By Jon Shay
The man between the sticks often cuts a forlorn figure. If his squad are doing well, he ends up with little to do but adjust the straps on his gloves, do some calisthenics, and perhaps chat with a few of the fans behind the goal.
If his squad is coming to pieces, he ends up as the most-visible culprit when a goal gets conceded. Never mind whatever series of errors leads to a goal; it's always the keeper's fault once the ball's in the back of the net.
It's a bit ironic then that Arsenal, famous (or infamous) for its attractive attacking style, might find itself developing a bit of a reputation as an incubator for the Premier League's best keepers. Before you scoff, ponder the names and their achievements to date. I'd challenge you to name a club that featured, at once, three keepers capable of as much as Vito Mannone, Lukasz Fabianski and Wojciech Szczesny.
"Mannone has only one job to do, and he's done it pretty well for the Black Cats"
Of course, we can't claim all three, at least not as current Gunners. We can, however, take credit for their development as each has spent the bulk of his career with the club. Mannone, who is no longer a Gunner, having left for Sunderland some nine months ago, Fabianski is set to follow him, with his own contract expiring in June 2014.
However, there was once a time in the not-too-distant past when all three made significant if not vital contributions the the club. The rotation they provided in the past, and the performances they've delivered to date, signify an impressive set of achievements.
First, Mannone. Last season, he made a mere 13 appearances while Szczesny was injured. The Italian played nine times in the league and four in the Champions League group stages. He conceded 16 goals, a stat made a bit more garish by a 3-3 draw with Fulham, a 2-0 defeat to Schalke, and a 2-2 draw in the return game in Germany.
Along the way, he managed to keep four clean sheets while helping us win at Anfield and draw at the Etihad. While not impressive on its face, it showed that he had potential and could deliver. With a few more confident performances, he could very well become a Player of the Year at the right club. Wait, he already has.
His performances at Sunderland this season have included clean-sheet wins against Man City and Everton, nine clean sheets overall. And a goals conceded rate of 1.4, has earned him that precise accolade. That's no small feat for a club that sits bottom of the table. Put it another way: Sunderland had won just one game before Mannone took the gloves. Since he became the No 1 keeper, they've won six, drawn seven and lost 11. That's a considerable improvement even if it might not save Sunderland from relegation. After all, Mannone has only one job to do, and he's done it pretty well for the Black Cats.
"The Pole produced an assured performance at the Allianz Arena. and helping to hold the same to a 1-1 draw in the second leg"
Fabianski might still be a Gunner, but this may only last as long as the next few weeks. Despite his impressive contributions, he seems to want out, and it's a credit to him in my book. By contrast with other wantaway players, he's angling for playing time. Like Mannone, he might be willing to move down the table in order to move up in the pecking order even if this means turning his back on Champions League football, among other perks. Better to be between the sticks than on the bench.
For nearly seven years, he's waited patiently for his turn only to get pipped by his fellow countryman. Along the way, he's been our man to turn to outside the Premier League, turning in stellar performances in our march to the FA Cup final and filling in at short notice when Szczesny was sent off in the first leg against Bayern. Like last season, the Pole produced an assured performance at the Allianz Arena. and helping to hold the same to a 1-1 draw in the second leg.
Most recently, of course, the man proved his mettle by stopping Wigan's first two penalty kicks in the FA Cup semi-final to help deliver Arsenal to their first final since 2011. But there's now a debate over whether he deserves to play the final if he's set to leave.
Last, of course, is Szczesny. At the tender age of 24, he's emerged as the first-choice keeper at one of the world's biggest clubs, and he's performed well enough to be among the best young keepers anywhere. So much so that he's entered the debate for this season's Golden Glove despite being on the wrong end of 6-3, 5-1, 6-0, and 3-0 scorelines. Despite those debacles, he's a real contender for the Golden Glove.
With Petr Cech missing the rest of the season with a dislocated shoulder, he's frozen at 16 clean sheets. Everton's Tim Howard has 15. Szczesny has 14. Even without that award, Szczesny has easily emerged as one of the best young keepers in the top flight. Others, such as Simon Mignolet and David De Gea, have seen a bit of tarnish for various reasons.
Ever since losing his starting role to Fabianski last season, Szczesny has emerged as a consistent, stable and mature keeper. Gone, for the most part, are the distressingly reckless forays off his line. In their place, increasingly often, are game-saving stops at key moments. Did I mention that he's only 24? His best is yet to come. If we could just find an ageing wily keeper willing to mentor the young Pole without demanding too much in the way of playing time, well, wouldn't that be just peachy?