Arsenal and the trouble with world-class goalkeepers

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When David Seaman swapped north London for Manchester in 2003, there was no doubt in any Arsenal fan's mind that they needed to acquire a replacement.

It has been said that the way to a league title is built on the foundation of a settled back five; a fact proven by the few sides fortunate enough to lift the Premier League.

Think back to the successful Manchester United squads of the early 90's - anchored by Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister - Blackburn's Scottish gladiator Colin Hendry and Arsenal's famous back four.

Forward through to the power of the Invincibles, the winning-steel of John Terry and the perfect blend of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic and it's clear to see that the defensive units, whilst possessing similar levels of effectiveness, all differ in their styles and approaches.

One role that required consistency, however, was that of the goalkeeper; Sir Alex Ferguson himself hailed a world-class 'keeper as being "worth 15 points over the course of a season" when he lost Peter Schmeichel to Sporting Lisbon in 1999.

Not for the first time, the legendary manager proved to be correct. His own personal struggle to replace the Dane came at a somewhat fortunate time for the Scot, as the defensive mishaps of potential contenders were highlighted over the Millennium seasons.

Failed Attempts

Perhaps it was this very struggle of his longtime rival that forced Arsene Wenger's hand in 2001, when he invested around £6 million on a 24-year-old called Richard Wright.

Even as the amount is now reputed to be closer to £2 million due to failed clauses, there is no denying that 12 league appearances over one injury-plagued season can be deemed as anything but a huge failure for a player who had promised so much.

It is hard to argue that Wright's failure to ascend into the position of Seaman's successor did little to alter the way in which Wenger invested in goalkeepers, as - until David Ospina's arrival under the new lucrative era - he had not spent any more than £1 million on a goalie. As an inevitable result, none have been particularly convincing.

Wenger had the fortune of walking into a club that happened to boast the strongest back four in England back in 1996; seemingly more important, however, was the fact that he hadn't had to think about replacing his dependable No.1 during his entire reign.

When Steve Bould left, Martin Keown slotted in. Tony Adams retired but Patrick Vieira was a ready-made replacement as captain.

Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn called it a day, so Lauren and Ashley Cole made their rise. Simply from a logical point of view, it makes sense that the goalkeeping position causes the most issues as there are less possible options around.

Yet surely, with the likes of Rami Shaaban and Manuel Almunia considered, Arsenal fans can make plausible arguments that their manager has been unwilling to take the position seriously.


Perhaps, as with most laws, there is an exception to the rule; when Seaman finally left north London in 2003, Wenger had to act swiftly for a solution.

Luckily for the German-speaking Frenchman, a deal over the phone with an established German international was the hasty answer his desires were met with.

In the modern-era of football transfers, this type of transaction may be deemed as a 'panic-buy'; in this respect, the Arsenal manager would certainly dispute this as the greatest of all panics. 

Although Jens Lehmann's ability was never condemned, the same cannot be said of his on-field discipline; still the most red-carded 'keeper in Bundesliga history, he fell out of favour in his last season in Dortmund, yet he still commanded the respect that his performances during the title-winning 2001/02 season had earned.

More than his ability, it was his desire to win that convinced Wenger to complete the Bosman transfer, and he went on to act as one of the main squad commanders in the unbeaten season. 

"I liked his attitude, his intelligence, his personality [...] this is the right guy for the team because he is at the same level of motivation and personality as the rest of the team," Wenger said of Lehmann when he signed.


When you look at raw statistics for goalkeepers, it is almost impossible to tell how much they contribute to a team's performance. Lehmann could only make the top ten of the saves to shots ratio league in 2004.

In fact, Almunia was actually on course to beat Lehmann's ratio record of clean sheets to appearances before the former lost his first XI place, eventually trading north London for Hertfordshire in 2012.

For this very reason, it is easy for Gunners to suggest that one should ignore that Szczesny won the Golden Glove award as recently as 2014, and even easier to pose that we should deny that David Ospina's nearly 90% win ratio was anything other than an anomaly due to Arsenal's signature end of season form picking up after Szczesny's fall from grace. 

Although both have their major downfalls, it would, however, be incredibly harsh to completely write both players off as two more goalkeeping duds under Wenger.

With Szczesny the problem undeniably lies with his unprofessional approach, whereas Ospina's unhelpful lack of a modern-era goalkeeper's physique has surely been unhelpful with both his aerial command and kicking distance.

As pure shot stoppers, they both appear more than capable, and so it can definitely be stated that with time (Ospina is 26, Szczesny 25) and the correct approach, they can ascend in the way that Richard Wright did not.


Nevertheless, the No.1 position is cruel in that there is only room for one for the majority of the season.

Both Ospina and Szczesny can become greats in their own right, but it would certainly be comprehensible if they decided that laying in the shadows of another for several seasons did not fit their career plans.

Wenger's best option would be to keep one as an understudy for the incoming Petr Cech, whose position mirrors that of Lehmann; the only difference being the astronomical transfer fee and wages in comparison.

Both would have come in to the club as 33-year-olds, League champions with both extensive Champions League and international experience and, perhaps somewhat peculiarly, to a team that have just retained the FA Cup.

The expenditure may differ greatly, yet Wenger may see this as a small price to pay for a guy with incredible championship pedigree who is still hungry for more. Ospina could learn from his ability, whilst Szczesny should take a huge amount from Cech's professionalism.

Whoever Wenger decides to keep on, it should not be an issue in deciding whether to play as second to a proven champion. For some time now, it has not been a question of whether Arsenal need a goalkeeper, but rather can Arsenal get the goalkeeper they need.

It finally seems that they have and, with the hope he can maintain his reputation as one of the world's best at the Emirates, Petr Cech should prove to be one of the missed ingredients in building a title-winning side.

At 33, Wenger will hope that the Czech Republic international still has at least a few more solid years in him; and, with a nod to the future, may wish that he can pass on his more treasured tendencies to the next generation.

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David Ospina
Wojciech Szczesny
Petr Cech
Jens Lehmann

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