On Saturday night, as the whole world watched Robert Green become the latest England goalkeeper to fail at the highest level, one man more than most will have been able to sympathise with Fabio Capello at the difficulty in finding the right man to wear the gloves. I refer of course to Arsene Wenger and his staff at Arsenal, who are similarly unable to find the right candidate for the job.
“Those Were The Days…”
Despite the Frenchman winning every domestic honour and having taken Arsenal to the Champions League Final, he still has many critics at home and abroad. His persistence with both young, gifted players and his demand for an aesthetically pleasing style of play is often derided, it should be lauded and it is easy to see why his team is the neutral’s favourite and why the club and its fans continually back their manager. Wenger IS Arsenal, and that is most definitely a good thing. His vision has changed his team, the club, and indeed English football.
Any perceived weakness or flaw in his style of management can be explained away and countered with a differing view. But the issue of a poor sense of judgement when it comes to choosing men to don the gloves is unquestionable. Of course a number of his choices were better than expected, but most were far worse.
In the early part of his Arsenal tenure Wenger was blessed to have David Seaman between the posts, and that, along with the quality defence allowed him to concentrate on changing the mentality of his outfield players from the “boring boring Arsenal” to the free-flowing, skillful unit we see today.
The first keeper he signed for the club was also probably the best, Alex Manninger. Brought from Graz as cover, he enjoyed an incredible spell while Seaman was injured. A run of eight consecutive clean sheets, a player of the month award, his contribution to the league title of 1997/98 was undeniable. The signing of Richard Wright ended his spell at the club, but he is still playing well, currently deputising ably for Gigi Buffon at Juventus.
“Let Me Make Sure You Don’t…”
Stuart Taylor and Graham Stack were two youngsters who spent more time away on loan than at the club. Both are British, dispelling another myth about the manager’s lack of home nation players. Richard Wright was next to arrive, for £6 million in 2001 after a high-profile spell at Ipswich. He signed at the same time as Sol Campbell and Francis Jeffers – yet more English arrivals for the manager who always buys foreign players!
Wright never seemed to settle into life at a truly big club, an embarrassing substitution in the Champions League just one example of his struggles. He has never really recovered and joined Everton in 2002. As he was leaving Wenger had secured a deal to bring Fabian Carini from Juventus. Despite the Uruguayan putting on a stellar display at the 2002 World Cup he was denied a work permit. Rami Shaaban and Guillaume Warmuz did join, but both never made any real impact.
This brings us to the arrivals of Jens Lehmann and Manuel Almunia, two players who have both enjoyed long spells as Wenger’s number one. Both cost relatively little, and both have been capable of looking world class or Sunday league during the same match. Mart Poom was an able deputy for both, but never able to shift either from their automatic first choice status.
Vito Mannone has shown glimpses of brilliance since his 2006 arrival from Atalanta, probably Italy’s best club at producing young talent. Still six or seven years from being at his peak he is definately one for the future, but Arsenal cannot wait that long for a goalkeeper capable of the standard necessary at the highest level. The same could also be said of Polish International Lukasz Fabianski.
Vito Mannone: The Future?
Wojciech Szczesny and James Shea also joined last year, but both are very young and inexperienced. What Arsenal need is a player able to walk into the first team and make the difference for the club, like Petr Cech, Jose Reina and Edwin Van der Sar often for their Premier League rivals.
The problem can be at least partially explained by two traits typical of Wenger’s transfer policy. A good, established International keeper will be both more expensive and much older than the average Arsenal signing. In the past 18 months however, Wenger seems to have broken both these “rules” to add players his side really needed.
Andrei Arshavin and Sol Campbell immediately spring to mind. Both are vastly experienced, older, wiser and in the Russian’s case, expensive. This is exactly the kind of player Arsenal need in goal, where typically the Frenchman has looked to buy young and cheap options. If the club are to truly challenge for honours he will need to think along these lines once again.
Frey: French Answer?
A number of names spring to mind, all of whom would cost money but prove ultimately worth the investment. Sebastien Frey of Fiorentina has expressed an interest in a new challenge. The Frenchman is 30, which may give Wenger palpitations, but is still young for a quality goalkeeper. He has also retired from International football due to the shocking lack of involvement he has had with the national team – a real waste when you consider his proven quality.
Hugo Lloris of Lyon would cost considerably more, but at just 23 would prove a long term investment. France’s current number one, his value could soar (or indeed plummet) depending on his performance this summer. Another young star is Russia and CSKA Moscow’s Igor Akinfeev, who at only 24 is both his country’s first choice and captain of his club. He would cost in excess of £10 million but again would be a fantastic purchase.
Arsene Wenger has much to consider this summer, but a new goalkeeper should certainly be his “Number One” priority.