24 April 2014

Arsenal, home to the Prem's three best keepers...

The man between the sticks often cuts a forlorn figure. If his squad are doing well, he ends up with little to do but adjust the straps on his gloves, do some calisthenics, and perhaps chat with a few of the fans behind the goal. If his squad is coming to pieces, he ends up as the most-visible culprit when a goal gets conceded. Never mind whatever series of errors leads to a goal; it's always the keeper's fault once the ball's in the back of the net. It's a bit ironic then that Arsenal, famous (or infamous) for its attractive attacking style (for whatever it's worth), might find itself developing a bit of a reputation as an incubator for the Prem's best keepers. Before you scoff, ponder the names and their achievements to date. I'd challenge you to name a club that featured, at once, three keepers capable of as much as Mannone, Fabianski, and Szczęsny.

Of course, we can't claim all three, at least not as current Gunners. We can, however, take credit for their development as each has spent the bulk of his career with the club. Mannone, for one, is no longer a Gunner, having left for Sunderland some nine months ago. Fabianski is set to follow him, with his own contract expiring in June 2014. However, there was once a time in the not-too-distant past when all three made significant if not vital contributions the the club, and the rotation they provided in the past, and the performances they've delivered to date, signify an impressive set of achievements.

First, Mannone. Last season, he made a mere thirteen appearances while Szczęsny, was injured—nine in the Prem and four in the Champions League group-stage. He conceded sixteen goals, a stat made a bit more garish by a 3-3 draw with Fulham, an 0-2 loss to Schalke, and a 2-2 draw with Schalke. Along the way, he managed to keep four clean sheets while helping us win at Anfield and draw at the Etihad. While not impressive on its face, it showed that he had potential and could deliver. With a few more confidence-inspiring performances, he could very well become a Player of the Year at the right club, and—oh. He already has. His performance at Sunderland this season, which has included clean-sheet wins against Man City and Everton, nine clean-sheets over all, and a goals-conceded rate of 1.4, has earned him that precise designation. That's no small feat for a club that sits bottom of the table. Put it another way: Sunderland went 1W, 1D, 8L, -15GD before Mannone took over. Since he became the #1 keeper, they've gone 6W, 7D, 11L, -9GD. That's a considerable mprovement even if it hasn't saved Sunderland from relegation. After all, Mannone has only one job to do, and he's done it pretty-damned well for the Black Cats.

Fabianski might still be a Gunner, but this may only last as long as the next few weeks. Despite his impressive contributions, he seems to want out, and it's a credit to him in my book. By contrast with other want-away players, he's angling for playing time. Like Mannone, he might be willing to move down the table in order to move up in the pecking order even if this means turning his back on Champions League play, among other perks. Better to be between the sticks than on the bench. For nearly seven years, he's waited patiently for his turn only to get pipped by his countryman. Along the way, he's been our man to turn to outside the Prem, turning in stellar performances in our march to the FA Cup final and filling in on short notice when Szczęsny was sent off in the first leg against Bayern and helping to hold the same to a 1-1 draw in the second leg. Last season, of course, he stepped up when Szczęsny was demoted, helping to propel us to five consecutive wins, including the now-famous clean-sheet win at Bayern. Most recently, of course, the man proved his mettle by stopping Wigan's first two penalty-shots in the FA Cup semifinal to help deliver us to the final—but there's now a debate over whether he deserves to play the final if he's set to leave.

Last, of course, is Szczęsny. At the tender age of 24, he's emerged as the first-choice keeper at one of the world's biggest clubs, and he's performed well enough to be among the best young keepers anywhere, so much so that he's entered the debate for this season's Golden Glove—despite being on the wrong end of 6-3, 5-1, 6-0, and 3-0 scorelines. Despite those debacles, he's a very real contender for the Golden Glove. With Petr Čech missing the rest of the season with a dislocated shoulder, he's frozen at 16 clean sheets. Everton's Tim Howard has 15. Szczęsny has 14. If he can keep three more clean sheets and Howard concedes goals in two of three matches, the Golden Glove is his. Even without that award, Szczęsny has easily emerged as one of the best young keepers in the Prem. Others, such as Mignolet and de Gea, have seen a bit of tarnish for various reasons. Ever since losing his starting role to Fabianski last season, Szczęsny has emerged as a consistent, stable, even mature keeper. Gone, for the most part, are the distressingly reckless forays off his line. In their place, increasingly often, are game-saving stops at key moments. Did I mention that he's only 24? His best is yet to come.

For as embarrassing as the riches might have been with three such keepers in the squad, we look to a future with only Szczęsny to rely on. Fabianski looks set to leave, and Viviano's loan ends in June.  If we could just find an ageing, wily veteran keeper willing to mentor the Szcz without demanding too much in the way of playing time, well, wouldn't that be just peachy?