Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny this week was forced into both an awkward and deeply embarrassing position of having to choose his club over his own father after he attributed his son’s slump in form to manager Arsene Wenger’s handling of him. With this in mind, is the Polish international simply proving more hard work than should be necessary and will they now consider alternatives to him in the summer as a result?
The 22-year-old was prematurely hailed as the long-term solution to the club’s recent goalkeeping problem after cementing his place in the starting eleven last term and keeping 18 clean sheets in 48 games across all competitions, with 13 of those coming in the Premier League. Seen as a confident, somewhat flamboyant shot-stopper, the odd mistake and game-changing clanger has always been present in his locker and his father’s recent rebuttal of Wenger’s treatment of him has merely acted as the touch paper to a bigger, more underlying issue about his quality and whether he’s actually good enough to play regularly for a club like Arsenal.
Of course, Wenger has always had something of a blind spot when it comes to judging goalkeepers, having been fortunate to inherit David Seaman, the likes of Jens Lehmann, Manuel Almunia and Lukasz Fabianski have all caused just as many headaches as problems they have solved and even when the club was challenging for honours on a consistent basis five years ago, they represented an error-prone house of cards, liable to self-destruct at any given moment.
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The decline in goalkeeping standards across Europe the past couple of years has given credence to the thought that there is a real dearth in talent out there, so choosing to nurture your own academy product from scratch is a cheap way of combating a paucity of options. When you consider that the likes of Michel Vorm, Tim Krul, Tim Howard, Ali Al-Habsi, Pepe Reina and Joe Hart have all contributed to at least three errors directly leading to goals this term, it’s clear that even the stand-out performers by and large from last season have let their standards slip this year. Szczesny is not alone in that regard, and he must be judged against his peers as much as anything else.
Szczesny was recently left out of the Gunners squad for their UEFA Champions League trip to Bayern Munich and remained on the sidelines for a 2-0 Premier League victory over Swansea City last weekend, so his future is clearly under serious consideration at the club and he sounded somewhat desperate when questioned on his future this week.
“Physically, I can imagine myself at a different club, yes, but mentally, absolutely no,” admitted the Polish stopper.
“I’m too happy here. What guarantee do I have that I will win trophies somewhere else? Arsenal will win things again, I trust the club’s philosophy, I have a debt here.
“I don’t want to be anywhere else. My contract runs out in 2015. I have played my 100th game for Arsenal and I hope to play hundreds more.”
There’s always been something of the Emperor’s New Clothes about Szczesny, just as there has been to a lesser extent with Joe Hart’s England career – seemingly thankful that they are not Almunia or Scott Carson, we have rated them above their ability, applauded them for mediocrity and lauded them to be long-term solutions to troublesome problems, but how we’ve evaluated their performances has been flawed, leading to expectations simply not being met once the honeymoon period faded.
When it comes to his own individual form, Szczesny has largely been the same – he’s parried 22% of the shots he’s faced this year compared to 19% last year. He has punched away just 10% compared to 15% last term and caught 57% as opposed to 61% last campaign. The perception of a player struggling with his form has filtered through, while he won’t have been helped by the near constant injury troubles and the even more fragile nature of the back four in front of him.
Arsenal have developed a worrying trend in the past five years of conceding more goals in the league than the year before. In 2007-8 it was 31 goals, in 2008-9 it was 37 goals, 2009-10 it was 41 goals, in 2010-11 it was 43 goals and last term it was 49. They sit on 32 goals with nine games left to play and they could be about to finally buck that bad habit.
This season represented a huge year in terms of his development, but suffice to say he’s missed his opening to make his mark through a combination of misfortune and poor performances. He can be a match-winner on his day – agile, commanding and authoritative, but will that be enough to save him at the end of the season? As with plenty of Arsenal players, the ability to occasionally perform to the maximum of their ability is what is symptomatic of the club’s decline.
When all is said and done, whether his father doesn’t like his manager all that much won’t factor into Wenger’s decision to sell him or not, but the pursuit of a new goalkeeper, as a means of serious competition just as much as a replacement, should be right at the top of the Frenchman’s transfer agenda come the summer.
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