Arsenal have a severe issue hindering their chances of contending for the Premiership or indeed any silverware this season. A quick glance at the Premier League table says it all. Chelsea goals conceded: 2; Manchester goals conceded: 5; Arsenal goals conceded: 10. The problem is clearly at the back.
Ask any Gooner what they’d change about their team if they were given a magic wand, chances are they’ll reply with “a decent goalkeeper”.
It seems no coincidence that every time Manuel Almunia seems to have a bad game (which unfortunately is more often than not) his name ends up on the injury list.
And second choice Lukasz Fabianski has lost whatever confidence he built up in the reserves with some truly shabby performances (one YouTube Fabianski blooper is titled “the worst goal keeping mistake ever”). He has a tendency to slap the ball if it comes to him at height and his presence in the box is akin to that of a wallflower.
Poor ‘keeping affects the defence’s confidence too. Defenders are far more likely to try and run themselves out of danger than perform a simple pass-back if they don’t trust the man between the sticks. And corners become as much of a heart attack as penalties when Almunia and Fabianski are wearing the goalkeeper’s jersey.
But is there a remedy available to alleviate the goalie woes?
I have been a champion of Shay Given ever since he started making a name for himself at Newcastle United. His name is often mentioned when the subject of Arsenal’s goalkeeping options comes to the fore. There have been countless opportunities to move him to the Emirates recently, yet Arsene Wenger seems to have shied away from poaching him from Manchester City (where he is apparently “very happy” despite never getting a game).
Even though Given will cost more than Wenger would probably like to spend on a 34-year-old, his appointment would no doubt result in the Gunners conceding less ridiculously weak goals – that could make the difference when it comes to the tail-end of the season.
A new big-name signing, at a far smaller cost than a big name outfield player, would give the team and the fans a much-needed confidence boost. It would convey intent to actually go and win a major trophy now rather than evolving the team slowly to nuture young talent, which may well have produced stars like Cesc Fabregas but has also kept the trophy cabinet rather sparse for too many years.
Of course, Given or Mark Schwarzer, who was also tipped to become the Arsenal number one in the summer, will only be a sticking plaster to the long-term goalkeeping issue at the club.
Dozens of world class names have been speculated to sort the issue for the long-term: Eduardo, Stekelenburg, Iraizoz…but I don’t need to go on. World class goalkeepers are like precious diamonds and few teams are willing to part with one, even for excessive prices, because they are at the core of winning teams.
A world-beating club rarely has a flappy goalkeeper at the back and good ‘keepers tend to work through long contracts, rather than darting from team to team. A new household name signing sounds unlikely.
So what options do Arsenal already have the back?
There’s Wojech Szczesny, a big, young ‘keeper who excelled at the crossbar challenge at the Arsenal Member’s Day in August (a true indicator of goalkeeping prowess if ever there was one). But as third choice keeper, he rarely gets a run out in the reserves and spends most of his time making a hefty bum dent in the subs’ bench at the Emirates.
And it’s taken its toll. In a recent interview with Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, he said:
“I’m ready to play at highest level but I need a club that believes in a 20-year-old. In Arsenal there’s no such bravery. My main goal is to play for Arsenal, but if there’s a move option, we’ll have words.”
It sounds as though Arsenal may have to find someone else to fill the dent in January as his contract expires at the end of the season. Despite three meetings over a new contract, none have been positive for the youngster. A loan spell at the start of the season would have helped him grow but it seems Wenger is resigned to letting him go.
However, there may be hope for 22-year-old Italian Vito Mannone. He is under contract with the club until 2014 and his loan spell at Hull City (announced yesterday) should hopefully bring out the goalkeeping confidence Arsenal so desperately need.
The Championship has seen lots of goals of late, meaning he’ll have plenty of opportunities to prove the shot-stopping dexterity he showed in the Arsenal reserves and youth team and also – more notably – for Italy.
To date he has played nine first team games and never been on the losing side and after more experience with Hull, he seems destined to become a bright star at the Emirates yet.
Bringing in a ‘keeper like Given, or any of the other reasonable names on Arsenal’s goalkeeper target list, would allow for easy disposal of both Almunia and Fabianski, promoting Mannone into second-choice position. Mannone is already a competent, confident keeper and, with his long contract and young age, could potentially go down along with Seaman and Jennings as one of Arsenal’s goalkeeping greats.
Like anything with Arsenal, it will take time to mould him into a legend but a choice of a good, experienced, reasonably-priced keeper in January could propel him into first team football, where he could potentially stay for a decade.