17 June 2013

Goalkeeper Review (or "how badly do we need Cesar or Mignolet?")

After slumming around a bit in the dark corners of the transfer-universe, I thought it might be a grounding experience to discuss stuff that has actually happened, rather than what merely might happen. With that then, let's take a look at one area that caused a fair amount of hand-wringing during the season (resisting urge to make pun on hand-wringing and goalies using their hands...must...resist...).

UPDATE, 6/18/13: I was using whoscored.com's stats earlier but forgot that they don't include league cup stats.  For full disclosure, I've crossed out the original stats and have added the complete stats instead. Sorry for any confusion.

Lukas Fabianski: C+
  • Record: 5 wins, no draws, no losses. (no change)
  • Avg. goals conceded: 0.75 0.6
Across five appearances, Fabianski did very well for himself and sports some gaudy numbers. It's a shame that he now finds himself out of contract with no prospective suitors at the moment. Would he swallow his pride and accept a return to the Arsenal bench? That's a lot to ask for a man who helped to deliver a famous 2-0 win over Bayern and who earned a 7.02 rating from whoscored.com. Granted, other than Bayern, he faced Swansea, Norwich, Reading, and West Brom, teams that troubled us a bit more than they should have earlier in the season but whom we beat as we climbed back towards to fourth place. He had one advantage over the others: the defense in front of him was at its best for all of his appearances. He did keep two clean sheets, the other being Swansea, but otherwise didn't do much to distinguish other than avoiding any howlers. It was only a rib-injury that knocked him out and allowed Szczesny to reclaim his starting role. At 28 years old, he'd appear to be at a difficult age for the role we'd need him to play, that of sage elder who can impart his years of wisdom to the at-times impetuous and inconsistent Szczesny. This role depends, of course, on having that wisdom at hand, and Szczesny needs more than "Don't do what I just did" if he's going to improve significantly. It's difficult, then, to find a role for him, which is an awkward problem resolved by the fact that he's out of contract. This might be the first time the following sentence: this undefeated goalie just isn't good enough. He did the job well but not enough to distinguish himself. I hope he lands on his feet somewhere.

Vito Mannone: D
  • Record: 3 wins, 3 draws, 4 losses 5W, 4D, 4L
  • Avg. goals conceded: 1.11 1.23
Vito had ten games in which to prove his worth as Szczesny worked his way back from injury incurred over the summer with the Polish national team, and he just didn't do it. He managed a 6.53 rating at whoscored.com. Conceding 1.23 goals per game, however, just isn't good enough. Some of those goals were clearly not his fault, as many came through defensive errors as our team as a whole struggled to establish itself early in the season. Too often, though, he was caught out of position or made mincemeat of what could have been a crucial save. Exhibit A would be his muff of a save against Norwich. The initial shot, while spicy, was one he should have smothered if not deflected out of bounds. Instead, he deflected back across an open goal for Holt to finish. Whereas Fabianski at least showed some degree of consistency, I couldn't look at Mannone after seven or eight games and feel settled or secure. It's not that Mannone ever did anything horrifically bad, but he too often seemed caught off-guard and too rarely was in the right place at the right time. He'd be better off moving to a smaller club where the pressure is not quite as high. He's only 25, young enough as a keeper to offer another club a decent keeper. If he stays at Arsenal, he'll have to settle for occasional appearances when Szczesny needs a rest or is injured. If he's ever going to develop into a stronger keeper, it won't be on Arsenal's bench. Maybe a loan would give him a chance at first-team action. Then again, with a contract set to expire in June 2014, harder questions will need answers sooner rather than later.

Wojciech Szczesny: C-
  • Record: 15 wins, 7 draws, 7 losses. 17W, 8D, 8L
  • Avg. Goals conceded: 0.96 0.94
There's a moment from The Simpsons when Homer learns that he's defeated Barney Gumble to become an astronaut. After Barney somehow gets drunk on non-alcoholic wine, the head of NASA says, "well, Homer, I guess that makes you winner by default." So it stands with Szczesny: winner by default. After a tumultuous year that saw his father lash out at Arsene for rushing boyo back from injury too soon, our first-choice keeper did come back to mind the sticks well enough to help us win our final six games. He handled being dropped after the 2-1 loss to Spurs with dignity and grace, but it's still hard to see a dramatic improvement in his performance--not that players can suddenly go from good to great. He's only 23, a veritable babe in the woods, especially for keepers. Then again, he's made 108 appearances in three seasons, and at some point, we do need to see some improvement. Like Mannone, his contract runs out in June 2014, so the upcoming season is a make-or-break one for him. His whoscored.com rating of 6.79 feels a bit generous, although he did claim 11 clean sheets on the season. Where would he be without the improved defensive organization in front of him over the last six games of the season?

If he's serious about laying claim to the starting spot, we need to see more desire, more focus, more performance. We need a keeper who will demand organization and tenacity from the players in front of him and who will lay into them when he gets hung out to dry, whether it's a PK, a missed assignment, a botched clearance. I'd even go so far as to say he needs to piss a few people off. When he does concede a goal, I want him to be too busy pointing out who did what wrong to bother fishing the ball out of the net. We need a keeper who demands perfection or something pretty darned close to it, someone whom everyone else is afraid to let down, and I'm not sure Szczesny is ready to claim that mantle. Maybe it's from his age or callowness. Maybe it's just not in him, period.

Who should be our #1 GK?

I started out thinking I'd end by recommending we try to bring in QPR's Julio Cesar as someone aged and skilled enough to accept more of a mentor's role to help bring Szczesny along. He'd perhaps be grateful to have been saved from the Champions League that he'd accept a lesser role on the pitch. Now, however, I wonder if we need a more-direct challenge to Szczesny, someone like Mignolet who can come in and do more than just jostle Woj from his complacent stupor (if that's what it is...) and do one of two things: force/inspire the lanky Pole to become the keeper we've all been waiting for or replace him as that keeper.

I want to believe in Woj; I want him to be our keeper, but I want to go on more than faith and loyalty when I do this. Am I being harsh? Would we be better off with someone entirely new, or someone who can prod and support Woj? Cast your vote and weigh in below the fold.