Arsenal’s Number One

It was during the tail end of the 07-08 season, and Manuel had virtually won over nearly all of the Arsenal fans. That year, Jens let a ball slip through his hands during a hard contested battle at Ewood Park. As a result, we dropped two points in a match we should have won and Jens lost his title as the Arsenal number one. After that, we ran off a string of victories and the switch was made permanent.

The players liked him. He was nicer than Jens, and he seemed stable. We experienced a breakthrough season that year, and Manuel was one of the players who experienced a positive re-write in terms of what people perceived him to be, mainly a Wenger experiment who was nowhere near becoming Spain’s number one goalkeeper.

He did perform solidly throughout that year, making big penalty saves and showing his great shot stopping ability. I thought he had established a firm foundation upon which he could elevate himself to be a truly good number one.

During a crucial late match at Chelsea, we took the lead courtesy of Bacary Sagna’s first goal for our club. A few minutes later, I overheard a remark from a frequenter at the pub. “You know, I feel safe with Manuel Almunia.” I understood what he meant, but I couldn’t concur just yet. As if tempting fate, Manuel did make critical errors in that game. He rushed a throw that directly led to the feet of a Chelsea player and they scored soon after.

Fast forward to last year’s Champions League tie against Roma. Eduardo stepped up to the penalty spot to kick the first penalty. He missed. What did our brilliant young players do? They stepped up with no fear and buried penalty after penalty. What was Almunia doing? He looked as if he was puking on the side. He didn’t even look at our players taking penalties, and he looked completely fazed by the moment. He was our oldest player on the pitch. The fact that we won has more to do with Roma’s Tonetto skying a kick than Almunia impacting it in any way. Both keepers were rubbish in that penalty showdown.

Later that year, he had a brilliant performance against Manchester United at Old Trafford which kept us in the Champions League tie. A week later, he capitulated. Yes, Kieran Gibbs slipped, but Manuel didn’t rush Park Ji-Sung until after a moment of indecision. Then, he let in a 35 meter free kick from Cristiano Ronaldo that really should have been saved.

Almunia seems to perform well when the pressure is off him. When he’s expected to do well, he rarely does. A brilliant shot stopper, but not a capable leader.

On Saturday, he looked nervous and tentative. He did not come out to claim crosses when he should. He let his defenders head the ball around like a ping pong when an easy catch was called for. Every ball that he did collect, he bobbled around in his hands. He gifted Rooney a penalty. I posted the pictures to prove that Eduardo did the same thing Rooney did. It was not to suggest that Rooney didn’t deserve a penalty. It was partially to suggest that Boruc did a better job of covering himself than Almunia did. Almunia jumped out and extended his arms when some sound judgment would have allowed him to realize that there was no way Rooney would have been able to carve out a threat in that situation.

Yes, Abou Diaby committed an unthinkable error. But did Almunia yell at him that nobody was around Abou and he could have let it gone out for a goal kick? (Correction: Abou Diaby has admitted that Almunia did in fact tell him to let it go. I have no complaints on that now.) How often do you see Almunia actually yelling directions, as opposed to yelling to pump players up? There is a crucial difference between the two things.

Does he have the ability to become a world class goalkeeper? Yes, he does. He has supreme reflexes and is tall enough. Does he have the mentality to be a world class goalkeeper? I’m afraid that I remain unconvinced. At this point, I think Fabianski could supplant him with an extended run in the team (although he is injured, and he has a lot to learn as well). There were rumors that we were in for Robert Green last night before the transfer window closed.

Currently, Arsenal’s number one isn’t a world class goalkeeper. He’s a bit like Jay-Z’s new Blueprint 3 album. High expectations, some bright points here and there, but mostly a disappointment.

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