Last season, Arsenal took just one point from their two league encounters with West Brom. After a painful 3-2 defeat at the Emirates, the return fixture was only a slight improvement, as the Gunners came back from 2-0 down to draw 2-2.
Manuel Almunia played a ‘starring’ role in both games. He quickly went from villain to hero, then back to villain, during the home match with the Baggies. Having conceded a penalty, he denied Chris Brunt from the spot, and the teams went in at half time all square at nil-all. However, after Peter Odemwingie put the away side 1-0 up, Almunia let Gonzalo Jara’s shot squirm past him at the near post.
Another poor decision from the Spanish goalkeeper saw him come flying out of his goal when there was absolutely no need for him to do so, which led to West Brom going 3-0 up. Despite Samir Nasri’s double, Arsenal couldn’t snatch a point.
The reverse fixture saw yet more haphazard goalkeeping by Almunia. After failing to keep out Steven Reid’s first half header, he once again came charging out of his area to challenge for a ball he had no right to challenge for, before shoving Sebastien Squillaci as he attempted to tackle Odemwingie, who had the easy task of slotting into an empty net.
These two games highlighted the importance of having a good goalkeeper, in that they won’t just win you games, they’ll prevent you from losing them under stupid circumstances. Almunia has regularly failed to do so for Arsenal, and it was a source of confusion how long Arsene Wenger persisted with the Spaniard.
Goalkeeping errors have been a source of dropped points for Arsenal since the decline of Jens Lehmann, and this is the first time since then that everyone at the club has had full confidence in the man between the sticks.
Finally however, Arsenal fans now have a goalkeeper to be proud of. Wojciech Szczesny is just 19 years of age, yet has been tipped to the number 1 at the Emirates for decades to come. What’s refreshing for Arsenal fans is that he has a big personality, like Jens Lehmann. Almunia had been criticised for being too timid – something Szczesny could certainly not be accused of.
The confidence the Pole instils in his defence is clear. Not only do they visibly feel more comfortable with Szczesny in goal, but supporters can breathe easily when their goalkeeper goes up to catch a cross, instead of praying he doesn’t drop it.
In previous seasons, rather than winning Arsenal points, Almunia lost them points. His mind-blowing error against Birmingham two seasons ago springs to mind, which gave the Blues a last gasp equaliser in a game Arsenal had to win to keep in the hunt for the title. Goalkeeping errors have been a source of dropped points for Arsenal since the decline of Jens Lehmann, and this is the first time since then that everyone at the club has had full confidence in the man between the sticks.
West Brom’s main goal threat, Shane Long, will be sidelined, so the task of chief goalscorer will fall to Arsenal’s tormentor last season (and reported target) Peter Odemwingie. The Nigerian thrives on one-on-ones – unluckily for him, that’s one of Szczesny’s strengths.
Arsenal have long been criticised for their weakness on set pieces, but Szczesny, at 6 foot 5 is dominant in the air and rarely has Gooner hearts in their mouths.
As a young goalkeeper, Szczesny will undoubtedly make mistakes and weaknesses will be revealed as time goes by. But it’s certain that Arsenal have a world class goalkeeper in the making. West Brom will do well this season to score even one past Szczesny, let alone the five they managed overall against Arsenal last season.
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