Sunday, September 12, 2010

Arsene Wenger: Was He Bitten By A Goalkeeper As A Child?

At the end of last season, the one position that everyone agreed that Arsenal needed to strengthen was goalkeeper.
Simply put, Manuel Almunia is not of title winning calibre. So why hasn't Arsene Wenger moved to replace his much maligned net-minder? Does he have a phobia against goalkeepers!?

Wenger has been in charge of Arsenal since 1996. In the intervening 14 years he has spent some £236 million on 90 players, building teams at almost the same rate as Sir Alex Ferguson.
However, one thing the Scot appears to have over his rival is the ability to spot a 'keeper. But more importantly is Ferguson's ability to recognise when it's time to move on and replace one.
When Peter Schmeichal left Manchester United in 1999 after 398 games and eight trophy-laden years, Ferguson lost perhaps the greatest goalkeeper of all time.
He was replaced by Mark Bosnich, who did not have the best of seasons in '99-'00, and was then given the ejector seat treatment by a ruthless Ferguson who brought in Fabian Barthez.
To cut a long story short; Manchester United has used 15 goalkeepers since 1999, if you include John O'Shea's cameo against Spurs in 2007!
Of those 15, five have been what would be regarded as first choice 'keepers (Bosnich, Taibi, van der Sar, Barthez, Howard). At present the 37-year-old Edwin van der Sar is the man who wears the No. 1 jersey at Old Trafford and has held down the post since signing from Fulham in 2005.
While all of this has been going on Arsene Wenger has signed just one first choice 'keeper in Jens Lehmann in 14 years.
Even then the German was never what would be regarded a top-drawer keeper, although he did have a great season in '05-'06.
Lehmann was prone to making mistakes and extremely erratic decisions and was also liable to show up anywhere within 30 yards of his goal, meaning that good old' Jens was as infuriating as he was entertaining.
Realistically, you can make a good argument that Arsene Wenger has never signed a good goalkeeper and that the one world class shot-stopper he did have as his disposal was inherited in David Seamen.
So it begs the question, after a lifetime in the sport and being recognised as one of the games great minds; why does Wenger have a blind spot for goalkeepers?
It is a topic that beggars belief; Wenger has helped produce some of best players on the planet in his time as Arsenal manager.
There is little doubt that he has a gift for spotting talent in every position and nurturing it. Over the years, the list of players who have progressed under Wenger is endless, but there is a glaring exception; goalkeeper.
As a master of Economics, Wenger has a keen interest in his club's finances. He recognises the foundation that finance gives his club. He also recognises that if this foundation is stretched in any way, that the entire structure above it can crumble.
Just compare Arsenal's diligent and intelligent approach to the financing of the Emirates Stadium to Liverpool's approach at bringing in funding.
Come October, Royal Bank of Scotland will have made £200 million in interest alone from Liverpool's initial loan of £185 million and will realistically rule who buys the club and for how much.
While Arsenal negotiated their £245 million loan over 25 years and have reduced Arsenal Holdings loans by almost £100 million to £47 million since the Emirates opened. A pocket of financial sanity and stability when compared to Liverpool's insane approach.
Wenger has played a major part during this period and has cut his cloth accordingly. However, as an Economics master, he should also recognise the stability and foundation that a good goalkeeper can give the team, and over the last five years, Manuel Almunia just has not provided that.
Finance is no excuse over such a long period of time and one must wonder how and why a 'keeper of a better stature was not brought in every summer for the past five years and particularly this year.
A quick look at Manuel Almunia's profile, without knowing anything about football, will tell you that the man is not of the calibre to hold down a place in a club like Arsenal.
Between 1997 when he made his debut and 2004 when he joined Arsenal he played just 133 games, with the vast majority of those coming on loan away from his parent club. When he came to Arsenal, he was clearly back-up to the flaky Jens Lehmann.
He progressed through hard work on his behalf and blindness on Arsene Wenger's and has been a major contributing factor to the Gunners not having won anything since their FA Cup triumph over Manchester United in 2005, when Lehmann saved Paul Scholes' penalty in a shoot-out after 120 minutes.
In the four games of this season Almunia has given perfect example of his inconsistency and why Arsenal will not win the league with him in goal.
Against Liverpool he was at fault for David N'gog's near-post equalizer. He then kept a clean sheet against Blackpool before putting in a man-of-the-match type performance against Blackburn.
However, although Arsenal won 4-1 against Bolton, Almunia looked more than nervous against Owen Coyle's ten-men and his decision making was questionable throughout.
It was clear to everyone at the end of last season when Arsenal finished 11 points behind Premier League winners Chelsea that a good goalkeeper could close that gap significantly.
General consensus would seem to agree that Lukasz Fabianski and Vito Mannone are in a similar bracket to Almunia and have yet to show any signs that they are capable of progression while people in the know say that the wonderfully named 20-year-old Wojciech Szczesny is the best young 'keeper to come through the club in years.
While Le Prof is not afraid to push young out-field players into the firing line as they sink or swim it would appear as if he is extremely cautious about Szczesny. Either that or he feels that the young Pole just hasn't reached the same level as Almunia yet.
Wenger seemed to echo most fans want when he bid for Fulham's Mark Schwarzer. A derisory bid of £1.5 million eventually rose to £2 million but it was still £1 million short of the Cottagers estimation for the Australian.
Granted that Schwarzer is 37, but he has probably been the best 'keeper in the league over the last two or three seasons and still has two good years left in him.
Considering that Arsenal will not win the league with Manuel Almunia between the posts, an extra £1 million gamble of Schwarzer seems good value.
However, the real story of the summer was Arsenal's lack of action towards Manchester City's Shay Given.
The Irish 'keeper has been a model of consistency since replacing Tim Flowers at Blackburn in 1997 and has been a model of incredible consistency over the last 13 years and 524 Premier League matches.
If Wenger had any conviction towards Given, he could have forced the transfer through, but it would appear that the most recent high paid bench-warmer at the Eastlands was not even approached.
Leaving you with the distinct impression that Arsene Wenger either thinks that Manuel Almunia is a top-class goalkeeper or that he is afraid the Spaniard might bite him...