It looks like Arsenal keeper Manuel Almunia has played his last game for the Gunners. Now in his thirties, and with injuries a recurring problem, it’s not surprising that the Spaniard has slipped down the pecking order at the Emirates and fancies a move back home. But what really puzzles many Gooners, as well as impartial fans, is how Almunia managed to remain the number one keeper for so long at such an ambitious club, clocking up almost 170 first team appearances since establishing himself in the first team four years ago.
His Arsenal career, like that of the man he succeeded, German-born Jens Lehmann, was plagued by costly mistakes, often in vital matches. But despite the blunders, Gunners manager, Arsene Wenger, kept faith with the Spaniard, refusing to bow to pressure to replace him with a more established performer.
Wenger might be lauded for his ability to spot and cultivate young outfield talent, but when it comes to keepers his record is poor. And it doesn’t appear that he’s learned from the Lehman-Almunia years either, continuing to place faith in yet more foreign-born keepers, the shaky Lukasz Fabianski, and inexperienced Wojciech Szczeny , both from Poland.
What’s particularly surprising about Wenger’s blindness to the failings of the Gunners’ recent keepers is that Arsenal is a club whose great teams over the years have been built on the bedrock of outstanding custodians. Kelsey, Jennings, Wilson, Seaman were true goalkeeping greats who were vastly superior to the keepers of the Wenger era. What they had in common was that they all hailed from the British Isles in an era when British born and raised goalkeepers, such as Banks, Bonetti, Clemence and Shilton, were revered around the world. Below them, in the lower divisions of the Football League in those days , were many other promising young keepers who, given the chance, could easily have walked into top sides abroad.
In fairness, Arsenal are not alone in this current obsession with foreign-born keepers. Of the 20 clubs in the Premiership, 14 consistently choose foreign-born custodians. Sure, some foreign keepers playing in the UK have been outstanding - Reina, Cech and Van der Sar, for example – but many have been found wanting. Think of the long line of failures at Manchester United before Ferguson settled on Van der Sar – Taibi and Barthez spring to mind.
If you’re looking for evidence of the traditional superiority of British keepers compared with their contemporary Continental counterparts, study the film footage of Banks, Bonetti, Clemence and Shilton, to mention just a few. Their handling, particularly when coming for crosses, positional sense, domination of the penalty box and coolness under pressure , were far superior to the flapping of the temperamental Continentals, who stayed firmly rooted to their goal-line.
So, if you want your team to push for glory, go for a home-grown keeper and resist the temptation to join the queue to shop abroad.
By Phil Beer – Derby County fan