When you manage a football club, winning is your top priority. You will receive plaudits for developing talent, protecting the club’s finances, and playing attractive football. But ultimately, you are judged on wins and losses. Your trophy cabinet is your resume. And when you don’t win, the other aspects of your stewardship become increasingly difficult to appreciate.
Arsene Wenger has done it all. He has won trophies. He has built Arsenal into one of Europe’s elite teams. He has developed a tremendous youth system, impeccably managed the budget, and put some of the world’s finest football on display. And it is for all those reasons that he is rightly revered as a living legend at Arsenal. He is a manager the likes of which the club may never see again. But now, as we stand at the beginning of a new season’s journey, the fans are getting restless.
Arsene Wenger himself has stated that this team is ready to start winning trophies. The talent is there, the maturity has improved, and all signs suggest that we have what it takes to mount a serious challenge. So it begs the question; if goal keeping is an area of weakness, one that was obvious last season, and identified by Arsene this summer, why have we failed to address it? Arsene’s answer to our goal-keeping conundrum is to essentially act like an ostrich and bury his head in the sand. Maybe if we ignore the problems in goal, they’ll go away. Maybe Almunia will suddenly become one of the top keepers in the Premier League. I’m sorry, but that won’t happen. If we are going to win titles now, it will be in spite of our weakness at goal keeper.
People get certain issues very confused. And when it comes to our goal-keeping transfer saga, I think there is more confusion than usual. Mark Schwarzer was identified as our primary goal keeping target as early as May. Because of that, he’s dominated the discussion. Some fans weren’t convinced that he was the answer. Others took the position that anyone would be better than our current lot. But that’s not the point.
If Arsene Wenger believes that Arsenal Football Club would be better positioned to challenge for a title with better goal keeper, then he should have bought one. Frankly, he should have bought a world class keeper. I’m not educated enough in top European keepers to name the right target. Given or Akinfeev, Schwarzer or Marchetti, Loris or Joe Hart, it’s all the same to me. Somewhere in Europe there’s a great goal keeper that we could have acquired if we were motivated enough to capture him. If the boss valued Schwarzer highly enough to focus on him, then I’ll accept that valuation. But we obviously didn’t get him either.
There are a million reasons why we might have failed in our efforts to secure Schwarzer. Stockdale’s injury over the weekend might have scuppered the deal. Fulham’s inability to secure Shay Given might be to blame. Mark Hughes might simply have refused to sell to us on principle. But if the reason is that we failed to meet Fulham’s valuation, then that’s unacceptable. Arsene Wenger is unwavering in his belief that you shouldn’t pay over the odds for any player. But that ideology is misplaced when the difference of £1 million prevents you from signing a keeper that you believe is needed to win titles. I’m not suggesting that’s what Schwarzer means to Arsenal, but if that’s the player Arsene identified then money should not have been an obstacle.
But Schwarzer isn’t the problem. The problem is that we are going to stick with the same goal keeping situation that undermined us last season, at least until January. Almunia cost us points. Fabianski cost us points. And I don’t mean that in the theoretical sense. They actually cost us points from their mistakes. I don’t want to hear about what the other players could have done better. I’m not an idiot and I realize that there are 11 players on the pitch. But when you travel to Birmingham, and you are seconds away from taking all three points, until the keeper contrives to throw the ball into his own net, it’s fair to blame the keeper. When your keeper comes out to claim a routine corner kick and drops it onto the head of an opposing player so that it can bounce into his own net, that’s the keeper’s fault. Our defenders clearly didn’t trust our goal keepers last season and that exaggerated our frailty at the back.
Arsene Wenger said he was looking for goal keepers. It’s not as if there weren’t any available. The problem is that there weren’t any keepers that met his criteria. Wenger wanted a cheap, short term upgrade, who wouldn’t stand in the way of Szczesny’s ascension to number one in a few seasons. Schwarzer, a nearly 38 year old Australian international, with ages of Premier League experience, seemed to check all the boxes. But for a variety of reasons, the deal failed to materialize.
Now the question must be asked whether Arsene Wenger’s criteria were appropriate. Considering the manager’s publicly stated opinion that this team is ready to win trophies, should he have put such particular limitations on his goal keeper search? Should he have valued Szczensy’s future above the immediate needs of the club? And if Schwarzer really was the only legitimate target, shouldn’t he have abandoned his parsimonious ways on this occasion and made Fulham an offer they couldn’t refuse. The club is in extraordinarily good financial health. No one would begrudge him paying a little over the odds for a player at a position so widely believed to be Arsenal’s achilles heel.
Arsene Wenger is a masochist because he knows what’s coming next, and he invited it upon himself. He knows that everyone who follows Arsenal believes our goal-keeping is suspect. He knows that his own statements indicated that signing a new goal keeper was on the agenda. And he knows that the majority of supporters will be dismayed that a goal keeper didn’t arrive during this transfer period. He should also know that most supporters won’t accept that we were unable to acquire a goal keeper. Had it been important enough to Arsene, there would be a new number one at Arsenal. So there’s no escaping what comes next, and Wenger knows it. The next time Almunia or Fabianski costs us points, the blame will fall squarely in the manager’s lap. Should Arsenal fail to win a trophy this season, and the goal keeping is even remotely to blame, Wenger will come under fire like never before.
Is that fair? Does Wenger deserve to be vilified if our goal keeping costs us points and ultimately trophies? Probably not. He’s done some terrific business this transfer period and developed a very talented team on a limited transfer budget while the Emirates Stadium debt restricted our movements. But it doesn’t matter what’s fair. Half the headlines in the English press aren’t fair or even accurate. But that’s never stopped them. Two seasons ago Wenger took some stinging abuse during a Q&A session at the end of the season. His position as manager wasn’t openly questioned, but some of his player decisions were. (The most memorable was when he was asked about the “geriatric” Silvestre.) It wasn’t a shining moment for the club or the manager or the supporters for that matter. But if Arsene thought that was harsh, I expect he’ll find some of the reaction this season even more vituperative should the club fail to mount a sustained challenge. And this transfer period may well prove to be his Waterloo.
Whether it’s reality or insanity, many supporters believe that signing a goal keeper was all we needed to challenge for top honors. Had a goal keeper arrived, and we still failed to garner silverware, most supporters would have been disappointed, but looked at Wenger as having done all he could in the summer. They would have considered the team properly assembled. Now, regardless of the reasons, and regardless of the fairness, any failure will blamed on Arsene by a growing segment of supporters.
Can we win the title with Manuel Alumunia in goal? That’s the only question that really matters in the end. And the answer is uncertain. If he can play like he did at Eewood park every weekend, then there’s no denying that we can. Whether he can play that way consistently is an open question. But I will tell you this with absolute certainty: we cannot win the title with Fabianski in goal. Therefore everyone (Arsene in particular) must hope and pray that Almunia stays healthy. If he doesn’t, and we have to play our difficult winter fixtures with Fabianski as our number 1, then I have no difficulty saying that our title chances will be lost. I suppose there’s always the January transfer window, but there’s an old saying about that sort of thing: “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.” As far as I’m concerned, we know who our goal-keeping platoon will be for the rest of the season.
Now comes the hard part. We have to turn the page. We have to act like Manuel Almunia is the greatest goal keeper in the world and we have to get behind this team. This is our Arsenal 2010/11. It’s not perfect, but it’s ours and it needs our support. In truth, I’m not sure it would feel like our Arsenal if we didn’t have heart palpitations with every opposing set-piece. Maybe that’s what we must endure in the name of glory.
We have a talented enough team to win everything this season. If Manuel Almunia is up to the challenge, then he can be the hero of this story. He can become the missing piece that we looked outside the club to find. And if he becomes the goal keeper that we need, then all the glory and the credit goes to him and Arsene Wenger. If he doesn’t become that keeper, then heaven help us all because it could be a heart-wrenchingly disappointing season. If Manuel Almunia fails at Arsenal, then Arsenal will likely fail with him. Arsene Wenger is one man betting that won’t happen. Unless he really is a masochist.