On hearing that Kieran Gibbs recently described him as “the most British non-Brit I know,” Wojciech Szczesny lets out a bark of laughter.
The giant goalkeeper may be intensely proud of his Polish heritage but, never far from a self-deprecating joke or two, he appreciates he has changed somewhat during his eight years in England.
“I probably don’t wear the dodgy stuff that I used to when I first came here - you could tell I was Polish just by my dress sense!” he tells the Arsenal Magazine in his curious Polish/north London accent. “Kieran probably said that because I somehow managed to learn half-decent English. Also the fact that I hang out with most of the [British] players as well. I used to live with Jack [Wilshere] and I lived with Conor Henderson when he was at the Club. But it’s a weird one to make a comment about!
"When I say it feels like my second home here, it literally is my second home because everyone around the corner is Polish anyway!"
“I’m proud to represent my country. But when we sit at the team hotel and have dinner, I usually sit at the English table for some reason - I don’t know why. I love the banter around the dressing room… I think the English sense of humour is my sort of thing.”
Since Szczesny’s arrival on these shores, it is estimated that around 500,000 of his compatriots have joined him in the UK, although he is arguably the most high-profile of them all. “When I came here eight years ago, even then I could tell how many Polish people there were,” he says. “It seems like they’re pretty much everywhere now, so it’s quite nice. Polish people in London are very nice to me - they always come up to me and take pictures. They’re always very friendly. When I say it feels like my second home here, it literally is my second home because everyone around the corner is Polish anyway!”
There’s a palpable sense of serenity surrounding Szczesny these days. Speaking just 24 hours after he confirmed on Facebook that he is dating the Polish music artist, actress and model Marina Luczenko, life is good for the 23-year-old, both on and off the field. He admits he is “very happy” in his personal life, and his fine on-field performances offer further reason for satisfaction.
Gibbs insists his team-mate has been the “best keeper in the Premier League this season”, and he became the 11th man in the history of the Club to reach 50 clean sheets in November. That same month, he was rewarded with a long-term contract after playing a key role for one of the meanest defences in the Premier League and he has also drawn rich praise from Arsène Wenger.
“What I am sure is that he has the potential to be a historical goalkeeper for Arsenal Football Club,” the boss said. “That will depend on how much he continues to focus, to have the desire to be better, to have the desire to put the hard work in. He is a very young man. I personally believe his composure is better, his reading of the game is better, his level of concentration is much stronger and it comes out with his numbers.”
No wonder the Pole wears a near-permanent grin. “There was never any doubt in my head that I was going to commit my future to this Club but it’s always a good feeling to sign a new long-term contract because you know the manager believes in you,” Wojciech says. “I’ve been here for eight years and I’ve just signed a long contract, so it gives me a clear message that the boss believes in me. I just try to repay his faith by training very hard and performing well on the pitch. It was a very nice moment for me to sign my new contract.
“It’s a bit unreal [to hear the boss’ praise]. I’m 23 so I don’t want to think about becoming a great but it’s very nice when people say things like that about you. Maybe it puts a bit more pressure on me but it’s still enjoyable and I hope I can prove him right.”
"I’m 23 so I don’t want to think about becoming a great but it’s very nice when people say things like that about you"
After a difficult period last season, Szczesny seems to have taken his game to a whole new level this term. Gone are the occasional lapses of concentration that had occasionally held him back, replaced with a steely determination and maturity that has delighted his manager. But while he may be pleased with his performance level, Wojciech is determined to avoid any complacency.
“I think I’m very consistent now. I’m a little bit more mature and the back four are helping me out as well. I’d say it’s the most consistent run of my career but there’s still a lot of room for improvement. It’s hard to tell [what has changed] because I prepare for games in exactly the same way that I did before. My focus is the same – maybe I’m just lucky!
“I’ve played a lot of games for the Club now so that makes a big difference, too. You know how to react to things on the pitch. You know when to read the game and you know how to react to the game. When I was younger, I used to just try to read the game. Now I know I’m quite good at reacting to it as well, which makes a big difference. It’s a bit of a complicated subject so I’m not going to talk about it too much, but the experience I’ve had of playing 130-odd games for one of the biggest clubs in the world gives you that maturity and calmness. It probably makes a big difference in my performances as well.
“It’s much easier [to stay focused during a match] when you’re on top of the league and you know how important every game is. You want to take every chance to get the three points and put ourselves in the best position. I don’t have a chance to lose my focus. Maybe it comes with maturity but I do feel more focused during games. When a shot goes on target, I just try to save it. I can’t save them all but I try and I’ve made a few good saves. It’s my job really so there’s not much to get excited about.
“I don’t want to take too much credit for my numbers and for the small amount of goals that we’ve conceded. I believe it’s more a matter of team shape and the defending of 11 players from up front to the back. Mikel [Arteta] and Mathieu [Flamini] and the back five have been fantastic. It’s not just me responsible for the numbers. They should take a lot of credit.
“It’s very important to play in a settled team. I only realised it when I started playing behind the same back four. It’s much easier to read the game when you know which players are a bit slower, who’s a bit quicker and who can recover. When the ball goes over Laurent’s head, for example, I know I don’t have to come out because he’s usually faster than most of the strikers. He’s got the pace to recover, plus we understand each other’s body language. It’s actually much easier.”
The source of the Gunners’ rejuvenation appears to be March’s 2-0 win at Bayern Munich in the Champions League, a game Szczesny was left out of. The Poland international soon forced his way back into the team as they embarked on a sensational run of form that saw them firstly snatch a top-four place, then move to the summit of the Premier League this season. So just how significant was that period?
“It’s hard to tell,” he shrugs. “I don’t know what it would have been like if I wasn’t dropped but, looking at my own performances now, it must have been a good decision from the manager because I feel better, I feel sharper and more confident in myself. I think that little break away from the pressure meant that I could focus on my training to come back sharper. So far it’s worked out pretty well.
“I think last season’s run of form was very important for the team because we realised that we can be very good on a regular basis. We turned up and didn’t concede many goals. We won games against tough opponents - the 2-0 win at Munich, for example, was a massive confidence boost. I think it made a big difference and, going into this season, we wanted to take it on and keep the momentum going. Apart from the Aston Villa and Man City games, we’ve done exactly that.
"Now we go into every single game with the same attitude; we believe we can get the three points against anyone"
“We’re just a little bit more consistent now. You always felt that the quality was there and we were able to get good results, but we weren’t very consistent. Now we go into every single game with the same attitude; we believe we can get the three points against anyone. More often than not we do it. I wouldn’t say there’s much difference in our quality, it’s just the consistency.”
One of the most noticeable aspects of the team’s displays this season has been the communication between the players. The sight of Mathieu Flamini, Mikel Arteta and Per Mertesacker barking instructions at their team-mates is a regular occurrence, but Szczesny believes this has been a strength of the team for some time now.
“It’s very easy to say that [there has been a big improvement] because we’re winning games and people start to look at the positives, whereas when things go against you everyone notices the negatives. We know that we’re in a good position in the league and we understand how important it is for us to keep going, so we try to talk to each other and try to help one another on and off the pitch. It’s much easier to do when you’re winning games.
“Obviously Mikel and Mathieu have done a really good job for us in protecting the back four and you can see that we concede fewer goals because there are fewer chances. They’ve been massive. I would put our defensive performances down to the shape of the whole team. It’s not just the back four, it’s not just the centre backs being on top of their game; it’s the whole team and the shape from up front that makes a difference.”
Having joined Arsenal in 2006 following the move to Emirates Stadium, Wojciech is confident this team can fulfil their vast potential and end their wait for a trophy. And, having grown up at the Club, he admits it would be extra-special to finally achieve that success.
Read the interview with Wojciech and more in the latest edition
“I’ve spent such a long time here and I’m friends with everybody at the training ground. It’s like my second home and plays a big part in my life. Everyone at the Club - all the coaching staff, from the youth teams and the reserves - has been fantastic to me, so me performing well at the moment is also a big credit to them because some of them have put an amazing effort in to make me a better player.
“Winning a trophy has been the one thing that’s been missing since I signed. I feel like I’m the reason for it because we’ve never won a trophy since I came - before we used to win a lot so maybe it’s me! It would be very important, not just for us players, but for the fans who have been fantastic and deserve it. They’ve stuck with us through some hard times and hopefully now it’s much more enjoyable for them to be an Arsenal fan.”
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