The goalkeeping quandary at Arsenal

Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

2009-10 was a season of debate for Arsenal supporters.  Aside from Cesc Fábregas and Thomas Vermaelen, every player on the squad had his performance and psyche evaluated throughout the course of the year, with supporters taking every possible stance from "player X has lost all confidence and will never be good again--sell him to Plymouth Argyle" to "you are all wrong, he is only nine years old, he will be spectacular, give him a chance" inclusive.

However, no position came under the scrutiny that goalkeeper did.  But there are problems with quick-reflex evaluation when it comes to the man between the sticks.

Now, it cannot be denied that both Manuel Almunia and Lukasz Fabianski had problems this year with decisiveness, consistency, and confidence.  This article is not meant to be an apologia for the keepers that Arsenal have at the moment.  Rather, it is an examination of the problems in trying to evaluate keeper performance in games only.

One of the issues with trying to evaluate goalkeepers lies in the gap between seeing them as the supreme individual responsible for preventing goals and their position on a team, in a team sport.  Some of the goals that Almunia and Fabianski surrendered this year had little to do with the men in front of them, of course, but at first glance, a lot of what happened this year is irreducible to their play alone.  On the other side of the coin, the performance of Cudicini and Petr Cech at Chelsea in many ways depended on Mourinho's system and the players in front of them (e.g. Carvalho, John Terry).  So the question of figuring out exactly how much the keeper was solely at fault for is a tricky one.

Another issue is that of qualitative evidence.  This is a problem for football in general, as much of the action on the pitch comes in non-discrete packets; one probably needs a lot of advanced calculus (and a LOT of evidence and video watching) to draw up a good quantitative model of what's going on.  It is much easier, then, for the casual fan to see only the spectacular and the subjective, much as how fifty million baseball fans think Derek Jeter is the best fielding shortstop of all time (he's not, not even remotely).  It's pretty clear that Almunia and Fabianski are good, if not great, shot-stoppers, but their glaring mistakes outweigh whatever good they do in the minds of most supporters.

What is less clear, though, is how memory functions in this evaluation.  Was David Seaman in fact much more steady than Almunia or Fabianski (or for that matter Lehmann)?  One suspects he was, but appearances can be deceiving.  He probably was, though he did make his share of errors as well.

And then one comes into contact with the ultimate question: if not Manuel, then who?  If not Lukasz now, or Lukasz ever, then who?  If not Wojciech now (hey, it worked for Iker), then who, now?  The list of candidates, sadly, reads a bit like a list of the walking wounded at the 2010 World Cup so far: Robert Green (whoopsie!), Mark Schwarzer (showing, again, the blurred line between bad goalkeeping and bad defense--the latter more the case vs. Germany), Hugo Lloris (ok, so far he's been good, but still).  It's impossible to see whether even a world-class keeper would be better at Arsenal than Almunia was.  It's a matter of probability, really: Iker Casillas probably would not make the mistakes that Arsenal's keepers made, but nobody can say for sure.

That really is the quandary, then, faced by Arsène Wenger (who has no doubt watched more goalkeeping footage in his career than most supporters will ever see): he is stuck between the rock of supporters' anger and frustration and impatience, and the hard place of the prospect of not being able to sign a goalkeeper who instantly improves the team for somewhere south of 30 million pounds.

This all only scratches the surface of a position that is judged on maybe ten meaningful touches of the ball during a match, yet carries the most capacity for destruction.  What (assuming people are still reading) do people think the best way forward at goalkeeper is for Arsenal?

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