The standard of Arsenal’s goalkeepers has come into question but changes in the modern game mean there is more to the position than shot-stopping.
If goalkeepers are crazy then imagine having to summon the sparse vestiges of your sanity to defend three of them. That was the situation that confronted Arsène Wenger at the recent AGM meeting where he was asked whether his goalkeepers were good enough.
This was after his third choice between the sticks; Vito Mannone made the error in judgment against Birmingham in deciding to catch instead of punch. And he didn’t help Wenger’s cause in the next game either as the Italian could only palm, an albeit wicked shot from West Ham’s Alessandro Diamanti, back into the danger area for Carlton Cole to head home. “Yes I believe we have [enough quality],” answered Wenger. “Goalkeeper is a very difficult position. Why? It is the only position where you have only negative stress. People speak only about you when you have made a mistake. A striker has positive stress – he has a pressure to score but if he scores he is always ‘a hero’, he is always ‘fantastic’. But a goalkeeper is only spoken about when he lets a goal in or when he makes a mistake and it is a difficult position.”
But it can also be said goalkeepers can have “positive stress.” Robert Green’s last minute save in the 2-2 draw against the Gunners had his manager laud him as the real ‘goalkeeper of the national team,’ disregarding the fact that his error led to the first goal while he could have been more assertive by trying to claim the second. Indeed Green’s actual performances in an England shirt have been riddled by bad decision-making and his most standout ability – shot-stopping – has been largely unemployed.
Two Swedish medical professors – Lars Peterson and Per Renström – argue in a research for FIFA that this is all part of the minimum requirements of a top-level goalkeeper and now cannot be judged on reflexes alone. “A goalkeeper can be uninvolved in playing situations for ten minutes, and then suddenly be thrust into the centre of the action,” they say. “One single error can result in a goal and give rise to major criticism even if he has made 15 outstanding saves prior to the one visible mistake. In a nutshell, one can say that being a goalkeeper is a major challenge requiring special talent combined with extraordinary athletic ability and an unruffled psyche.”
Arsene Wenger also agrees, citing the law changes in bringing more out of the goalkeeper. “Every [modern] rule that has come out in football has taken something away from the ‘keeper,” he said. “That means basically today he must be good with his feet, good with his hands, be very quick, be highly focused for 90 minutes, not make any technical mistakes and it makes the job very hard.”
This attention to detail may be the reason why the Frenchman has spurned the chances of signing those keepers felt more established. He wants his men between the sticks to be all-round as it is said universality brings fluency to a team’s play. The 3-0 victory over Tottenham had his first choice Manuel Almunia rarely tested in terms of making saves but in a couple of instances, had to make sweeper-like interceptions by rushing out of his area to clear the ball. Indeed the research by the two Swedish professors highlights the reason why ‘smaller’ teams may get away with goalkeepers of a confined ability as their involvement is usually limited to a smaller set of skills.
In 1958, Brazil realised the importance of goalkeepers and went to the World Cup with specialist keeping coaches, not to mention doctors and a sports psychologist. They acknowledged that there is more to goalkeeping than shot-stopping but even still, have carried the unfair stigma of being at an inferior level to other nations. Nevertheless, their concentration on all-round keepers has seen them enter the coming World Cup with enviable pool of goalkeepers, including current best in the world Julio Cesar of Inter Milan.
But for some, this over-analysis is merely just complicating things and finding the best goalkeeper is more clear-cut. In 1977, Peter Taylor – Brian Clough’s assistant at Nottingham Forest – identified the need in signing England goalkeeper Peter Shilton as he felt he was the best around. Clough obliged and the East Midlands club proceeded to embark on their most successful era.
Times are more complex and cosmopolitan now but with shot-stopping becoming almost as marginalised as goalscoring has in recent years, could it be that Wenger’s best interest is to adopt the more pragmatic approach of Taylor and Clough?
Lucasz Fabianski error may have cost the Gunners a place in the FA Cup final but the Polish ‘keeper has all the ingredients to be Arsenal’s number one in the near future.
Birthdays are not meant to be like this but Lucasz Fabianski’s misjudgment unfortunately presented Chelsea with the match and the place in the FA Cup final against Everton. He made his mind up to come out and in the end fell agonisingly short. Some remain unconvinced by the Polish shot-stopper but Fabianski has all the ingredients to be Arsenal’s goalkeeper for years to come.
In what is a rarity, Lucasz Fabianski joined the Gunners last season at the tender age of 22 with Arsenal usually going with the reverse trend of outfield players and signing more experienced keepers. It says a lot of Fabianski to be signed at such a young age and expect to challenge for a first team spot. At any team he would be number one but joining Arsenal demands more; the high line requires great anticipation, rushing out and kicking.
Young goalkeepers are a rarity too; Casillas was a special talent, a leader too but would he have coped with the same demands placed on Arsenal keepers? He has got everything now and still 27, it shows goalkeepers require games more than any other position to get into the flow. Rafa Benitez said of Pepe Reina, who also signs keepers for more than just shot-stopping reasons, such as the means to distribute play quickly as typified by his assist against Aston Villa; “He can do almost everything well. He can make mistakes, like any keeper; but he’s good in the air, his distribution is good, he is always talking and organising the defence. He’s quick. I think he is the complete keeper.”
Fabianski represents the best of a fantastic goalkeeping talent to come out of Poland having won the Polish soccer Oscar twice in a row only in his early twenties. The Pole started at MSP Szamotuly, an independent academy that specialises in producing goalkeepers. The privately owned school funded by local businessmen, takes promising players from the age of 12, trains them and sells them on to Polish clubs. Fabianski is understood to have been recommended to Arsenal by Frans Hoek, the former Ajax and Barcelona coach, who is regarded by many as the world’s best goalkeeping coach.
“I firmly believe that he will be one of the greatest keepers in the world,” said Wenger. “He has the talent, he’s intelligent, he’s brave and is very good technically. He was not at his best against Chelsea and you have to accept that can happen to anyone. It happened to Cech last Tuesday against Liverpool in the Champions League.”
The MSP Szamotuly academy have a high regard for players emotional development (likeable, modest, strong and mature) and the Arsenal keeper will come back stronger than ever from the setback.