Many managerial decisions are not by nature automatically one way or the other. For instance, if a preferred outfield player doesn't work well with another outfield player, there are any number of things that can be done - moving one or more around, changing out one or more pieces around that preferred player, etc - that may bring the best out of the preferred player.
Keeper, though, is an entirely zero-sum, binary proposition - there's only one allowed on the field at a time, and choosing one necessarily means choosing to sit another one. At many clubs, this isn't a huge problem - there's an identified number one, and that number one generally only sits for lesser Cup games and if he's injured.
At Arsenal, though, there's a somewhat interesting situation happening. It's not really a "battle", per se, as Arsene Wenger has stated that Wojciech Szczesny is Arsenal's number one keeper, even while preferring David Ospina, this past summer's goalkeeping reinforcement, to Szcz since the Southampton game on January 1, with the exception of the Brighton and Middlesbrough FA Cup matches.
Ospina and Szcz both bring things to the table - good and bad things - and there's a ton of room for debate, among TSF staff and among the Arsenal fan base at large, over which player deserves to be Arsenal's #1. After talking amongst ourselves over the last week and a half, we can't really agree on a stance either, so here to lay out their respective positions are the pro-Szczesny Thomas Wachtel, and the pro-Ospina Phil West. Gentlemen, start your (discussion) engines!
THE CASE FOR DAVID OSPINA
The numbers show he's better
So, admittedly, six games is a small sample size for judging the reliability of a goalie, and yet Ospina has been (statistically, at least) impressive in his month-and-a-half-long campaign in the Premier League.
In his first six EPL matches, he's averaged 0.67 GAA (goals allowed per match average), with an 83.3 percent save percentage rate, stopping 20 of the 24 shots on goal that have come his way. That puts him in a class, stats-wise, above goalies thought of as the elite of the EPL, including (using stats compiled through Week 25) Thibaut Courtois (1.00 GAA, 66.7 save percentage), Hugo Lloris (1.36 GAA, 70.9 save percentage), and David De Gea (0.94 GAA, 74.4 save percentage), as well as two of the best performers this year, Fraser Forster (0.71 GAA, 73 save percentage) and Adrian (1.17 GAA, 74.1 save percentage).
By contrast, Szczesny’s been in 17 EPL matches this season (16 complete games, plus 59 minutes versus Man United on Nov. 22), and has let in 20 of 63 shots on goal, for a 1.24 GAA and a 67.2 save percentage. (There’s also one clown-car goal that counts against his GAA but not his save percentage, as a result of the United game in which he collided with Kieran Gibbs and was not in position to stop Antonio Valencia’s opportunistic pounce.)
Those numbers, by the way, are a significant drop-off from his form of two seasons ago, when he had an 0.96 GAA and a 75.8 save percentage. This year’s numbers are more reminiscent of his first two campaigns, starting with the 2010-11 season, suggesting either regression or that the 12-13 campaign was an anomaly.
Also, both goalies have three clean sheets this season – while it took Szczesny 10 matches to get there this year, Ospina did it in, well, three.
The defense has been (or at least has seemed) more organized, though the last two matches call this into some question
It’s hard to know, without being a fly on the wall at Colney, if the transformed defense we’ve seen from Arsenal after Jan. 1’s meltdown at Southampton is a function of Ospina in goal, more defensive-minded coaching to supplement a switch in goalkeeper, the recent tenacious defensive-midfield play of Francis Coquelin, or some combination of the three.
But in these first six Premier League matches Ospina started since the swap, Arsenal appears to be playing a more defense-first, pressure-absorbing, counter-attacking style that has allowed them to better control games. Ospina might not be the best at distributing the ball once it’s safely into him (cut to Thomas metaphorically taking a few practice swings in the on-deck circle), but so far, he’s been adept at funneling opposing attacks either into his arms or away and over the touchline.
And, in the six games to date in which Ospina's been in goal, Arsenal's won five, only losing to Tottenham because apparently it's Harry Kane's world and we're all just living in it (plus a lackluster midfield and defense allowed the Soccer Chickens 56 percent possession [though it seemed like 80 percent] and a 23-7 shot advantage).
After the second half of the Leicester game and this past Saturday's potential disaster against Palace, I'm thinking "pressure-absorbing" is the most apt accolade for Arsenal during the Ospina Era. When your center-backs are literally falling all over your goalie in an effort to "protect" him, it's really hard to go with "organized" ... and yet, Koscielny and Mertesacker were legitimately heroic against Palace when not getting in Ospina's way, especially since second-choice fullbacks Nacho Monreal and Calum Chambers were getting shamefully worked on the flanks for much of the match by the likes of Wilfried Zaha and Yannick Bolasie.
Ospina is more disciplined (or at least he doesn't smoke)
The two goals that Arsenal let in vs. Southampton on New Year's Day – leading to the changing of the guard that has launched this debate – were directly attributable to Szczesny, and weren’t entirely out of character from what we’ve seen at times with respect to Szcz's tendency to, well, wander from goal. The first goal Szczesny let in came when he charged Sadio Mane near the touchline, allowing Mane to loop a tight-angle shot over Szczesny’s head. Had Szczesny held to the near post and let Laurent Koscielny recover his defensive position, Mane would have needed to dribble or pass out of the situation, and wouldn't have been able to go for the chipped shot immediately. The second goal came when Szczesny, on the ground after saving a shot, kicked a ball directly to Dusan Tadic, who took advantage of the mistake.
The fact that Szczesny immediately took a drink from his water bottle with a curious expression after that goal – and the reports that Szczesny smoked in the showers following the match – led to a bus full o’ banter about his discipline and speculation about how much he cares about soccer really. While that’s certainly not entirely warranted, the image of Szczesny coming off his line inadvisedly or responding to being sent off with a wanking gesture is something that I’m feeling won’t be mirrored by Ospina anytime soon.
And in Szczesny’s first start since the start-of-year swap – the 3-2 win at Brighton in FA Cup action on Jan. 25 – Arsenal let a Championship side cut a two-goal lead to a one-goal lead twice in the second half. It doesn’t exactly help Szczesny’s case that the official Arsenal.com match report characterizes Brighton’s second goal this way: "Baldock is played into the box and he chips over the onrushing Szczesny." Szczesny did, to his credit, earn a clean sheet against Middlesbrough in his Feb. 15 start, though Middlesbrough only did have only 35 percent possession and only one shot on goal (and six total), so Szczesny really didn't have a lot to do.
Against Leicester – about to again become a Championship League side – Arsenal also saw a two-goal lead cut to one, in a match made nervy by an anemic second-half Arsenal offense and a Riyad Mahrez who temporarily transformed into a Ballon D’Or candidate. Yet, despite some close calls on potential equalizers, Ospina stayed in his lane, helped keep the defense remain just competent enough, and steered Arsenal to eke out the three points in a match that easily could have been 2-2 or worse.
Against Palace, where a two-goal lead got cut to one and then almost none, it happened in a flash at match's end, so it wasn't so much a case of "let's see how Ospina can organize the defense under pressure" as much as it was "let's freak out in these last two minutes because what the actual fuck." The goal and the near-goal in the last two minutes of injury time happened with Ospina on the ground -- the goal a case of Ospina trying to kick-save, and the near-goal happening when Ospina just missed a heroic save to his far post. But on both plays, atrocious defending was a contributing factor in staffers reaching for defibrillators in Arsenal bars around the world, with a defense made more confused with what might have been too-cute, late-match, bus-parking swaps involving a still-brand-new player and a left-back deputizing at wing.
Yet, are we seeing a drop in form from Ospina in just his first few matches? WhoScored says yes, rating Ospina a 6.97 against Leicester and a 7.1 against Palace, after at least a 7.7 in his previous three matches. But even with the recent signs of concern against three spunky teams, Ospina's been in net for a six-match run in which Arsenal's grabbed 15 or 18 points, climbed from 6th to third in the standings, and grabbed a net +11 in goal differential. As Garth Brooks says in his must-watch Facebook intro video, "I like that ... I really like that."
THE CASE FOR WOJCIECH SZCZESNY
When Arsenal first bought David Ospina, I was relatively pleased. Most of what I'd seen of him came in the World Cup over the summer, and I thought he'd played well. Certainly he looked good statistically -- sure, he'd only played in five games, and two of those game against Greece and Japan, but he'd only given up four goals! That had to mean something, right?
Well, six games into his current run in goal for Arsenal (he also played one match in October against Galatasaray before suffering an injury that would, in concert with being the backup goalkeeper, help to keep him out for more than three months) I'm unconvinced that it meant anything at all. His numbers and the results are similarly good, but the performances that have accompanied the results haven't been particularly encouraging, and don't give me any hope that those results are sustainable.
I'll give you my reasons.
Ospina's distribution is . . . lacking
This used to be an issue for Szczesny, but on a year-by-year basis he's done a good job of dealing with it. He's kicking longer, he's doing a better job of putting the ball where a teammate is. I mean, he's not the best in the world or anything, but he's taken steps in the right direction.
Ospina could very well do the same. But he'll need to, because right now he's about as good at it as I am. He puts the ball out for no reason, and under little pressure. He can't get it even to midfield some of the time. It doesn't get to the right guy. That's all bad enough on its own, but when you're playing a team intent on a "forecheck" high up the field and creating lots of chances, the pressure rises exponentially. And when the pressure reaches Ospina, well, it doesn't look great.
It got to the point for a few games where I basically cringed any time Ospina actually had to play the ball out of the back, particularly if there was any pressure. He was a bit better at this against Crystal Palace, but in general I simply don't trust his ability to break offensive pressure by flipping the field. It's not just an important way to build attacks, it's a critical part of defending.
Szczesny controls his area better
This is an area where Szczesny has grown as a goalkeeper, as well. Maybe too much, in fact, because sometimes he comes out for balls that he possibly shouldn't come out for. The nice thing, though, is that most of the time he's actually successful when he does it.
I can't say the same for Ospina. He's not great at reaching crosses at all, and a lot of the time even when he does manage to get to the ball, he can't clear it properly. Harry Kane's first goal back when Tottenham beat Arsenal is a good example -- he has to get to full stretch to even get a piece of the ball, and he doesn't get enough of it to actually do anything productive. Worse, since he falls to the ground, when the ball falls to Kane right next to the goal, he can't do anything about it. If it was a particularly high cross, or if the deflection had been less convenient, it could be excused. But that's a ball that should at least be cleared for a corner, not limply poked towards the other team's best goalscorer.
It would help if the punch wasn't Ospina's primary anti-cross weapon. But he's lacking when it comes to catching, so he has to rely on punching far too often. Here he is against Leicester, getting in the way of the two defenders who are actually in position, misreading the ball, trying to catch it, then dropping it as he falls over. Only luck and a quick reaction from Laurent Koscielny prevented a goal.
Szczesny has the physical edge
Of the two options, it's pretty clear that Szczesny is the superior athlete, and athleticism goes a long way toward putting you in the position to make the best play, and toward being able to recover from mistakes when you make them (which trust me, you will).
Have you noticed yet, by the way, that these are all kind of related? Ospina's distribution issues are, in part, because of a relative lack of athleticism. You could say the same about his relative inability to control his area. Height is a big part of this. Did you know Wojciech Szczesny is five inches taller than David Ospina? I didn't, because honestly I thought it was more than that. Ospina is listed at 6'0", but I'm not entirely convinced. Height definitely isn't everything for a goalkeeper, and I'd never say a guy who's six feet tall can't be a top-level keeper. But it doesn't help. Height means the ability to reach more crosses, and the ability to grab a ball that a shorter keeper might have to punch. Height means wingspan, and the ability to get to a ball to either side that a smaller man might not reach.
Szczesny's also just a bit quicker, both in reactions and in his actual movements. Again, that little edge can be the difference between getting a hand on a ball or not, or between a fingertip save and a grab. He can actually play the ball at his feet a bit, which helps him with the aforementioned distribution, but also gives him a little wrinkle in his game when he's under pressure.
If it seems like a lot of this "pro-Szczesny" section is about Ospina, well, there's a reason for that. I like Szczesny, I think he's a fine goalkeeper and overall, one of the better ones in the league. Not one of the best, though. I have concerns about him, and I like the idea of having someone who can challenge him for his position and help keep him on his toes and all that. In an ideal world we'd be able to have that at every position.
I'm just not convinced that right now, Ospina is the guy for the job. I think there's the potential he could be, but frankly he's not as good as Lukasz Fabianski was, much less Szczesny. I'm a bit annoyed with Arsene Wenger for persisting with him, and while it hasn't necessarily cost us yet (I'm not sure Szczesny could have saved the overall debacle that was White Hart Lane), it almost did against Crystal Palace.
Ospina can get his time on the field. But Szczesny should be first-choice.