Gary Neville once said that the two hardest positions to play as a top-level footballer are goalkeeper and lone striker. The parallels between the two roles are obvious; both demand a level of personal responsibility, and culpability, more acute than most footballers are used to. With this in mind, it is easy to underestimate what Wojciech Szczesny achieved by establishing himself as Arsenal’s first choice goalkeeper at the age of 20. It is hard to find instances of young goalkeepers who are thrust into the deep end quite at such a tender age; Iker Casillas and David de Gea are two notable examples. True enough, Arsenal did have particularly convincing alternatives to choose from in the shape of Lukasz Fabianski and Manuel Almunia, but this makes Szczesny’s achievement no less impressive.
Szczesny was the future once and has now been farmed out on loan to Roma for a second successive season. All the while the Pole remains away from Arsenal on a temporary basis, there is a glimmer of hope he could still make the grade. Players returning from loan spells to force themselves into the fold is a rare occurrence, however, and Arsene Wenger and Arsenal fans should feel some regret about Szczesny’s fate.
Ultimately, his two loan moves are Wenger’s verdict on his attitude rather than his aptitude. If those inside the club did not rate Szczesny, he would have been given the chop long ago. The fact remains that he is an immensely talented goalkeeper, with all the physical and technical attributes you would want in a top-class goalkeeper. He is comfortable with the ball at his feet, has a fairly accurate and lengthy kick, is six foot five inches tall, has good levels of agility and is willing to come off his line to claim crosses and command his penalty area.
There were some hiccups along the way, it should be said. There was the calamitous denouement to the 2011 League Cup Final when he and Laurent Koscielny collided to gift Birmingham City’s Obafemi Martin’s the simplest of winners. He was dropped in the run-in of the 2012-13 season as Arsenal pipped Spurs to Champions League qualification, with Fabianski preferred. He was reinstated the following season, however and won the Premier League Golden Glove award for keeping the most clean sheets in the division.
In March 2014 however, came one incident (we can assume other incidents took place behind closed doors) that caused much chagrin among Wenger and his staff. Following Arsenal’s 1-0 win over Spurs at White Hart Lane, in which Szczesny had almost gifted Arsenal’s fierce rivals an equaliser when he dropped a cross, he thought it a good idea to take his mobile phone and take a ‘selfie’ in front of the Arsenal fans.
All quite innocent you might think, but members of the Arsenal staff looked upon this as evidence that Szczesny lacked seriousness and professionalism. The straw that broke the camel’s back came after Arsenal’s 2-0 loss at Southampton on January 2015. Szczesny had been at least partially at fault for both conceded goals but was purportedly caught smoking in the dressing room showers after the game. Of course, Wenger did not wield the axe for this misdemeanour alone. It was just one of many cases that led him to the conclusion that the Pole lacked the mental faculties to survive at the highest level.
David Ospina is set to stay at Arsenal as Petr Cech’s understudy for the forthcoming season. Ospina is a well-regarded goalkeeper with a solid record and enjoyed another excellent Copa America this summer with Colombia. However, were he and Szczesny racehorses the latter would be described as having more scope. Two contrasting performances demonstrate this.
Over the Christmas period in 2014, Arsenal survived and second-half aerial bombardment by West Ham and Andy Carroll to dig out a precious 2-1 win at Upton Park. Szczesny’s willingness to leave his line and confront Carroll directly was a major part of this; he had an outstanding game. Szczesny used similar tactics to nullify Christian Benteke in the 2015 FA Cup Final. Compare and contrast with Ospina’s performance at Upton Park last season when Carroll scored a hat-trick in a 3-3 draw. Carroll is hard to cope with at the best of times, but Ospina’s timid display did nothing to take the pressure of Arsenal’s centre-backs. Some goalkeepers prefer to stay on their line, but the Colombian has the bizarre habit of falling back behind his line. He is a highly competent number two, but he and Szczesny’s contrasting Upton Park showings reveal his limitations.
At 26, Szczesny still has time on his side. David Seaman did not join Arsenal until he was Szczesny’s age and goalkeepers famously mature at a later age to most players. He may have burned his bridges at Arsenal, but most Gooners will hope he fulfils his potential wherever his destination.
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