A good goalkeeper can save you 15 points a season.
So the legend goes, anyway.
This season Arsenal finished 12 points behind Champions Chelsea, and if rumour is to be believed, we did that without a good goalkeeper. So the way to catch them is obviously to buy one, right?
Wrong. We have the best goalkeeper in the league at our club already.
But is it the one you would expect?
All three of the clubs joining us in the Champions League places have opted for a particular formula – young and talented stars in David de Gea, Thibaut Courtois and Joe Hart, backed up by experienced veterans in Victor Valdes, Petr Cech and Willy Caballero.
In going down this route, those three clubs have more or less acknowledged the situation – that it is now very difficult to attract and keep two top level goalkeepers, even at the level of wages that Chelsea and City in particular can afford.
There’s a reason for that, of course. Goalkeeping is unlike any other position on the field, in that there is rarely any tactical rotation and almost never any tactical substitution (Louis van Gaal at the World Cup aside!). This means that for a goalkeeper, unless you are first choice there is no real prospect of game time.
We are unlike our top four rivals in that we have two young goalkeepers – Naughty and Shorty – both vying for that number one jersey. However, very few pundits place either of the current Arsenal goalkeeping duo in their top five, with the likes of Fraser Forster, Hugo Lloris and even occasionally Simon Mignolet being mentioned as superior alternatives.
Most fans agree.
A surprise package
Yet who is the best goalkeeper in the league, statistically? David Ospina.
He has conceded the fewest goals per game, kept the most clean sheets per game and has the highest save percentage of all the top flight keepers with more than 10 games under their belt this season.
But is it enough? In spite of his statistical superiority, Ospina is a number two in my mind. The Colombian makes a very good second choice keeper – he has given interviews about how he came to England expecting to be the backup, and if he is content with that role then we have a place for him.
However, he has inherent limitations that mean he will never be a very top level one, and if we aspire to the League title, we simply must expect more of our number one.
The real conundrum surrounds the future of Wojciech Szczesny. In 90 minutes last weekend he demonstrated almost all of the qualities that make him stand out – command of his area, a strong and dominant aerial presence and pin-point accurate kicking even under pressure.
Problematically, his form this season has been nothing short of volatile.
There is an argument that the goals he has conceded have been from very good chances, where there is little the Pole can do about the situation. Certainly Arsenal’s defence has afforded him little protection.
Equally, our Polish cockney has dropped a few clangers which in turn led* to Arsene Wenger dropping him.
*An ill-advised fag in the showers aside.
Arsene Wenger’s patented mental strength
With Szczesny, the questions all revolve around whether he has the mental side of the game to match his undoubted talent. We have often been linked with keepers like Begovic, but on each such occasion the concern has been the step up required to bridge the difference between being a keeper for a mid-table side versus a title-chasing side.
They are almost completely different positions, with a mid-table keeper regularly involved in the game and being kept on their toes throughout where a top level keeper may not touch the ball for the best part of half an hour but still needs to remain alert on the off-chance the ball does come their way.
Ultimately, it’s the reason why the likes of Fabianski and Mannone didn’t make it with us – they are at their best when they are involved in the play. We can all remember games where a goalkeeper has seemed unbeatable, when the opposing team can have 30 shots on goal but not score. It requires a different level of mental focus to save 1/1 when you are not involved compared to saving 30/30 when the ball hardly seems to leave your area.
In tight games it can make all the difference.
The 2013-14 season was Szczesny’s best in an Arsenal shirt, and one which saw him collect the much coveted Golden Glove award. This season has been rather less impressive, and seen him drop below Ospina in the pecking order. The Colombian is a solid stopper, but he is no Szczesny.
Wojciech’s misdemeanours at St Mary’s were not just stupid, they were selfish – the consequences were that we had Ospina play in the crucial Champions League first leg, and conceded three goals, at least two of which were saveable.
Arsene Wenger has a big decision to make this summer on whether he thinks the Pole has the mentality and maturity to be the foundation stone of this Arsenal team as we look to climb to the Premier League summit.
After his loan spell at Brentford, then manager Andy Scott credited Szczesny with earning Brentford a full 15 points during the 2009-10 season. 15 points would do very nicely, thank you very much.
Whether Arsene gets this decision right or not may determine whether we overhaul Chelsea and claim a crown that we last won back in 2004.
No pressure then.