Arsenal have often been criticised for not having a good enough defence to maintain a full tilt at the league title, Champions League or even the FA Cup. The usual reason for this is a weak link in an otherwise decent looking back-four. Since Arsenal last won a trophy, major faults have been made at the back by Clichy, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Djourou, Eboue and even Vermaelen. Goalkeepers have generally come away unscathed from criticism, apart from Szczesny in THAT League Cup Final against Birmingham.
This season, Arsenal’s defence has been in fine form, with the much-maligned Mertesacker being the greatest improver from last season. Vermaelen has been solidly consistent alongside him and Gibbs has made the Arsenal left-back curse something of a myth, with his intelligent runs and great link up with Podolski. Jenkinson has proven a steady deputy to Sagna too; even if the latter’s return will be a glad sight for many fans.
Arsenal’s real worry this season, in regard to the defence, is that goalkeeper mistakes could lead to another trophy-less season. Szczesny has been consistently inconsistent in the past season and he has seemed very shaky this season, for the part that he has played. Perhaps his confidence needs building up again after his absolutely shocking Euro2012 performance for Poland, where he was red-carded in the first match. Whatever the problem is for him, the coaches need to identify it and sort it out, although many do forget that he is still a very promising goalkeeper considering he is still just 22.
Fabianski is in a hopeless situation at Arsenal, with most people believing that Wenger has lost all faith in him. Unfortunately for him, Fabianski is another player who has had issues with his consistency in the past. He has played some storming games, but then lost other games for Arsenal on his own.
Mannone is the final goalkeeper that Wenger seems content to use this season, and he hasn’t made a bad impression so far. He played well against Liverpool and nobody can fault him for a clean-sheet against Stoke. However, he is another player that has good games and bad games, with a blunder against Olympiakos in 2011 that is still seen as the turning point for that game. His loan spell at Hull last season has been deemed a success, which is promising for Arsenal as the Championship can prove a good way of breaking goalkeepers into the first team.
So, are the current three goalkeepers good enough for Arsenal? Well by stripping it down to the main attributes that a goalkeeper needs, and comparing them to other top stoppers, it should be clearer by the end of this article.
In terms of physical ability, the players cannot be faulted, in theory. Szczesny is 6ft 5, Fabianski is 6ft 3, and Mannone is 6ft 2, making them easily tall enough to cut out faults. They all seem fit often enough, but it was pointed out to me that Szczesny played against Norwich whilst knowing he had an injury. It is well documented that he made a meal of at least one of the goals, and is this his own or the clubs bad decision to let him play? I’m unsure whether the club knew, as he only revealed this at the European Championships. Strength rarely comes into the equation, as often goalkeepers are given the benefit of the doubt by referees when knocked down, but all three of the assessed are capable of taking a knock from the bigger payers they face.
Distribution is one attribute I’d like to get out of the way immediately. Mannone and Szczesny have proven it before and now again this season that they just can’t pick out a player 9/10 times. I’ve seen Mannone kick goal-kicks out for throw-ins when aiming for the wings, whilst Szczesny has not been getting much height on his kicks, which means they are often caught up by the first midfielders they reach, be it a teammate or an opponent. Fabianski, although my memory of him is a little rustier, was another keeper who seemed to just punt it up field and hope it was chased by the striker or wingers. In comparison, Hart, and even Reina (who is clearly not the ‘keeper he was 2 years ago), both still know where their kicks will end up, nine times out of ten.
One-on-ones is possibly one of the stronger attributes that Szczesny possesses, with his massive frame being a major asset; however his weakness in these situations can sometimes be the time it takes him to come off his line. Mannone has been solid enough in these situations too, with not much chance to see him, but his few showings have displayed that he knows the basics of making yourself as big as possible and putting the opponent off his shot. Fabianski has proven that he can cut the angle well, and, if I remember correctly, he is the one that seems to be quickest off his line in these situations. Given and Cech are the two best at one-on-ones for me in the entire league, but if Szczesny can improve his movement from his line, he could join them.
Positioning is a hard one to judge, as all goalkeepers have moments in matches where they could have been better positioned. Often it is more a lapse of concentration, and to be fair, it doesn’t seem to be a regular problem with many Premier League goalkeepers.
Crosses are the real weakness of many Premier League goalkeepers. Fabianski, Szczesny, Gomes, De Gea and Green have been just a few of the many who have been targeted by the media and fans after flapping at crosses. Fabianski infamously got the nickname ‘Flappyhandski’ after a series of awful attempts to come for crosses. Szczesny has had a couple of moments too, but his have been less damaging in the end. Mannone appears to be the Arsenal ‘keeper who is content to stay on his line for crosses and leave them to the defence, which is a much safer bet. The difference is that now Mertesacker seems to be clearing them, whereas previously he would almost expect the goalkeeper to come out.
Communication and commanding the area is another weakness for Arsenal ‘keepers. It is a job that both defenders and the men between the sticks need to work on. Sometimes, there has clearly been a shout for the defenders to leave the ball, and they haven’t, which has resulted in mistakes. In other situations, there has been silence, which results in a mix-up. The goal conceded against Southampton and the mix-up in the League Cup final have both been good ways to highlight Szczesny’s lack of voice, as he went for balls that Jenkinson and Koscielny respectively could have dealt with. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Fabianski scream at his defence for a ball, which can make defenders unsure about every move they make. Mannone shouts a little bit more, but still doesn’t make his presence known enough. This could be the real attribute that costs Arsenal in the trophy stakes, as it has previously. Hart and Cech are the best at communicating their areas in the league, and I wouldn’t suggest any of the three keepers being probed here are near their standard yet.
Shot-stopping is a strength of all three ‘keepers. Szczesny didn’t have the greatest shots/saves ratio in his first full season as an Arsenal no.1, but that can be largely blamed on his poor defence allowing him to be swamped by opposition players. However, being good at shot-stopping is the first thing that managers look for, so to be signed by a top club it is often a necessity to have this skill as a top ability. Something Fabianski has impressed me with in previous matches is his agility and speed of recovery to make two or three saves in quick succession. Definitely his strongest attribute.
In conclusion to this review of the Arsenal goalkeepers, there are some very promising signs. The shot-stopping and one-on-ones seem to be fairly decent attributes amongst the goalkeepers, and many would consider these to be the two key skills needed. However, serious doubts are placed in crosses and communication of area. Both of these could be worked on and it is often the inexperienced ‘keepers who lack this. However, Szczesny will have no excuses by next season, as he enters his third full season, which is experience enough. Poor distribution is something that only the players themselves can sort out, as accurate passing is something that just needs practice. It is not something Wenger will like seeing though, as he builds his teams around holding onto possession.
Are the goalkeepers good enough to help challenge for trophies this season? On current showing, yes, because the players around them are making them look a lot better, however in the tough games against the likes of City, United and Chelsea, Arsenal will need them to step up. Sunday will be the first acid-test, and will it be Szczesny or Mannone in goal against City?