Jeepers Keepers

The pursuit of Petr Cech is a very intriguing one for Arsenal on a number of levels, it weaves a web of tangled narratives. On the surface, it’s a signing that makes a lot of sense. It strengthens us in a key position on the pitch, one that many believe the manager has hitherto neglected. Wenger has never properly ‘cracked’ Arsenal’s goalkeeping conundrum. It’s been Arsene’s answer to the leaky hosepipe, gently discharging gallons of water into a thirsty drain. It’s been his creaky door-hinge. Seaman was allowed to go on for too long. Lehmann veered between exceptional and ridiculous with little in between.

Jens’ status as an ‘Invincible’ and his quirky on pitch persona have airbrushed his catalogue of hilarious errors from collective memory. Almunia was a decent goalkeeper, but not really up to scratch for a club like Arsenal and his every error haunted him like a poltergeist. Alex Manninger, Richard Wright and Lukasz Fabianski did not develop as hoped and many are ready to put Szczesny into that category too. David Ospina is 25 years old and, if rumours are to be believed, Fenerbahçe are his most serious admirers, which I think says a lot. In this regard, Cech looks like Wenger’s long overdue trip to B & Q.

Cech’s pedigree does not need relaying here (in other words, I’m not prepared to list Chelsea’s honour roll), even if I am of the opinion that he is on a downward trajectory. The most surprising thing about the transfer is that it looks as though it’s going to be completed with unnerving ease (famous last words). Even if reports are to be believed and Mourinho’s opinion has been disregarded, Abramovic doesn’t exactly have a history of compassionate altruism. Quite the opposite. Allowing a Chelsea player to dictate the terms of their own departure in this way is unprecedented, no matter how loyal and decorated the servant.

Even Frank Lampard had to concoct an elaborate rous, playing knock down ginger with New York City before joining Manchester City. It’s a transfer with a suspiciously human face given the identity of the sellers. In any bog standard horror flick, it’s a lot more unsettling when the villain is convivial. Cech is an interesting choice of goalie for Arsenal from a technical standpoint. On the one hand, headed goals were Arsenal’s kryptonite last season. Cech is a commanding goalie in the air, with a great penchant for claiming crosses and swatting them away. In doing so, he has also proved to be a prolific launcher of counter attacks for Chelsea, a skill that the Gunners could really utilise.

On the other hand, Cech has been used to playing behind a deep, well marshalled defence at Stamford Bridge. Arsenal aren’t quite organised in the same way defensively, so goalkeepers are slightly more vulnerable. That said, the signing of Cech would probably offer assurances for Per Mertesacker. Cech’s form suffered alarmingly when asked to play in the confines of Andre Villas-Boas’ high line. He’s not exactly a ‘sweeper keeper.’ At Chelsea, Cech was accustomed to launching the ball out of his hands to Chelsea’s battering ram centre forward.

Arguably, he can still do that with Olivier Giroud upfront, but Arsenal’s play is a little more subtle. Goalkeepers are more tactically significant than they were a decade ago, especially for teams that are attack minded. It sounds peculiar, but Cech would need to adapt to Arsenal’s playing style. Wenger encouraged Jens Lehmann to play short passes to his full backs and he has asked Szczesny to do much the same, Cech has never really been asked to accommodate this in Chelsea’s more direct style.

Given that Arsenal are trying to sign a 1st choice goalkeeper of some renown and an instant first choice, it seems contrary to claim this as any sort of victory for Wojciech Szczesny. Yet the Pole can feel invigorated by the transfer. If Wenger had no faith in Wojciech in the long term, his prime goalkeeping target would not be a 33 year old that, though still at a good level, is seemingly in decline. It looks as though Ospina is going to fall by the wayside, which is another oddity attached to this transfer. The Colombian will go from first choice to third choice in one fell swoop.

This tells us, as if we didn’t know already, that Szczesny’s banishment from the team last season was entirely a disciplinary measure. In the summer of 2014, Szczesny was left out of the FA Cup Final and Arsenal subsequently signed a 25 year old international keeper, which felt very much like a boot in the rear for Szczesny. This year, Wojciech started at Wembley and he has apparently vanquished his Colombian contemporary. This feels more like an arm around Szczesny’s shoulder. By all accounts, Cech is a remarkable professional and it’s relatively obvious that he will be assigned a dual role, developing Szczesny on the training ground as he goes.

If and when Wenger speaks with Szczesny about the transfer, I imagine the conversation will follow along the lines of, “I believe in you, but watch, learn, shut up, knuckle down and this time next year, give me a headache as to who starts next season in goal.” If Szczesny can develop in concert with Cech’s decline, hoovering up the Czech’s good habits by osmosis as he goes, then Arsenal could have solved their goalkeeping enigma for years to come. I realise that I am by no means in a majority when it comes to my impression of Szczesny’s ability, but I really do think there is a potentially world class goalkeeper in there. It looks as though Arsene Wenger thinks so too.

It’s difficult to chide his attitude with authority without being privy to the daily goings on at London Colney. But it’s obvious that Arsenal have had concerns, they’ve certainly dished out a few public admonishments now, and at 25, we shouldn’t really be talking about potential with Szczesny any longer. Yet Manuel Neuer was 25 when he joined Bayern Munich and it seems as though Wenger is not ready to totally give up on the Pole yet. I think Szczesny’s deficiencies are hugely exaggerated based on people’s unfavourable impressions of his character. I think he has been a good goalkeeper for Arsenal, but he has the ability to be significantly better.

Hopefully Cech (and maybe some fresh blood in the coaching staff) can coax that potential out. The circumstances have been harsh on Ospina, who has done little wrong and has certainly behaved better than his contemporary. He has effectively become the goalkeeping version of Bruce Rioch. But I think Ospina is merely a good goalkeeper with less suggestion that he will ever develop into much more. Szczesny is on a vice presidential ticket and must prove that he has the constitution for the big job once the next election comes round.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto


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