Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Almunia: Time for a Reevaluation?


Few Arsenal players emerged with much credit from the Nou Camp. They all chased and harried a bit, but a telling statistic after the game was that Barcelona's players ran a whole lot more (not sure of the exact figures). It's hard enough playing a team more talented, but when their collective work rate is superior aswell, you don't really stand a chance. Arsenal barely won a 50-50 challenge all night.

As has been the case in recent weeks, Jack Wilshere was at the heart of most of the good things that Arsenal did in attack. And at the back, Laurent Koscielny again won a few personal duels with Leo Messi. But Arsenal's man of the match, if such an award can be given on a night of failure, was substitute Manuel Almunia. He was in almost constant action, particularly in the second half, and quite a few of his saves were in one on one situations. In this strangest of seasons, it is quite possible that he has gone from first choice, to third choice, to the only choice, with Fabianski's season finished and, possibly, Szczesny's too.

It has been fashionable for a long time to deride the Spaniard. He first came into the Arsenal line up in 2004, soon after the team's 49 game unbeaten run had ended so acrimoniously at Old Trafford. His chance came at the expense of Jens Lehmann, who was somewhat unfairly scapegoated for the team's general loss of form. Almunia soon proved himself much more error-prone than even the eccentric German, and by the end of the next season, Lehmann was undoubted number one and a real cult hero, having helped Arsenal to the Champions League final.

Almunia became the main man early in 07/08, when Lehmann dropped horrendous gaffes in the first two league games against Fulham and Blackburn. Despite enjoying a decent season, the Spaniard never quite convinced people that he was a top stopper, and Football365 soon became fond of stating that Arsenal played without a goalkeeper. He's started every season since as number one, but it looked like this time around, with Fabianski finally finding form, and Szczesny looking like the next Peter Schmeichel, Almunia's stint was finally up. Will the performance last night have changed opinions?

Not mine. Almunia's best moments have generally come in games where Arsenal have found themselves under siege- in other words, games that only come around once in a while. This was the case at home to Barcelona last season, even though in that game, he still practically begged Zlatan Ibrahimovic to lob him for the opening goal. He was also impressive in another Champions Leage game, the away semi-final against United in 09, where Arsenal were outplayed and opened up at will. To be fair, he also had a knack of saving penalties, including one against Spurs that probably turned no points into three in 2008.

But the common criticism of Almunia has been his inability to make saves in the games that Arsenal dominate. The games where the keeper just has to make one or two interventions, to ensure that the attacking players can go on and win the game. And you never got the impression that he inspired much confidence in his defenders. His decision making has always been suspect. I will always have nightmares about an ill-advised charge to meet Ryan Giggs near the corner flag at Highbury, leaving Cristiano Ronaldo with an empty net during that temper-flared thriller in 2005. He has never lost that tendency to act on suspect impulses and it has often cost Arsenal dearly.

After the Birmingham game and Ben Foster's standout performance, some asked whether Manchester United should have stuck with him as Van der Sar's understudy. But Foster and Almunia are alike. Foster's best games come when he's busy, and a United keeper will not usually be busy. A United keeper will need to organise his defence, take crosses and make a few saves in between long stretches of boredom. Birmingham suits Foster better because they are a mid-level team, with lower expectations, and he can keep himself busy saving a steady barrage of shots. He will still make regular mistakes but they will not be noticed like they were when he was costing United points.

A big club needs a cool, calm, reliable goalkeeper and that usually means an experienced one. Almunia has experience, but it is of a questionable quality. Before Arsenal, he was a journeyman keeper in Spain, and in all his years in London he has not gained the trust of many. Wenger will probably continue, when given the choice, with the education of either Fabianski or, hopefully, Szczesny, and allow the Spaniard to leave in the summer. In an ideal world, he would buy a man of experience to help the defence along and avoid such catastrophes as we saw at Wembley, but that may be an expensive business and we know what Wenger thinks of expensive business. He would rather sit on the money and live with the inevitable mistakes. The future will arrive some day.

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