By this week, the mass of the rumors surrounding the potential signing of either Fulham's Mark Schwarzer, Manchester City's Shay Given, or any number of other goalkeepers from around the globe (Hugo Lloris, Sebastien Frey, Maarten Stekelenberg, Eduardo, Gigi Buffon) reached such a point that it became difficult to imagine a September without a new man between the posts for Arsenal. Now that the moment has come and gone, the disappointment and, in some cases, panic rippling through the Arsenal blogosphere is boiling over.
Manuel Almunia had a great game at Blackburn last Saturday. He did everything that was expected of him: he had two great punches on crosses, looked solid against corner kicks, got right in El-Hadji Diouf's face, made solid saves when called upon to do so, etc. The only goal Arsenal conceded was absolutely not his fault. If he continues to play like he did at Ewood Park, and there is evidence that he can (e.g. his 2008-09 season, that's right, a full season without bereavement and daily scorn from supporters), Arsenal will be in great shape to challenge for the title, despite whatever load of absolute garbage Henry Winter may twitter about the title being down to Chelsea and Manchester United now, after three matches:
Vital Football has published an article taking supporters to task for always conjuring up "whipping boys", and the point is well taken, particularly the point regarding Thomas Vermaelen and Didier Drogba. Vermaelen is a top-class defender, but the team made lots of mistakes in both Chelsea matches that tended to leave he and the keeper on an island against perhaps the best center forward on Earth, and the Verminator didn't exactly come out smelling like roses either. Most defenders who come near Drogba one vs. one will not find happiness, in all fairness.
But this only underscores the point that the team as a whole must defend better than they did last season, or they can expect to concede too many goals again. Almunia is not the Premier League's best keeper, but he is emphatically not by any means even near the bottom. Any world-class replacement for him was not for sale, and neither Shay Given (he of being also not good at collecting crosses) nor Mark Schwarzer (he of the gift goal to Arshavin that would have probably resulted, had Almunia gifted it, in supporters storming the pitch and setting up a tribunal) are significant enough upgrades to warrant breaking the bank. Many will disagree, but goalkeeping errors are becoming all too common (Pepe Reina, the 30 million pound man, has already cost his team two points this season, two more than has Almunia).
And of course, Arsenal dropped many points last year because the team had to play a number of crucial games with three, four, five starters out with injury, which was the real problem last year.
If the Almunia of 2008-09 returns, it seems unlikely that Arsenal will drop points solely because of goalkeeping errors. The business model that has sustained the club's success for fifteen years now is the same that said do not overpay for a new goalkeeper. Now that the window is shut, the absolute best thing for all Arsenal supporters to do is to get right behind every one of our players, inspiring them with words of encouragement. Almunia, much like the previously-maligned Theo Walcott, is a confidence player, and nothing will harm his abilities more than hearing constant un-nuanced criticism from the supporters at the stadium and in the media.
A couple more performances like the one at Ewood Park will do tons for Manuel's confidence, and hence, his performance, and there is no reason to think he could not approach the form that had him nearly picked for England and voted the second best player of the season for Arsenal two years ago. The most compelling reason to want a new keeper, i.e. that the defenders have lost confidence in Almunia, can only now be resolved by working together as a unit and regaining the confidence that they had in him two years ago.
Gael Clichy, Alex Song, Bacary Sagna, Laurent Koscielny, Sébastien Squillaci, Vermaelen, Johan Djourou, Kieran Gibbs, Emmanuel Eboué, and all outfield players: the time is now. Work hard for each other, and help Almunia find the belief and the form he needs, and there's no reason Arsenal cannot excel.