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?