Ospina and Szczesny keep the debate going

David Ospina has played 6 games in goal for Arsenal since New Year’s Day. Whilst we are a long way from being able to formulate definite conclusions about his abilities, there is enough of a sample now to revisit the goalkeeping debate. Ospina played well in January, amassing four clean sheets. It is of course easier to look good in a team that is playing well, but then one could argue that the Colombian was a contributory factor in Arsenal’s improved form – especially defensively.

That said, Arsenal began to field a settled back four for the first time this season, so the foundations were more secure. Against Spurs and Leicester, Ospina was served significantly stiffer examinations than he had been subjected to in January. As such, the Internet again hums with the debate as to who Arsenal’s first choice custodian should be. Szczesny or Ospina? ‘Arsenal’ ‘debate’ and ‘Internet’ are incredibly combustive elements, so the dispute has been divisive, with strong feeling on both sides.

With Szczesny circling the plughole of the substitutes’ bench, I was curious as to the confidence levels Ospina had inspired in his short tenure. So being a man of rigour and science, I asked some strangers on Twitter.

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A resounding majority said that they did not think Ospina would still be in nets come May. Many of the people that said they thought he would be qualified their answer somewhat. Lots of them suggested that Arsenal would buy another keeper in the summer, who would displace both of the current candidates.

If you were to put me on the spot, I think I still prefer Szczesny, but then I have more evidence to work with where the Pole is concerned. Ospina has played well and his apparent shortcomings have potential mitigation at this stage. For instance, I believe Szczesny’s kicking to be superior to Ospina’s. I think Szczesny has the calmness and the accuracy to pick out colleagues more often than not. Many dispute that of course, but I addressed possible reasons for that perception back in December.

According to @whoscored, Ospina’s pass completion stands at 57.9% since he took the gloves just over a month ago. Szczesny’s amounts to 63.7% this season. Szczesny plays an average of 23.3 passes per game, whereas Ospina has played 26. Ospina’s lower percentage may be explained by the fact that he attempts 13.4 long balls per game, whilst Wojciech prefers to pick out full backs and deeper midfielders, he only plays 4.9 long balls per game. But one must also take into account that Olivier Giroud has been absent for more than three quarters of Szczesny’s appearances this season. So perhaps it stands to reason that he would be more reluctant to go long than Ospina.

That said, I do think Ospina’s long kicking needs work. He seems to struggle to get distance. At White Hart Lane this was particularly noticeable. Tottenham’s incessant pressing forced Arsenal to go long to Giroud, but Ospina’s kicks tend to land close to the halfway line. This forced Giroud to come deep to collect the ball, where his aerial ability and peerless upper body strength are less effective. That was also telling when Leicester began to pressure Arsenal on Tuesday night. Giroud was brought on to relieve pressure on the back four, but he could not get into the game.

Giroud is often a release valve for Arsenal’s defence, but the lack of distance in the Colombian’s long kicks limits the effectiveness of that option. Szczesny hits Giroud closer to the final third, where the Frenchman gets more joy, away from the Maginot line of bodies in the midfield. There again, the South American struggled with a long term thigh problem recently and it might be that it’s still impinging on the distance of his kicks. At this moment in time, I also think Szczesny has greater ‘presence’ than his competitor.

There are reasonable explanations for Szczesny’s superiority (or my impression of his superiority) in this most nebulous of qualities. Ospina’s handling underneath his own crossbar or when the ball is close to him looks very secure, as I think Szczesny’s is. However, Ospina looks less assured to me when travelling towards the ball at distance. This is an area where I think Szczesny is very strong – take West Ham away as an exemplar there.

That could of course simply be a question of familiarity. Ospina and the back four are still becoming accustomed to one another, to their respective strengths, weaknesses and predicted actions. When a goalkeeper leaves his line to collect a cross, much is owed to the strength of his communication and Ospina has not mastered English yet. So as well as a lack of mutual familiarity there is a basic linguistic deficit, both of these factors should evaporate given time.

I would prefer for Ospina to forego his penchant for punching under pressure unless he develops a Manninger like swat and starts clearing the ball great distances. Until then, I think it just creates tension and invites pressure. Likewise, he does show a worrying tendency to push the ball back out into the penalty area, rather than around the post or over the bar. Again, he could just be acclimatising to the demands of a new team in a new league, having played for Nice for so long.

We are not a particularly physical or defensive team, so we need a goalkeeper that relieves pressure by holding the ball. We are also, broadly speaking, a possession team so we need a goalkeeper that is comfortable picking out teammates too. Ospina will have formed an appreciation of this now and has the opportunity to strengthen in those areas. He is also acclimatising to a new league which is more physical for goalkeepers. I think he has handled that initiation better than Hugo Lloris for instance, who endured a mixed start to his Tottenham career before settling and becoming one of the finest keepers in the league.

I think I am in something of a minority, but I am a big believer in the ability of Wojciech Szczesny. I honestly believe there is a Cassilas / Courtois level of goalkeeper in there. My impression is that many do not warm to his personality and that moulds their perception of his performances in some cases. I regularly speak to people on Twitter that suggest he makes glaring errors in every game. Maybe I’m viewing selectively, but I just do not see that. The question for me is whether he has improved enough.

Concerns over his attitude must exist inside the club. This is the second time that the substitutes’ bench has been used as a jackboot for his backside. Fabianski’s selection in last May’s FA Cup final was interpreted as a gesture of sentiment towards the departing Pole, but Wenger did not have any compunction about dropping ‘cup keepers’ for finals when Seaman and Lehmann were between the sticks. Last summer, Szczesny was left out of a cup final, after which, the manager bought a 25 year old international goalkeeper. Arsene clearly believes that Szczesny needs a bat on the nose with a rolled up newspaper from time to time.

Wojciech’s challenge is to become his own biggest motivator. Ospina has done little to lose his place for the time being, but I think Szczesny’s dethronement was more to do with ciggies than saves. Ospina’s first major error will give the clearest indication of Wenger’s thinking. If its arrival sees Szczesny instantly reinstalled, we will know that his relegation of status was purely punitive. If the Colombian survives, then that will be a good measure of Wenger’s faith. If nothing else, this is a joust that will keep chins well stroked for some time yet.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto