.
But with 9 appearances to his name so far this term, a run which has included 6 clean sheets, Szczesny has grabbed the opportunity with both hands and he looks to be displaying a maturity well beyond his years.
In the same press conference Wenger didn’t completely rule out Manuel Almunia either however, saying: “Manuel is under contract and as long as he is at the club, we are happy to have him. I like him as a man and as a player and I have shown that in my decisions. I am happy to have him here.” This show of support may have been aimed squarely at any potential suitors of Almunia’s this transfer window though, as Wenger seeks to ward off anyone interested in the Spaniard and ensure that he ends January with the same squad that he started the window with.
Szczesny is certainly a supremely confident individual, and perhaps he possesses an inner mental strength and confidence in his own ability that was sometimes lacking in Almunia and to a lesser extent Fabianski. It will be interesting to see if Wenger will consider dipping into the transfer market in the summer or whether he’ll seek to retain the young Pole as number one. Szczesny seems to have Wenger’s backing for the time being, a statement of support is a rarity from Wenger in the press and this is worth noting – but with injuries so prevalent in Arsenal’s squad, I wouldn’t bet against the number one jersey switching hands again before the end of the season.