Petr Cech is a fantastic signing.
I know you’re all with me on this one at least. A sense of slight disbelief was my overriding emotion upon discovering that dear Jose had been overruled and his claws prised away from his veteran goalkeeper, that not only was Cech leaving Chelsea, but leaving for arguably their closest rival for the season ahead – us.
But let me ask you a question: Would you have still wanted Cech if it had meant permanently selling Wojciech Szczesny? At this point I get the feeling that markedly less of you will still be with me, but my answer is a resounding no. Bear with me.
That’s not to say I don’t think Cech is a fabulous signing. I do. Nor is it to say I think Szczesny should be starting ahead of him. I don’t. In a position where experience is crucial, our new Czech stopper is the better keeper right now and the perfect short term solution. But that’s the point – he is a short term solution.
Now I’m all for focussing on the here and now. Over the stadium austerity years, we were forced to eschew those short term solutions in favour of a more sustainable course of action, and now that we’re out of that period it’s right that we spend a bit of money here and there to augment the squad in the important places.
However, I would not want us to throw away our perfect long term solution in the process. We don’t have to sacrifice the future to win in the present.
Let’s have our cake and eat it
At 33, Cech is no spring chicken but he does have a few good years left in him. The trouble is, you only have to look at the string of goalkeepers going through the revolving doors at London Colney in recent years to see that finding a top level keeper (and, as Manchester United are finding out , keeping him) is harder that it looks.
I know the world is meant to be black and white, but indulge me a little here. In a few years’ time, Cech’s reactions may be a few milliseconds slower, his kicking a few yards shorter and his impact a few points less each season. To compete at the top level, you need the best you can get in each position and at that point we will need a replacement. There’s a reason Chelsea were prepared to let him go in order to keep Courtois.
Szczesny may have had a few poor moments last season by his own admission, but just as one good season does not a world-beater make, nor does one poor (half-)season render him useless. The truth is, we have one of the best young goalkeepers in Europe on our books and we should be endeavouring to keep him there. So while I’m disappointed he’s off to Roma, I’d far rather that than he be sold.
On this week’s inaugural Daily Cannon podcast, we touched on Szczesny in comparison to Ospina, and tellingly all three panellists felt the Pole had significantly more potential where his Colombian counterpart was already at his season. Yet they’re only a little over a year apart in age.
Slow and steady doesn’t always win the race
The thing is, if you’re a mid-table team with a fairly defensive mind-set, maybe you want a solid keeper who will save the goals you expect, consistently delivering without wowing you, then maybe Ospina is the keeper for you. But this is Arsenal Football Club, a powerhouse of the English game with aspirations to win the Premier League, the FA Cup, and – yes – the Champions League too. Steady is not enough.
Of course, that kind of underwhelming keeper is ideal for a number two – someone prepared to sit on the bench, someone who can hit the ground running and fill in if needed, someone like Ospina – but from our number one we expect more.
It’s exactly why I’m glad that Szczesny is the one going out on loan to gain further experience rather than Ospina. Confidence is such an important part of our Polish Cockney’s game, and he’ll be able to get that back along with some more experience in his year at Roma.
Szczesny is the kind of keeper that makes things happen, who takes charge of a game rather than waiting for events to happen as Ospina does. Think of how he commanded his area against West Ham last year and nullified Andy Carroll (a man who had terrorised us for years at his previous clubs). Think of how toothless Aston Villa looked in the final of the FA Cup because of Szczesny’s dominance.
Give a little, get a little; give a lot, get a lot
It looks easy, but it’s not. And the truth is that a keeper with that approach will make obvious mistakes as a consequence. However, just because a mistake isn’t obvious doesn’t stop it being a mistake. Think back to the first leg of the Monaco tie – the 90 minutes which effectively saw us eliminated. Few people blame Ospina for that result, and admittedly Per Mertesacker has a significant portion of responsibility sitting at his door too, but I would contend that Ospina could and should have done better for two of the goals.
Not coming for any crosses is worse than fumbling the odd one. Not attempting to sweep up behind your defence is worse than occasionally misjudging the distance. In an ideal world your keeper would come for every cross and through ball perfectly, but we don’t live in an ideal world. Although Szczesny may give away the odd goal with his efforts, he saves far more than that by anticipating and resolving situations where Ospina plays safe.
All the keepers regarded as the best in the league have that decisiveness about them, but they also make mistakes.
Thibaut Courtois took a touch so heavy that it almost ended up outside the box back in March against Hull, allowing the Tigers to equalise, and that after his flapping against Manchester City cost Chelsea the three points.
David De Gea also cost his side a goal flapping at a cross, this time against West Ham, and his error against Preston in the FA Cup almost robbed us off that classic Welbeck moment up at Old Trafford.
And Hart’s annual benching off the back of a few mistakes is becoming an event so regular you can set your watch by it. No, top keepers still make mistakes, but they make them for the right reasons – playing on the edge to try to make a difference for their team.
Cech is the same. There was one standout moment against Wolfsburg in the Emirates Cup when he advanced some distance from his goal and gathered a dangerous ball towards the edge of his box just before the onrushing forward – I could not imagine Ospina ever coming for a ball like that.
The difference between Cech and Szczesny at this stage is that Cech’s greater experience allows him to judge the times and distances marginally better, and therefore reducing the corresponding number of errors. Success for Szczesny is minimising those errors, while continuing to save his team points.
Incidentally, that’s exactly what he talks about in his first interview with Roma – making a difference, saving points. This is not a man content to do the basics well; it’s a man ambitious to make a really positive difference to his team. And why not? He has the talent.
When we signed Cech, one of the most exciting parts for me was that Wojciech would get to learn from a man who has won every club competition there is, a man who was universally respected as the best goalkeeper in the game at his peak.
That won’t be happening this season after all, but that’s ok. Cech is going to be around for more than one year, and this gives Szczesny a year, or perhaps even two, away to gain some more experience before returning to fight to reclaim his place, and once again wear the number one shirt.
Tellingly, Arsène chose not to take it away from him in the first place.