Old age gets the better of all us; unfortunately for Arsenal it hit the majority of the ‘famous five’ at the same time and ever since then the Gunners have been trying to fill the void left by one of the best defensive rearguards in the history of football.
David Seaman, a man who for numerous years rivalled Peter Schmeichel as the best Premier League goalkeeper was always going to be big gloves to fill. Jens Lehmann did a good job in attempting this but, like any eccentric German, he was always prone to costly mistakes and comical decisions (most notably with Didier Drogba). When Lehmann moved on, Arsenal were threadbare on experienced goalkeepers with Manuel Almunia the only real stand out name. However, Almunia has never played at international level and has never filled Arsenal fans and football critics alike with much optimism, despite showing some brief signs of brilliance. He has, in more recent times, been replaced by Lukasz Fabianski. Wenger has shown faith in the young Pole but Fabianski still hasn’t overcome the rather unfortunate nickname of “Flappihandski” and has cost Arsenal several points this season (most notably his failure to deal with Andy Carroll when Newcastle beat Arsenal 1-0). Up steps Wojciech Szczesny, who has jumped the queue, bypassing Vito Mannone and Almunia for the number one spot when Fabianski was ruled out for the season.
At 6ft 5inches, Fabianski’s international colleague very much resembles the Pole. Szczesny appears to have arrogance about his play, an arrogance that all the great keepers had, that all great keepers need to command their penalty box. Szezesny had a spell on loan at Brentford last season and earned rave reviews, with Brentford manager Andy Scott claiming “…it has reached the stage where when he lets in a goal you wonder why he hasn’t saved it.” Szezesny still needs time and like Arsenal keepers since Seaman, he has been prone to the odd costly mistake, most recently the horrendous mix up that cost Arsenal the League Cup Final. For now Szezesny has potential, but unlike most players, I feel Wojciech Szezesny will reach his potential and be the man between the sticks at Arsenal for many years to come. However, for the Gunners to reach their own potential as a team, Wenger needs to finally loosen the purse strings and, in this writer’s humble opinion, activate Pepe Reina’s reported £20 million release fee clause.
There has never been any doubt that on their day the current Arsenal side are one of the best passing and free-flowing teams around, however, they are now in their sixth barren year without a trophy to show for their majestic Iberian-esque attacking football. Many believe it’s due to the lack of experience, quality and leadership at the back. Gone are the days when any Arsenal player from the backline raised their arm as the linesman raised his flag simultaneously. Seaman and the back four of Adams, Keown, Dixon and Winterburn (some argue Steve Bould made it a “back five”) were the complete defensive unit of a side that may have not played beautiful football but had a full trophy cabinet.
Wenger has never quite found that rearguard to replace them (with Campbell and Gallas perhaps being the exception for some periods of their Gunners careers), despite trying numerous players in these positions, such as Igor Stepanovs, Pascal Cygan, Phillipe Senderos and now the most recent pairing of Koscielny and Squillaci. All these players have one thing in common; they cost very minimal transfer fees in comparison to the great defenders out there. Wenger has always prided himself on plucking a relative unknown for minimal money and moulding them into a complete footballer; usually with a high success rate, but perhaps less so in the defensive department, with many Arsenal fans and board members issuing their frustrations at this policy of Wenger’s.
I don’t think Arsenal will ever replace the back five; how could you? Leaders like Adams don’t come round too often and ‘safe hands’ isn’t a term used too frequently with all but the most adept modern day goalkeepers. Furthermore, there doesn’t appear to be an awful lot of world class talent coming through the Arsenal system, perhaps Ignasi Miquel will be that missing piece, but as for now, unless Arsene Wenger breaks all his beliefs and spends big on the likes of Gary Cahill or Brede Hangeland, then I’m afraid Arsenal will continue to attack with panache, but defend with malaise.