Category Archives: Lukas Fabianski

Cazorla’s considering Atleti? Is he the canary in the coal mine?

A month to the day, we won the FA Cup to bring to an end the hated trophy drought, an apt and glorious bookend to having won the FA Cup nine years prior; let this launch a parallel period afterward that sees future seasons unfold towards a period similar to the beginning of Arsène’s tenure. It could be like one of those mirror-images: period of glory capped with FA Cup win, drought in the middle, FA Cup win launches period of glory. That could work. However, even before the dust has settled, it seems we’re seeing an exodus of players far more alarming than last summer’s, when we could look on with smug satisfaction as the Chamakhs and Squillacis were sent packing. This time through, though, there are sadder partings and alarming rumors, which together threaten to jeopardize the goodwill and momentum generated by winning that FA Cup.

First was the departure of Lukasz Fabianski, which we would attribute to his wanting first-team action. No real alarm bells there. It was long rumored, even anticipated, and need not upset the apple cart. Then came the news that we had passed on Fàbregas, seeing him as superfluous after Özil’s arrival. Emotionally unsettling, to be sure, but on a rational level, sensible. Midfield’s packed, after all. Next was the departure of Sagna to Man City, unsettling emotionally and strategically. Then came rumored news that Thomas Vermaelen, putative captain, had agreed to terms with Man U. While shocking and, ultimately, spurious (for now), alarm bells are starting to ring. It’s one thing to go through a season with three fit center-backs; it’s quite another to try with only two—and without Djourou to recall from loan, all the more risky. The latest story, complete with quotes from the man himself, involve Santi Cazorla, Arsenal’s Player of the Season for 2012-13, moving to Atlético. Now, we have a key starter and contributor speaking evasively of his future with Arsenal:

When the World Cup is over, I’ll start thinking about my situation. I don’t want to be thinking about it right now and I’ve told my agents not to tell me anything if an offer comes in. But I know a few of the Atlético players—Godin, Juanfran—and I know the side well from when I was playing the Spanish league. But until the tournament is over, I won’t know if the rumours are true or not.

That’s hardly a threat to leave, but it’s well short of a vow to say. I know it’s the silly season and all, but it’s a bit unnerving to think that, instead of needing “just” a striker and perhaps a burlier holding midfielder, we now need a back-up keeper, a right-back, a center-back if not two, and, ironically, an attacking midfielder. How would it feel to have passed on Fàbregas because he’s extraneous and then lose Cazorla? Yes, Cazorla as listed as playing wide left, but, truth be told, he’s the narrowest of wide-men we’ve had in a while. It’s not a one-for-one comparison by any means, but it might sting a little to realize that, yes, it might have worth it to bring Fàbregas back.

It’s almost enough to make one pine for the stays of on-loan players Kim “I also have umlauts” Källström and Emilio “who? Oh yeah, him” Viviano. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just…

What on earth is going on? We knew at some level that Arsène will probably leave his dealings late in the window, using a variety of excuses and dissemblings about the the World Cup and Champions League qualification and so on, but most of that was premised on the idea that we only had a small handful of signings to make. Heck, if we had held on to Sagna, we might have only needed three: a striker, a holding midfielder, and a keeper. Now, we look at a summer in which we need as many as five, if not six: those three plus a center-back (or two), a right-back, and a midfielder.

In the past, I’ve likened transfer-rumors to a weather-vane, a fitful, unreliable, but nonetheless helpful indicator of which way the wind is blowing. In seasons past, the weather-vane often pointed entirely the wrong way, with key players leaving and few if any coming in to replace them. However, at the risk of sounding melodramatic, each new departure and each new rumor feels more and more like a canary in a coal-mine. That’s not the melodramatic part. The melodrama comes from the idea that the club is the canary, and the departing players are the miners. The question then becomes, what will Arsène do about? Surely he sees the players fleeing the scene. Surely he sees that we can’t afford to leave it late again. He might reassure himself that the departures of Fabianski and Vermaelen (potentially) represent little more than the loss of back-up, squad-level players, but it’s harder to make the case around Sagna and Cazorla, instrumental players.

A few weeks ago, I contented myself with the idea that the signing of one or two players could paper over needs at other positions, at least for a while. That was before our needs began to add up, if not multiply. No, we haven’t seen Cazorla or Vermaelen leave, but it’s getting hard to sustain the optimism. If winning the FA Cup was supposed to launch a renaissance, why do the early signs feel so inauspicious? I’d love to believe that this all fits in with Arsène’s grand plan, but even I am finding that hard to believe.

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Szczęsny’s 15 sheets in the wind…

Like many of you, I was a bit confused and even disappointed to see that Łukasz Fabiański got the nod over Szczęsny against Norwich, assuming that it would deny Szcz a chance at the Golden Glove. Before the match, he had kept the same number of clean sheets as Chelsea’s Petr Čech but had played more matches, which would hand the award to Čech. However, according to the Premier League’s official twitter account, Čech and Szcz will share the award.

Once I got over my befuddlement, I thought I had come to grips with the decision. After all, an award like this one would might inflate Szczęsny’s ego, and for as much as keepers thrive on confidence, Szczęsny if anything suffers a surfeit of it, so much so that he needed a benching last season to remind him that he’s not irreplaceable and that he must work to earn and keep the #1 spot. He’s been splendid since his return, although there have been a few moments to remind him and us that he’s still learning. I saw this more-recent demotion as another nudge from Arsène that, for as good as he’s become, he’s not at the level on the pitch that he assumes he is in his mind.

Past that, I wondered if Arsène was tipping his hat to Čech, a world-class keeper who arguably deserves the recognition and award more than Szcz does. The man missed Chelsea’s last three matches after injuring his shoulder against Atletico Madrid, and he might very well have earned the award had he faced Norwich or Cardiff. I wouldn’t put it past Arsène to pull a move like this, even if it did benefit Chelsea. Then again, it might be a clever little jibe if Chelsea can only muster up one individual award while Arsenal come through to win the FA Cup. Time will tell. Thanks to Čech, at least Chelsea won’t finish the season empty-handed. Aha. Ha. I promise that will be the only attempt at humor for the rest of the column.

More seriously, though, it turns out that, once again, I have little or no idea what I’m talking about. I know so little, in fact, that I don’t know if  I know little or nothing. It’s a bit of a catch-22. It turns out that Szcz does get to share the Golden Glove, which comes as a surprise to me as I was under the impression that the award could only go to one person. Perhaps Arsène knew ahead of the match that Szcz and Čech would share the award. This would negate the previous suggestion that Szcz was demoted to make sure he didn’t get too big for his britches, but it would make sense as Arsène considers the FA Cup final. Having already stated that Fabiański would play the final, it would be important to give him a warm-up even if Norwich didn’t test him very much. It’s now a month since Fabiański faced Wigan, and even if the Golden Glove were to slip through Szcz’s fingers, certainly the FA Cup means more to the squad than the individual award.

Some are licking their chops at the prospect of facing Hull, who seem to be sinking faster than the Titanic—winless in their last five, it would be easy to assume that they’ll keel over before halftime on Saturday. The freedom that flows from that assumption means that Hull can play without pressure or worry while we fight to overcome not just them but a looonnnggg trophy-drought, not to mention trying to banish a fair few ghosts of past debacles against lower sides. At least Hull’s name doesn’t start with B.

With Fabiański again looking sharp on Sunday, we have to feel that the match is in good hands. This is a keeper who has earned two Man of the Match awards from (against Norwich and Bayern), came up with massive saves against Wigan in the shoot-out, and hasn’t lost an FA Cup match yet. If there’s one complaint to dredge up, it’s that he hasn’t kept a clean sheet in the competition since facing Tottenham in the 3rd round. I’m sure he’ll do his best to set things right on Saturday. Should we bring home the Cup, Arsène’s decision may well prove Solomonic: Szcz gets his award, Fab gets his, and the club claims silverware to cap off the season. Not bad. Not bad at all…

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Sagna’s swan-song…or has it already been sung?

What an odd, empty Saturday. No Prem matches to pass the time. In their absence, I caught up on some thumb-twiddling and mumbelty-peg while my offspring begged me to interact with them. Without any proper football to watch, however, and with Sunday’ clash with Norwich lacking any real drama beyond Szczesny’s quest for a Golden Glove, it’s hard to summon the requisite energy. The match feels more like a friendly, maybe even a Sunday league game. At each end, it’s likely that we’ll see both squads rotate pretty heavily, further fueling the idea that its outcome matters little if at all. Off-the-pitch issues rise to the surface, chief among them the increasing likelihood that Bacary Sagna will leave this summer if his own words are to be believed.

PSG? It’s a little bit that way. East of here.

In fact, we may have seen the last of Sagna already unless Carl Jenkinson is otherwise unfit or unavailable. Sagna did well against West Brom, but that might be his swan-song. Without trying to sound disloyal or callous, if he’s already preparing for his next move, then so too should we. He certainly speaks like a man with more than one foot out the door:

I am out of contract, as everyone knows. I still consider myself as an Arsenal player at present. But actually we had a small problem to agree and I do not think [I will] stay at Arsenal at the end of the season.

It’s a pity that he and the club couldn’t agree to terms, as I would have liked very much to see him see out his career at Arsenal. He’s among the longest-serving members of the squad, and his experience and understanding of Arsenal, the Prem, and the position would make him a valuable mentor to Jenkinson and whoever else might be brought in (Aurier?). Still, it’s hard to refute or criticize his apparent desire for one last, large contract, not to mention a crack at silverware. It is hard to stomach his apparent interest in moving to league-rival. Yes, Man City, can give him the pay-rise he seeks and likely silverware as well, but he’d become a squad-player, sitting behind Zabaleta week in and week out, and that’s a demotion that just doesn’t sit well with me. I’d much rather play than watch. Then again, I never won anything as a player, so maybe I’m just making a virtue of necessity.

If Sagna’s set on leaving, well, we might as well say our fare-wells. Jenkinson, you’re up.

If nothing else, starting Jenkinson avoids the awkwardness of Sagna relive the re-break of his leg, which occurred last May when Norwich’s Bradley Johnson appeared to stomp it. Sagna was able to get up to rejoin play, but when he went to trap the ball down, he immediately collapsed, holding that same right leg. Whether Johnson stomped him accidentally or deliberately is another question for another day. Before that day arrives, it seems like the best thing to do is to hand the position over to Jenkinson. He’ll become our right-back, if only by default, unless and until we can bring in another. He may not be good enough to our full-time, first-choice right-back but has done tolerably well when called upon. If nothing else, the match is so low-stakes that little can go wrong. If he acquits himself, splendid. If he flounders, all the more reason to target a right-back in the summer window.

Back to Sagna. After all, there is one last match to play: the FA Cup final. Does Sagna play? On one hand, it might be a fitting send-off; should we win, it would provide a fine capstone to a very good, at-times great, career. Then again, is it churlish to suggest that his imminent departure should prevent him from fully sharing in the spoils? It’s not as if he’s pulling a Nasri. Even after he leaves, he’ll be remembered fondly for his years of toil. However, ambivalence best-describes my feelings here. Unlike Fabianski, who will also likely leave this summer, Sagna has been the number-one player at his position for almost the entirety of his time here. Fabianski, on the other hand, has had to watch as Szczesny has eclipsed him for club and country. I have no qualms with him playing the FA Cup final. For better or worse, it’s become “his” competition. With Sagna, however, I’m not sure where I stand. Would winning the FA Cup commemorate Sagna’s seven years of service, or should it announce the arrival of Jenkinson’s tenure?

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Arsenal, home to the Prem’s three best keepers…

The man between the sticks often cuts a forlorn figure. If his squad are doing well, he ends up with little to do but adjust the straps on his gloves, do some calisthenics, and perhaps chat with a few of the fans behind the goal. If his squad is coming to pieces, he ends up as the most-visible culprit when a goal gets conceded. Never mind whatever series of errors leads to a goal; it’s always the keeper’s fault once the ball’s in the back of the net. It’s a bit ironic then that Arsenal, famous (or infamous) for its attractive attacking style (for whatever it’s worth), might find itself developing a bit of a reputation as an incubator for the Prem’s best keepers. Before you scoff, ponder the names and their achievements to date. I’d challenge you to name a club that featured, at once, three keepers capable of as much as Mannone, Fabianski, and Szczęsny.

Of course, we can’t claim all three, at least not as current Gunners. We can, however, take credit for their development as each has spent the bulk of his career with the club. Mannone, for one, is no longer a Gunner, having left for Sunderland some nine months ago. Fabianski is set to follow him, with his own contract expiring in June 2014. However, there was once a time in the not-too-distant past when all three made significant if not vital contributions the the club, and the rotation they provided in the past, and the performances they’ve delivered to date, signify an impressive set of achievements.

First, Mannone. Last season, he made a mere thirteen appearances while Szczęsny, was injured—nine in the Prem and four in the Champions League group-stage. He conceded sixteen goals, a stat made a bit more garish by a 3-3 draw with Fulham, an 0-2 loss to Schalke, and a 2-2 draw with Schalke. Along the way, he managed to keep four clean sheets while helping us win at Anfield and draw at the Etihad. While not impressive on its face, it showed that he had potential and could deliver. With a few more confidence-inspiring performances, he could very well become a Player of the Year at the right club, and—oh. He already has. His performance at Sunderland this season, which has included clean-sheet wins against Man City and Everton, nine clean-sheets over all, and a goals-conceded rate of 1.4, has earned him that precise designation. That’s no small feat for a club that sits bottom of the table. Put it another way: Sunderland went 1W, 1D, 8L, -15GD before Mannone took over. Since he became the #1 keeper, they’ve gone 6W, 7D, 11L, -9GD. That’s a considerable mprovement even if it hasn’t saved Sunderland from relegation. After all, Mannone has only one job to do, and he’s done it pretty-damned well for the Black Cats.

Fabianski might still be a Gunner, but this may only last as long as the next few weeks. Despite his impressive contributions, he seems to want out, and it’s a credit to him in my book. By contrast with other want-away players, he’s angling for playing time. Like Mannone, he might be willing to move down the table in order to move up in the pecking order even if this means turning his back on Champions League play, among other perks. Better to be between the sticks than on the bench. For nearly seven years, he’s waited patiently for his turn only to get pipped by his countryman. Along the way, he’s been our man to turn to outside the Prem, turning in stellar performances in our march to the FA Cup final and filling in on short notice when Szczęsny was sent off in the first leg against Bayern and helping to hold the same to a 1-1 draw in the second leg. Last season, of course, he stepped up when Szczęsny was demoted, helping to propel us to five consecutive wins, including the now-famous clean-sheet win at Bayern. Most recently, of course, the man proved his mettle by stopping Wigan’s first two penalty-shots in the FA Cup semifinal to help deliver us to the final—but there’s now a debate over whether he deserves to play the final if he’s set to leave.

Last, of course, is Szczęsny. At the tender age of 24, he’s emerged as the first-choice keeper at one of the world’s biggest clubs, and he’s performed well enough to be among the best young keepers anywhere, so much so that he’s entered the debate for this season’s Golden Glove—despite being on the wrong end of 6-3, 5-1, 6-0, and 3-0 scorelines. Despite those debacles, he’s a very real contender for the Golden Glove. With Petr Čech missing the rest of the season with a dislocated shoulder, he’s frozen at 16 clean sheets. Everton’s Tim Howard has 15. Szczęsny has 14. If he can keep three more clean sheets and Howard concedes goals in two of three matches, the Golden Glove is his. Even without that award, Szczęsny has easily emerged as one of the best young keepers in the Prem. Others, such as Mignolet and de Gea, have seen a bit of tarnish for various reasons. Ever since losing his starting role to Fabianski last season, Szczęsny has emerged as a consistent, stable, even mature keeper. Gone, for the most part, are the distressingly reckless forays off his line. In their place, increasingly often, are game-saving stops at key moments. Did I mention that he’s only 24? His best is yet to come.

For as embarrassing as the riches might have been with three such keepers in the squad, we look to a future with only Szczęsny to rely on. Fabianski looks set to leave, and Viviano’s loan ends in June.  If we could just find an ageing, wily veteran keeper willing to mentor the Szcz without demanding too much in the way of playing time, well, wouldn’t that be just peachy?

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There’s just no pleasing some people, is there?

Despite a thorough-going, dominant performance, Arsenal eked out a nail-biting, skin of the teeth “victory” on penalties that puts them through to the final. It’s a win in name only, as Wigan, the decided underdogs, fought bravely and answered nearly every question put to them by Arsenal, forcing their fancier, better-financed foes to confront if not quite answer long-standing questions about their own suitability and aspirations. As it stands, it’s hard to suggest that the better side won, on this night or on the whole, as the grit, effort, and organization Wigan displayed was often more than a match for the supposed elan, price-tag, or desperation of Arsenal.

Or as so many of the headlines would have you believe. Heck, as so many of the tweets from Gooners would have you believe. By the time the first half had come to a close, the defiant, inspired desire I had seen from so many Gooners had faded, replaced by embittered, cynical defeatism. The prevailing mood seemed to fall into one of three basic categories, each of which overlapped the other two while vying for supremacy. I’m not going to bother dredging up the tweets themselves; I have neither the time nor the stomach. Trust me, then, when I offer this summary:

  1. Typical, typical Arsenal. We’re going to lose to a Championship club.
  2. How can this be happening? It’s going to penalties, and we’re going to lose to a Championship club.
  3. Why the fudge is Sanogo playing? We should have signed a striker. Oh, Giroud sucks as well.
We could probaby divvy up into other categories, slicing and dicing and ending up with a few other categories as well, but they all boil down to the same basic premise: we have no business having won the semifinal. Its corollary is all but written already: we’ll lose to whoever we face in the final, be it Hull or Sheffield United, just because. It would have been better for us to have lost in the quarterfinal or, better yet, to Tottenham in the third round, all the better to (a) dash our hopes before they got too high to sustain and (b) prove once and for all that this squad and this manager should be summarily sacked and replaced with those with the quality and price tag befitting our dreams.
Of course, when Wigan went up 1-0, thanks to a rash foul from Mertesacker in the box and a coolly-slotted spot-kick from Jordi Gomez, the despair went off the charts. Fan-confidence collapsed, and the excrement hurled at all Gunners, various and sundry, could have filled more than a few Wembleys if we had the shovels to collect it. Never mind how it came against the run of play. Forget that Wigan beat City, at the Etihad, for crissakes. All that matters to some is that the match to that point proved their own perverse mindsets right: the entire squad is piss-poor, and the manager should be sacked. Post-haste. To some, sadly, losing would lend further evidence to these spiteful intentions, and winning would blow up in their faces, forcing them, as it were, to put up with yet another season, if not three, of inept management and craven capitulation.
They’ll overlook, as is their wont, the fact that we dominated this match, whistle to whistle. It seemed for long stretches as if Wigan, despite their reputation, were willing to sit back and defend. There was little of the pressing up the pitch we were so worried about. A few stats that resulted:
  • shots: Wigan 9, Arsenal 27
  • shots on target: Wigan 2, Arsenal 9
  • woodwork struck: Wigan 0, Arsenal 2
  • possession: Wigan 38%, Arsenal 62%
  • passes completed: Wigan 458, Arsenal 753
  • key passes: Wigan 6, Arsenal 19
  • clearances: Wigan 54, Arsenal 31
  • set-pieces: Wigan 1, Arsenal 12
  • aerial duels won: Wigan 17, Arsenal 27
Of course, the only stat that really ever matters in the end is the scoreline, but even by those numbers, the grumblers will have their day. After all, regular time and extra time both ended 1-1. Perfect. We’ve played right into their hands. Now it goes to penalties, and it’ll be Bradford all over again. Arsenal have never won on penalties. Fabianski has never saved a penalty. Cue the “Wenger out” tweets, as well as the “[insert player of your choice here] is terrible” tweets as well. Take your pick. Monreal. Arteta. Giroud (not even on the pitch for most of it). Sanogo. Podolski. Vermaelen. Cazorla. Few would be spared, because so few, apparently deserve the sacred right of playing for Arsenal. 
When Fabianski went out and saved not one, but two of the penalties, the delirium was intoxicating, but a fair few still wallowed. “We’ll botch it,” they’d grumble. “Look who our shooters are. Arteta?  Källström? Fabianski’s simply delayed the inevitable. Besides, he’s gone in the summer, so who cares?” It’s a sickness, and the only cure for them seems to be abject defeat so as to purge the bile that has built up since 2005. The sickness is some form of Wengeritis; the mere presence of this manager on the sideline seems to have inspired a derangement that leaves too many bereft of the ability to hope for anything other than his sacking. Each loss offers more evidence to that conclusion; each victory is to be ignored or explained away. Mention injuries or oil-money and receive a sad clucking of the tongue or a furious tongue-lashing as how ignorant or deluded you are.
Well, if that’s how they’re going to have it, fine. Let the baby have its bottle, I say. We’re through to the final. We’re one step closer to achieving something we’ve waited all too long for, and there’s one more step, one more club between us and some glory. Those who belittle Wigan may not understand how football works. The Latics didn’t get here through luck. They didn’t get relegated because they’re terrible. The Prem is a tough nut crack, and we’ve seen how often the apparently inferior clubs have bested their so-called betters. The idea that a Championship side should ipso facto lose to a Prem side is, prima facie, laughable. It happens often enough to warrant not one, but two tournaments each year. If the FA Cup (or league cup, while we’re at it) were the sole concerns of Prem clubs, well, then, we might as well stop including the Championship, League One, League Two, and on down the line. Part of what makes it glorious (in my opinion) is the notion, however far-fetched, that any club can win it, even if a Prem club wins it 97% of the time. While we’re at it, the difference between Wigan and the bottom five or six or eight clubs currently in the Prem is not that large. I won’t even backhand the compliment to them by saying they won any moral victories or suggesting that they’re plucky or punching above their weight. They had a game-plan, they took it to us, and they’ll feel hard done-by to be out. 
That said, we won. We left it later than many would like, but that’s football. It might have been nice for us to have won in a rout, but things are rarely that easy. I just hope that those who struggled to support the club can find a few moments to enjoy it. Whether we win the FA Cup itself or not, the questions and the brickbats can wait until 18 May. We have a trophy to play for, so savor the possibility! We’ve come through a lot in the last few months, not to mention years, but an end to the misery and the waiting is within reach. We have a date with destiny—17 May—and I pray fervently that we make good on that day!

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