He's good! - Laurence Griffiths
Arsenal's keeper isn't quite as beloved as some of the rest of Arsenal's players, and I'm here to change that.
If you want to talk about the problems Arsenal are having at the moment, it's kinda tough to know where to start. Do you start with the defense, who have moments in every game that end up costing Arsenal points? Do you start with the creation of chances, which can be good on some days and non-existent on others? Or do you start with the finishing of those chances on the good days, which ranges from somewhat OK to OH MY GOD PLEASE JUST CONVERT ONE OF THOSE THIS ISN'T HARD?
One place people seem insistent on starting, though, is in goal. There hasn't been an out-and-out SZCZESNY SUCKS HE'S A DISASTER GET RID OF HIM, but there's a lot of rumblings of discontent and a non-zero amount of desire to replace him, and a feeling that Arsenal can do better. I have never felt like that - I believe Szcz, which is what I'll call him from here on out because good lord Wojciech Szczęsny is a pain to type, is a really solid keeper now, and will become one of the better keepers in the game in a few years. So let's go over some of the pluses and minuses, shall we?
Before we dive in, some caveats. I can't find the data I wanted to use for this project, as the Manchester City data project is apparently no longer active and I stupidly didn't save the data when I was given a link to it last year. Advanced goalkeeper statistics are otherwise pretty much hard to find, by which I mean they're nonexistent unless you pay for access to Opta's stats, which I don't. Much of what you are about to read, then, is anecdotal, because I refuse to use things like GAA and goals/game as benchmarks.
Why is that? Because I come from a baseball analytics background, and just as I would never use ERA to evaluate a pitcher because so much of what goes in to ERA is out of the pitcher's control, I wouldn't use GAA to evaluate a goalkeeper because so much of what goes into a goal is similarly out of his control. So as much as I want to use numbers, I probably won't use a whole lot in this post, which means that, like everything else that isn't quantifiable, this is all just my opinion, and is presented here for debate.
THE CASE FOR:
1. Szcz is a reasonably solid goalkeeper. He's not as lock-down certain as the elite keepers in the league, or in the world, but I don't look at him and start to sweat, and wonder if he's going to fall over his own feet and concede stupid goals on a regular basis.
2. He's a good distributor of the ball. It's pretty rare that you see him punt the ball out over the touchline, or into an area where there aren't Arsenal players. The way Arsenal play, Szcz needs to get the ball, get it back to a player quickly, and get the movement started, and he does that pretty effectively.
3. The defense seems to trust him. One of the things that having an unreliable or bad keeper does to a defense is that the defense tends to be less effective, because they have to not only do their job but also somewhere in their mind worry that the keeper isn't going to do his. This puts much more pressure on a defense and often causes a defensive unit to make positional mistakes as they attempt to cover for their perceived weakness in goal. Arsenal's defense has many, many problems, but they're of their own making and not necessarily related to their trust in Szcz.
4. This may sound like a "case against" point, but bear with me: Szcz makes relatively few stupid mistakes. He still makes them, about which more later, but over the last couple years they've gotten less frequent, which tells me he's learning from his mistakes. Midfielders, for instance, make mistakes all the time, but if a midfielder makes a mistake, he has a chance to make up for it, and in most cases that mistake isn't deadly in the first place. But if a keeper makes a mistake, the ball ends up in the net, so every mistake is much more magnified.
5. Szcz is young. He's 22, and will only get more solid and more reliable as he gets older. Young players at any position tend to be learning as they go; keeper is probably the most visible position on the field, as mentioned above, so his learning process is played out much more visibly than anyone's. Goalkeepers don't tend to peak until their early 30's, so he's got a long career ahead of him; he's a good keeper, and he'll only get better as he gets older.
THE CASE AGAINST:
1. Szcz makes stupid mistakes (see? I told you we'd come back to this!). He's caught out of position a couple times a game, he occasionally wanders way too far afield to play a ball, and he sometimes appears to be about 85% ready when a shot comes his way. Watch him as a play builds towards him - sometimes he seems uncertain about where to position himself, or how to set himself. Are these fixable mistakes? Sure they are, but they're still mistakes and they're still bad.
2. Szcz isn't a vocal leader. He tends not to scream and yell at his defense as much as I'd like to see - Arsenal's defense is desperately in need of a field marshal, because nobody in that defense can do it, and I'd love to see Szcz step up and shout the back line into compliance and order more often than he does.
3. There are better/more experienced keepers available, and Arsenal should be looking into them. While this may be true, this is true of every position on the field, for almost every team for that matter. Arsenal have far, far more pressing needs than a new goalkeeper. One of the things that Arsenal have lacked, famously, in the last several years is stability - I don't know if you've heard, but Arsenal have problems holding on to their best players! In an attempt to stanch that bleeding, the last thing Arsenal need to worry about right now is the goalkeeper; upgrade the back line and the midfield first, and then if you're still not happy with Szcz when he's 25, shop around.
So, as if you can't tell, I'm in favor of sticking with Wojciech; he's going to grow into being one of the better keepers in the game, and if he can be even close to the keeper that David Seaman was for Arsenal, he'll be a club legend by the time he's done. Don't fall for the short-term analysis syndrome that plagues most of the players in the game; Szcz is a good one and I for one am thrilled he's an Arsenal player and I hope he wants to remain an Arsenal player for a very long time.