Squad rotation has become an accepted concept in modern football, but it’s only recently that managers have started to rotate their goalkeepers.
This has become particularly popular in the cup competitions, a trend previously common in Spain and Italy that has recently spread to English football. Arsene Wenger used back-up Lukasz Fabianski throughout last season’s FA Cup run, and has followed the same approach this year.
The idea is simple: whichever goalkeeper is the back-up in the Premier League becomes first-choice for the FA Cup. David Ospina hadn’t played a single Premier League game by the time he appeared in Arsenal’s 2-0 victory over Hull in the third round but, since the Colombian became the club's regular in the Premier League, Wojceich Szczesny has been Arsenal’s main man in the cup.
Competition is healthy, of course, and Arsenal are fortunate to have two top-class goalkeepers to select from. This is becoming routine amongst biggest Premier League clubs, with the likes of Petr Cech, Victor Valdes and Michel Vorm all reserves this season.
“I think when you play for a big club, you need two quality goalkeepers,” Szczesny told the matchday programme earlier this season. “Anything can happen during the season, you can get injuries, you can get sent off. It’s important that you have two quality goalkeepers competing for the No 1 spot.”
Former Arsenal goalkeeper David Seaman has also had his say. “Ospina has gone in and done his stuff,” he told the Press Association this week. “Either of them could be Arsenal’s number one, it is about who is on form - and if Ospina keeps his form, then he is going to stay there. It is not a difficult situation, but it keeps you on your toes to know that there is quality behind you. It is not just the games that make you play better, it is the training.
“The goalkeepers train together and, when you see the other guy, you think, ‘I want to be better than him’ or ‘I am going to show him how good I am’. That is day-to-day and it's good because it brings the best out of you and tests you, so you become a better goalkeeper.”
The two players have different styles, though, perhaps reflecting their different upbringings. Szczesny is a typical European goalkeeper - extremely tall at 6ft 5in, a cool and commanding presence in the box and generally keen to catch the ball when coming for crosses.
South American goalkeepers often aren’t as tall, and Ospina is 6ft 0in. In fact, he only moved between the posts when, as a 10-year-old playing up front, his team’s two goalkeepers failed to turn up for a game. Ospina, amazingly, was the smallest player in the team but put his hand up, volunteering to go in goal.
Ospina seems more likely to produce spectacular punches when coming forward from his goal line - it’s no surprise to learn that the Colombian was a keen volleyball player in his school days.
Surprisingly, though, considering South America’s tendency to produce flair goalkeepers like Rene Higuita, Rogerio Ceni and Jose Luis Chilavert, it is Szczesny who demonstrates more confidence in possession. Arsenal fans have grown accustomed to holding their breath as Szczesny attempts to dribble past opposition strikers inside his own area, although it’s worth considering that he has become very confident when distributing the ball downfield.
The major statistical difference between the two goalkeepers involves their pass completion rate. Szczesny’s is 62 per cent, whereas Ospina’s is around the 55 per cent mark.
This, in truth, is probably primarily because Szczesny has had longer to become accustomed to Arsenal’s style of play - when first breaking into the team, distribution was his major weakness, having become accustomed to a fairly rudimentary style of play at Brentford. The more he played for Arsenal, the more his passing improved.
In the 2-0 victory over Middlesbrough in the fifth round, for example, he barely misplaced a pass, building play steadily from the back (see below).
An improvement is already noticeable from Ospina who has also learnt that a handy option, if Arsenal are being pressed high up the pitch, is to launch balls towards Olivier Giroud. After Arsenal’s 2-0 victory over Manchester City in January, Ospina immediately went to Giroud to compliment him on his control, miming the Frenchman’s nonchalant first touches when under pressure from defenders.
It’s Szczesny who will start this weekend’s FA Cup semi-final at Wembley against Reading, though, and it’s worth remembering the Pole’s quality. This is a goalkeeper who won the Premier League’s Golden Glove award last season, jointly with Petr Cech, and has made nearly 180 appearances for Arsenal.
Wenger can now switch goalkeeper without losing quality - and that, after all, is what squad rotation is all about.
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