Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger’s judgement was widely questioned throughout the summer and the situation only got worse when the new season kicked off. Why did the Frenchman not do more to sign the big names that might have persuaded Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri to stay at the Emirates? Why did he let Gael Clichy join Manchester City for a paltry £7M? Why did the Gunners manager neglect the glaring holes in his back four? And why did he fail to sign a world class goalkeeper with the experience to aid his young side?
“The Professor” has been stripped of that nickname in many quarters given the staggering turn of events that have transformed Arsenal from top four certainties to a team stuck in the bottom half with fewer points than Norwich, Swansea and QPR. Many of the questions surrounding this rattled Gunners squad appear as perplexing now as they did three months ago, but that final one – on the goalkeeping situation – is at least becoming less mind-boggling with every passing week.
After all, Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny has been one of the few bright spots amidst the early season gloom. While the Pole’s back four has repeatedly failed to meet even the most basic defensive requirements, Szczesny has specialised in bailing his team-mates out. Without him, Wenger might find himself in even deeper trouble.
That is not to say that Szczesny has been flawless himself. He will not have enjoyed seeing replays of Tottenham’s winner in the recent North London derby, which he did not get a strong enough hand to, and he should have been more decisive on at least one of Manchester United’s eight goals at Old Trafford earlier in the campaign.
But that should not obscure the confidence and calm with which he has played. At just 21, the Poland international has put more senior team-mates to shame and has made the position his own to the extent that stories linking him with a move to Barcelona do not seem far fetched. While losing the youngster would be a disaster for Arsenal, the transfer chatter certainly validate Wenger’s trust in Szczesny last year.
The signs were there in his Premier League debut at Old Trafford last season. Manchester United finished as 1-0 winners, but the scoreline could have been far worse had Szczesny not made fine saves from Wayne Rooney, Nani and Anderson. Wenger saw the potential and rightly gave Szczesny the chance to gain more experience during the rest of the campaign.
A finger injury cost the goalkeeper a string of games, however he had done enough to convince his manager not to spend big money on a new shot-stopper this summer. While some fans called for a more experienced presence between the posts, Wenger shelved any such thoughts.
But all the drama surrounding the Emirates over the past six months has hardly provided an idea environment for Szczesny’s first full season of Premier League action.
Arsenal’s defensive woes are well documented – and will only get worse after Bacary Sagna’s horrific leg break against Tottenham. Kieran Gibbs is still learning the game, Laurent Koscielny and Sebastien Squillaci have been embarrassed time and again, while Per Mertesacker recently discussed the problems he is having communicating with his new team-mates – a reminder that Wenger should have moved far quicker to address the holes in his squad. Instead, Mertesacker arrived on transfer deadline day with the season already two weeks old.
The result of all these shortcomings? A defence that concedes four goals, including two own goals, against Blackburn Rovers, who had previously proved so hapless going forward that even doubling the size of the goal seemed unlikely to make much difference. Not to mention the 8-2 humiliation against Manchester United in September when the Gunners really hit rock bottom.
That Szczesny has excelled against this backdrop speaks volumes for his character and hard work. And his progress has been faster than even Wenger predicted. Towards the end of last season, the Frenchman said: “I believe he [Szczesny] is doing extremely well. I believe one day he will be the No 1 at Arsenal certainly. But we will see next season. It is down to his performances.”
Very little has gone right for Wenger in 2011, a calendar year he will be only too happy to forget. As a result, the Gunners find themselves in a fierce battle just to climb into the top eight. There are plenty of big tests ahead, but the Frenchman can take a sliver of consolation in the fact that he got his crucial decision over the club’s custodian spot on.