Having cleared the hurdle that is Aston Villa (a hurdle that had earlier tripped Liverpool, Everton, and, yes, us), and seeing that a long week lies between now and Sunday’s match against Spurs, we have a chance to take a closer look at the man who minds the goal, Wojciech Szczęsny. On one hand, he is regularly touted as one of the best young keepers in the league. However, based on his performances, can we really see his name as a top-five or even top-ten keeper? Does his name readily come to mind when one composes this kind of list? It’s hard to mention him in the same breath with the likes of Hart, Čech, Begovic, or Mignolet, not to mention Jaaskelainen, Cesar, Howard, or others. Do transfer rumors swirl around him as they do for Begovic? There’s been some talk of us pursuing Victor Valdes, which might be interesting if only because it might imply to Szczęsny that he has to run a tighter ship if he expects to hold the starting position.
Before I come down to hard on the man, let me say that I do think he will become one of the league’s best keepers. He’s talented, he’s 6’5″, and he’s clearly our best keeper at this point. He’s young, especially for a keeper–his 22nd birthday is in April. His age and lack of experience are certainly issues that will resolve themselves with time, but in order for Szczęsny to become the kind of top-flight keeper he’s capable of becoming and the kind of keeper we need, he has to do more than simply amass experience and birthdays. Hart and Begovic are only a few years older, but they seem well-past the point of being discussed in terms of potential or talent; they seem more like established, experienced keepers. This comes down to more than just age or experience; it comes down to presence, maturity, and command. While Szczęsny is capable of incredible saves, he is too often caught out due to his own positioning or poor play from his defenders. He was arguably victim to both of these for Aston Villa’s goal, and this is what complicates the issue. If it were just down to his defenders hanging him out to dry, he could get up after a goal like that and eviscerate teammates–as a goalkeeper should. However, without that presence and strong positioning, all he can do is lie there ruing another goal. Similarly, he was perhaps blameless on Bayern’s first goal, a beautifully struck shot that he had little chance of saving. Because Szczęsny does not yet possess presence, he can’t tear teammates a new one: not Arteta for failing to close, nor Cazorla for failing to stop the pass, nor Mertesacker for failing to block Kroos’s shot.
Even if he did scream his fool-head off, he’d have to account for his own flub on Bayern’s second–failing to handle a corner undermines his ability and perhaps his willingness to get up and shout. You can see him try as teammates wander back up the field, but his manner suggests someone who’s complaining rather than commanding. It’s notable that whoscored.com suggests that he “has no significant strengths” and that he is weak in concentration and in dealing with long shots. I started to delve deeper into statistics, but these are notoriously hard to quantify. Some keepers will face a lot of shots because of their defense or style of play, and others will face far-fewer shots. Clean sheets and goals per game are decent proxies, but at the risk of an artful dodge, I’d prefer to focus on presence. Against certain teams, I think “we’re going to have a tough time getting past ________”, and after certain games I think, “man, we should have scored five goals, but _______ was brilliant.” I don’t know how many Spurs fans or Everton fans think similarly about facing Szczęsny. For as talented as he is, I want opposing players and fans to dread the prospect of facing him. I fear that far too many salivate instead.
I’m not suggesting a replacement, but it does seem clear that we need a second-string keeper who can push Szczęsny. Valdes is unlikely to fill that role. Begovic is apparently available, and how delicious would it be to beat Man U to his signature and also snatch him away from Stoke? I don’t know if we’d need such high-profile signings; I do think that Szczęsny needs someone behind him to keep him on his toes. Mannone is a nice-enough chap, I’m sure, but he’s not enough of a threat to Szczęsny’s position to do that job. At this point, of course, there’s little to be done about it until the summer transfer window, so we’ll just have to cross our fingers and wait. Until then, there’s no harm in dreaming, is there? With that in mind, whom should we pursue? Valdes? Begovic? Someone older to tutor the young Pole–how about Napoli’s 36-year old Morgan de Sanctis? Share your thoughts below the fold.