When Jens Lehmann left Arsenal to join VFB Stuttgart in 2008 in order play just a few more seasons of professional football there were young and promising goalkeepers waiting in the wings.
Both Lukasz Fabianski and Wojciech Szczesny were understudies to the German goalkeeper, and although Lehmann returned to north London in 2011 to help out on the back of a goalkeeping injury crisis, it’s fair to say that the Gunners have never replaced the goalkeeper who left in 2008.
Since then, Petr Cech has established himself very firmly as Arsenal’s number one goalkeeper and is one of the best Premier League keepers of a generation, but although he has been part of the answer to a goalkeeping problem at the club which lasted for several years, he doesn’t fill all of the gap that the German goalkeeper left back in 2008.
It’s a familiar story for Arsenal fans over the last decade and more: club legend moves on to finish his career elsewhere and Arsene Wenger turns to his youth system to try to plug the gap. The problem is it hasn’t just been technical skill or raw talent that the production line has been missing – it’s been heart, fight and passion, too.
Those are intangible qualities, but they are also the sorts of attribute which you might say players like Patrick Vieira, Gilberto Silva and Tony Adams had. And conversely, you might argue that Theo Walcott, Jack Wilshere and Laurent Koscielny, despite their technical abilities, don’t.
Jens Lehmann, and his replacements, fall into the same category.
When you think of the German keeper, there are few iconic big saves – penalty saves, mostly – but what you will think of is his will to win: his yappiness, his ability to wind up the opposition, and the inescapable thought that you’d much rather have him on your side than play against him.
They are the sorts of qualities that Arsenal miss at the moment. They don’t have a player the opposition look at and think he’s a nasty piece of work but, given the chance, would much rather have him in their team than have to face him in a real match. Lehmann may have been annoying, even dirty, but for Arsenal, he was their annoying and dirty.
Arsenal may have replaced Lehmann. No one would look at this Arsenal squad, glance at Petr Cech in goal and think ‘if only’. But the same can be said for most of the rest of the Arsenal team: when people point to Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Tony Adams and say ‘if only’ they aren’t usually talking about quality and ability. They’re talking about something extra: an additional fight, maybe even leadership material.
But if Arsene Wenger has replaced his old German stopper with a goalkeeper who may well go down in history as being a better keeper, he certainly hasn’t replaced the less tangible quality that made Lehmann so special to his team. And that’s been one of the consistent themes of Arsenal’s past decade.