It can be hard to tell a great goalkeeper from a good one.
Part of that is because the career trajectory for a top level stopper tends to be very different from their outfield counterparts. For example, it’s widely accepted that a regular player will hit peak form somewhere in their mid-to-late twenties. For a ‘keeper, however, many don’t produce their best until they’re past the big three-oh.
Often, that means that the best goalkeepers at an early age don’t always end up being the best options once they mature, and vice versa. Historically, anyway.
Petr Cech has been – undoubtedly – a world class ‘keeper, but the operative part there is “has been”. It struck me on this week’s podcast that when we signed him from Chelsea, our joy was almost as much around having deprived a rival as it was around having gained a great player.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for enjoying getting one over the West London upstarts. I just thought it was telling that Cech – a man idolised by the Stamford Bridge faithful – was allowed to go to clear the way for Thibaut Courtois. And by Jose Mourinho no less.
Attention has turned to a younger generation
Consistency is usually the number one yardstick by which to measure a ‘keeper. Take David James. He was a fantastic goalkeeper who could – on his day – be the best in the country if not the world. The trouble was that he made too many mistakes. He simply wasn’t reliable.
Clubs typically look to more experienced keepers for precisely this reason. Their reading of the game, and therefore room for misjudgement, tends to come with age. However, there’s been something of a change in recent years.
Both Manchester United and Chelsea are among the clubs to have eschewed older, more experienced stoppers who – in the short term at least – would provide them with significantly greater consistency. They have done so, accepting the initial cost, to allow younger and ultimately more talented goalkeepers to settle at a much earlier age than usual.
When David de Gea arrived in England, he made rick after mistake after howler. £18.9m? A quality bit of journalism in the Daily Express wrote him off after just two games! Yet United stuck with him, and he has rewarded them by turning in performances which have earned him their player of the season award for the last three seasons on the bounce.
Chelsea have also stuck by Courtois, to the point where they were prepared to discard their most successful ‘keeper ever, in order to hold onto the Belgian. For both clubs, the youth policy is now paying dividends. They have on their books a world class ‘keeper who still has a good decade at the top level ahead of them. The dream scenario.
Meanwhile, Arsenal shipped off their own young and inconsistent stopper to play in Italy.
To say I was disappointed is an understatement.
How to waste a great goalkeeper
Now let’s be clear. I was, and still am, glad we signed the big Czech. However, I’ve been disappointed in how we’ve used his value.
Even before Cech joined us, the signs were there that he wasn’t going to be one of those evergreen performers. He was a fantastic solution for a year or two, three at most, but then we would need to look to the future. To Wojciech Szcesney.
To my mind, we signed Cech as more than just a first team player.
I wrote back then of my hopes that he was to be a role model, an exemplary professional, to guide the career of Wojciech Szczesny. The Pole was the obvious choice to succeed Cech when he came to hang up his boots. Indeed, I assumed Szczesny would be briefly displaced, but following a glorious twilight of Cech’s career, the younger man would return to between the Emirates sticks.
Our Pole in goal has a fantastic array of skills; it was his off-field behaviours and concentration lapses against lesser sides that were threatening to derail a promising career. Playing understudy to one of the game’s greatest professionals could only be a positive thing in correcting that. Except we didn’t let him.
Taking matters into giant hands
Luckily it looks like Szczesny hasn’t let that stop him.
Since we allowed him to leave, he has been able to get more game time and more experience on the continent. He is now showing at Roma that with a little application and a maturity, he can be the main man for a top European club. He has fought off competition from a new goalkeeper signed for €7.5m, and made the number one shirt his own. And he’s still only 26. As Lee wrote a few weeks ago, if he wasn’t already an Arsenal player, we’d be screaming at Wenger to sign him. (Incidentally, that’s a great read – it still rings true a month on, and was written before the Chelsea catalyst.)
I know many didn’t agree with me at the time, but I would have rather not have signed Cech than lose Szczesny altogether. And now, as Cech continues to slide down the mountain of form, Szczesny is still ascending the other side.
Many Arsenal fans are – understandably – negative towards the Pole, remembering the high profile errors. For me, I remember the boy who saved a Dirk Kuyt penalty and a string of fine saves in a 2-1 victory over Liverpool. The boy who saved a penalty in the crucial Champions League qualifier against Udinese. The boy who floored Gareth Bale in the process of collecting a high ball in the North London Derby. And then winked.
He’s a world class keeper, he’s also a character, and he’s finally matured from a boy into a man, just at the right time.
And Arsenal need a man like Wojciech Szczesny.