The only potential downside to the deal for the Gunners, the player’s advancing years, has been breezily dismissed, due to the extended careers enjoyed by goalkeepers as compared to their outfield counterparts.
Able to rely on the authoritative presence of David Seaman between the posts for 13 years until 2003 and, subsequent to the former England stopper, the sometimes erratic but nevertheless accomplished Jens Lehmann, whose first campaign in north London coincided with Arsene Wenger’s team remaining unbeaten for an entire Premier League season, Arsenal have struggled to satisfactorily fill their no1 jersey for the past seven years.
Manuel Almunia, Lukasz Fabianski and, primarily, Wojciech Szczesny have all donned the gloves at the Emirates Stadium since Lehmann’s departure in 2008. None of the three, however, have ever convinced that they could be the domineering figure to succeed Seaman and Lehmann.
Of that trio, Szczesny has come closest to nailing down the Gunners’ ‘keeping spot, winning Wenger’s faith partway through the 2010/2011 season and retaining his manager’s trust until New Year’s Day this year, when the Pole consoled himself with a crafty cigarette in the changing rooms, after he had been accountable for both of the goals his side conceded in a 2-0 defeat at Southampton.
Despite becoming a regular feature of Arsenal’s line-up across a four-year spell, Szczesny’s role in the team was a constant source of debate throughout that time. The Polish international’s inconsistency was commonly deemed to be symptomatic of his side’s wider malaise, as the Gunners’ move to The Emirates in 2006 heralded the first barren period of Wenger’s reign. Indeed, when the nine-year Arsenal trophy drought was ended by their FA Cup triumph of 2014, it was Szczesny’s understudy, Fabianski, who took on stopping duties for the final victory over Hull City.
Szczesny got his piece of glory when the Gunners retained the cup this year, with a thumping of Aston Villa in May’s showpiece. The 25 year-old’s Wembley joy would have been tainted, however, by his knowledge that he was only on the pitch due to his new status as his club’s second-choice goalkeeper.
It wasn’t purely Szczesny’s off-field behaviour that persuaded Wenger to hand Arsenal’s ‘keeping responsibilities to David Ospina in January. All of the doubts expressed elsewhere about his goalkeeper, as his team failed to challenge the Premier League’s big guns, had finally wormed their way into the manager’s thoughts.
Lapses in concentration and a vulnerability to periodically committing inexplicable errors are two of the more worrying elements of Szczesny’s make-up. Combined with an unwillingness or, perhaps, inability to communicate decisively with the colleagues around him, the Warsaw born player’s deficiencies render him ill-suited to the task of acting as the last line of defence, for a team with its sights set on competing for domestic and European titles.
If that reads as a harsh critique of Szczensy, then it is not intended to be. The man signed as a teenager from Legia Warsaw in 2006 is, in fact, a fine goalkeeper. Judged at the very highest level, though, he is currently found wanting.
It would be unfair to pin sole blame on their vain search for a first-rate custodian for all of the ills that have beset Arsenal’s rearguard, since the halcyon days of Seaman, Lee Dixon, Tony Adams, Steve Bould, Martin Keown and Nigel Winterburn.
Wenger has, during the last decade, bought too many players of insufficient quality, to fill the positions right across the Gunners’ back-four. Furthermore, the Arsenal manager’s gung-ho tactics, allied to his famed reluctance to compromise his flair-driven ideals, (although, there were encouraging hints towards some increased flexibility in Wenger’s approach last season) have frequently left his team and his goalkeeper exposed.
There is no question, though, that Szczesny doesn’t possess that intangible something that all of the great no1’s have; the stature of Peter Schmeichel, Gianluigi Buffon, Manuel Neuer or, at the peak of his powers, Cech. The imposing nature on a football pitch of those men is not exclusively down to their shared physical height and bulk. All of them are blessed with an aura that left opponents and team-mates, alike, in no doubt as to who was in command of their penalty box.
Much like the tennis players charged with trying to beat Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams at Wimbledon, competitors who go on to court knowing that they have absolutely no margin for error on every shot if they want to overcome the champion on the other side of the net, any striker confronted with one of these goalkeepers, knows that their strike has to be accurate and true, if they are to win their one-on-one duel.
A hulking frame certainly helps when it comes to intimidating opposition and exuding authority over team-mates. It isn’t, however, a pre-requisite to become a master of the ‘keeping trade. Iker Casillas, winner of multiple honours with Real Madrid and Spain, is a fraction above 6ft. So too Neville Southall: the best goalkeeper on the planet in his 1980’s pomp with Everton.
Southall, Schmeichel, Casillas, Neuer and Buffon have all been integral to the success that their respective clubs – and in all cases, except Southall’s, their national teams – have savoured, with these men protecting their goal. Theirs is the sort of influence that Arsenal hope they will be getting with their £10m investment in Cech. As a player who arrived at Stamford Bridge in 2004, right at the start of Chelsea’s silverware laden era, the Czech international has first-hand experience of acting as a main component in a team that is breaking through their own glass ceiling.
Cech won a Premier League title in each of his first two seasons in west London, as, propelled by the twin-forces of Roman Abramovich’s riches and the managerial expertise of Jose Mourinho, Chelsea became major players on the domestic football scene. The four-time English champion ‘keeper’s reputation was already in the ascendancy prior to his landing on these shores, however. Playing for Rennes in France, Cech had been identified by David Moyes as a man that the then Everton boss wanted to take to Goodison Park, before he eventually agreed his move to The Bridge, five months ahead of making the switch to England in July 2004.
Consistently outstanding for Mourinho’s side, from his debut appearance (a home victory over Manchester United) onwards, Cech’s standing continued to soar. If Arsenal were signing this version of the ‘keeper, the wonderful shot-stopper, the player who cemented a formidable relationship with his Chelsea centre-halves, John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho, then this could, indeed, be considered the buy that will push Wenger’s men back into the realms of the Premier League contenders.
Yet, there has been a lingering suspicion; ever since he sustained a serious head injury in a collision with Reading’s Stephen Hunt in October 2006, that Cech has lost a fraction of the aggression and confidence which marked his formative years in this country.
Cech didn’t return from his three month lay-off a bad goalkeeper, not by any judgement. He just didn’t carry his old imperceptible swagger and arrogance; traits that are exhibited by every one of the world’s foremost no1’s.
Suddenly, there were a few uncharacteristically dodgy moments in club colours. More high-profile was Cech’s calamitous error in a match at the European championship finals in 2008.
In a pivotal group fixture clash with Turkey, the ‘keeper, bedecked in his now ubiquitous skull cap, dropped a simple cross, allowing the Turks to strike a late equaliser on their way to a 3-2 victory – a win that secured their progress to the last-eight of the tournament, at the Czech Republic’s expense.
That gaffe in his country’s colours, happened just four months after Cech was the man culpable when Jonathan Woodgate scored an extra-time winner for Tottenham, to defeat Chelsea in the League Cup final.
Despite the slight dip from his own stratospheric standards, Cech’s position as first-choice stopper for club and country was never in doubt. Special goalkeepers are in short supply and, if no longer in the very top bracket, Cech remained up with the best of the rest. His performance as Chelsea won the Champions League final against Bayern Munich in 2012 was worthy of whichever superlative you would wish to bestow upon it.
Mourinho, though, misses nothing. One year on from the Portuguese’s return to Stamford Bridge in 2013, he made the decision to bring Thibaut Courtois back from his loan stint at Atletico Madrid – therefore signalling his intention to replace the man who had contributed so heavily to the manager’s triumphant first spell in charge.
It was presumed that recalling Courtois from Spain was a pragmatic move on Chelsea’s part, the Londoners accepting that they couldn’t risk antagonising the talented 23 year-old glovesman, by ignoring him any longer. Could it be, though, that in a sticky 2013/2014 season for the Blues, Mourinho found a goalkeeper in Cech who wasn’t quite the sound asset he had been when the two men first worked together. What’s more, Cech had become prone to niggly injuries; problems with his calf, knees and shoulder all keeping him out of action in recent years.
Mourinho’s choice has been vindicated, with Courtois excelling as Chelsea became champions for the first time since 2010. The Belgian, meanwhile, has elevated himself into an elite group of three, – with Neuer and David De Gea – viewed as the world’s best goalkeepers.
Cech was solid on his limited appearances in the last campaign – excellent, actually, in a 1-0 win over Everton in February. Before the goalkeeper’s move to Arsenal had been completed, Terry said that he believed Cech’s new club, whoever that would be, could benefit to the tune of 12-15 points a season from his presence. That might be true of the Cech that Terry knew a decade ago. Now? Perhaps not.
Undoubtedly, Arsenal are getting an upgrade in what has been a devilishly difficult position for them, for far too long. Ospina did little wrong when he usurped Szczeny last term, and the Colombian was in magnificent form for his nation at the recent Copa America tournament in Chile. But the 26 year-old is short of those characteristics that define the supreme goalkeepers.
Ask Gunners fans, who watched Ospina performing competently for their team in the second half of the last campaign, for an opinion on his merits, and you won’t hear too many grumbles. Nor will you find many Gooners who would wish for David Ospina to be running out in Arsenal’s number one jersey against West Ham on 9 August, when the 2004 Premier League champions begin their latest attempt at regaining that crown.
Wenger has been painstaking in his construction of this Gunners’ team. The attacking artillery at the former Monaco manager’s disposal is, arguably, unrivalled in England’s top-flight. It is at the other end of the field where doubts persist. In plenty of minds, the sight of Cech in Arsenal’s goal will assuage a lot of those concerns.
There has been a rush to congratulate the north London giants on achieving a cure-all solution to a long-term problem. That verdict could yet prove premature. Wenger is not a man renowned for taking gambles, and the odds are slightly in his favour here. The Frenchman’s desired return, however, is not a sure thing.
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