Arsenal 2011-12 Season Review – Goalkeeping
As promised, today is the first instalment of the season reviews. Instead of evaluating player performances though, I will be looking at the broader areas such as defense, midfield and attack.
That said, today’s topic is goalkeeping. With Wojciech Szczesny ever-present for Arsenal between the sticks this season, it may seem like a player review today after all.
So how has the Pole’s performance been? There were a couple of interesting stats from top Arsenal tweeter Orbinho in this regard:
Top 4 Save % - De Gea Man U 78%, Hart Man C 77%, MIgnolet Sunderland 74%, Friedel Tottenham 74%.—
(@Orbinho) May 15, 2012
Bottom 4 Kenny QPR 64%, Szczesny Arsenal 63%, Jaaskelainen Bolton 63%, Robinson Blackburn 57%—
(@Orbinho) May 15, 2012
It just reiterates Arsenal’s well publicized goalkeeping problems over the last few seasons. Manuel Almunia’s alarming drop in form and Fabianski’s erratic performances meant that Arsenal had looked shaky in goal for a couple of seasons prior to this campaign. Unlike his fellow Pole, Wojciech Szczesny took his chance at the end of last season. At the start of 2011-12, he was already regarded as Arsenal’s number one.
Szczesny is the only Arsenal player to have started each of the 38 league games. In all, he’s played 48 games this season and kept 18 clean sheets. In comparison, Fabianski has started just 6 games in total and not managed a single clean sheet, whereas Manuel Almunia has not featured all season.
In terms of performances, the two most important ones that stick in memory were the crucial penalty save against Udinese in August which helped Arsenal qualify for the Champions League group stages and his match-winning performance against Liverpool in March where he made the double save from Kuyt’s penalty. Even in losing causes though, such as against AC Milan at the San Siro, the Pole produced a decent individual performance even if Arsenal were conceding goals.
The one that stands out for me is his save off Kevin Doyle in our 3-0 win against Wolves. Arsenal were comfortably leading 2-0 at the time and Wolves were down to ten men. Szczesny hadn’t had anything to do all game until the Doyle header. In previous seasons, it was the kind of goal Arsenal would have conceded and allowed the opposition back into the game. As it was, Wojciech kept his concentration and made a fine save.
Desi Gunner did an article for EPLIndex.com in December where he made a statistical comparison of Arsenal’s three keepers. He reasoned that Almunia’s ineptness in 2010-11 was as much down to Arsenal’s failure as a defensive unit as the Spaniard’s own form and that the other two Arsenal keepers were not as bad as they were made out to be.
I thought it would be interesting to compare Szczesny’s Pemier League season figures not only with his peers but also with Manuel Almunia’s 2008-09 season, when he was undoubtedly Arsenal’s number one keeper.
While stats don’t prove everything, you can see from the chart above that Desi Gunner’s reasoning from December is still valid. Whether it be the high goals per game ratio or the low save percentage, the Pole still has some way to go in matching Almunia’s best season with Arsenal, leave alone the other top 4 league keepers. The statistic right at the bottom is most disturbing; seven defensive errors at this level is probably five or six too many.
We can argue though that Arsenal’s defensive performance this season has been the worst in the last four seasons, so that may explain some of the numbers related to goals conceded by Szczesny.
For me, the most positive thing about the Pole is his ability to put mistakes behind him. As an outfield player, an individual error does not necessarily lead to concession of a goal. Even when it does, amateur armchair pundits like me can blame the lack of positional awareness by other players as a contributing factor. But the keeper is the last line of defense and there’s only the back of the net behind him. And when mistakes happen, these are highlighted and blame can be attributed much more easily. In this respect, Wojciech rarely carries bad form for two or three games in a row. For e.g. the abysmal Norwich performance was backed up by a more assured display against West Brom.
The other important factor is his leadership at the back. He exudes a confidence we did not see in Almunia’s performances towards the end of last season, except maybe in the Barca game. His judgement for when to come out for the high balls is not always perfect but he doesn’t miss too many when he does come and that leads to more confidence in the back line.
Thirdly, Szczesny has the personality to get the crowds behind him. His confidence in interviews and press conferences and his celebrations with fans post-match all point to his pride at being a Gooner. It is a quality which has endeared him to fans, who are more likely to forgive the odd lapses by players who they feel are more committed to the cause. Such forgiveness is crucial for confidence in bad times.
On the negative side, he is prone to rushing out at times when he can’t get to the ball, leaving himself to make last-ditch challenges to save the situation. His ill-advised tackle on Ashley Cole in the 5-3 at Chelsea could easily have earned him a red card and there have been other similar errors of judgement.
His kicking requires some work too. The Pole tends to be caught in two minds when strikers close him down, and his clearances under pressure leave a lot to be desired. While his possession stats are not bad, that’s more because Arsenal play their way out of the back and the Pole needs to improve his accuracy and kicking range in the coming season.
Lukasz Fabianski hasn’t done much all season as back up, although I thought he was impressive against Bolton in the Carling Cup. While Almunia will definitely move out at the end of his contract, probably already has, there are doubts whether Lukasz would be happy with another year on the bench. The fact that Szczesny played the last five weeks of the season with an injured shoulder indicates the lack of genuine competition to the youngster.
Vito Mannone has been at Hull City for two seasons now and seems to have found his level there, so I can’t see him returning. The young Damien Martinez can step up into the first team but I doubt he will challenge Szczesny anytime soon. Arsenal need a proven keeper as back up to keep Szczesny on his toes and as contingency for injuries.
In the meantime, if Wojciech Szczesny can continue to build on what has been a very good first full season, Arsenal may well have left the goalkeeping woes behind.
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