When, last season, Wenger responded to two glaring early season bloopers from Lehmann against Fulham and Blackburn by replacing him with Almunia he was, not for the first time, taking a risk with a crowd favourite. Despite his eccentricities Lehmann was a very good keeper though at times a costly one. It wasn`t the first time Wenger had dropped Lehmann but this time there wasn`t to be any going back.
Few had confidence in the Spanish keeper but he kept his place for the rest of the season enduring the backbiting and contempt of his predecessor in much the same manner that Kahn had endured as first choice for the German national team for many years. An experience that Wenger has claimed has toughened him up.
Many had their doubts about the wisdom of replacing a proven international keeper with Almunia. It isn`t hard to understand why as he came as little more than a journeyman back up keeper from his native Spain. As a 27 year old at the time never having played international football at any level and with very few first team appearances to his credit it is hard to see quite how he had even appeared on the Arsenal scouts radar.
“Almunia came here without a CV so he had to make a name with his performances. It was not easy because he had to get experience at a big club” said Wenger at the time he installed the Spaniard as his first choice. “He had never played for a big club before and made some mistakes, but he has gained confidence and calmness. He is a good keeper” he continued.
Wenger knew he was taking a chance because, no matter how talented a keeper might be, playing for a club like Arsenal tests the mental strength time and again in big games in front of big crowds. Mistakes are magnified at such a club in major contests. Many promising keepers careers have been destroyed by that pressure.
“I knew he was good but how could he be Arsenal`s keeper? Only by playing. Everyone makes mistakes. Van der Sar makes mistakes.” Wenger explains.
“But it was more difficult for Almunia because he was already under pressure from an outstanding goalkeeper behind him.
That was a tough test. If you play bad games, you are under pressure immediately.”
So how has Almunia grown over almost 2 seasons as number 1? He played last season with a great deal of pressure on him both from public examination and the scorn of Lehmann as he scoffed at his replacement. “I’m an easy-going person,” Manuel said. “I like to treat everyone with respect and I see everyone as equals. I treat people the way I would like to be treated myself. To have someone here who hates me is just amazing. I know he hates me.”
But, by and large, it was pressure he was able to bear successfully as he made some match winning contributions including a penalty save against Spurs in the home fixture last season. This season he has been able to perform with a degree of comfort in the knowledge that he is largely unchallenged as first choice and seems noticeably more assured and confident. The criticism that he never makes match winning saves has been dispelled with a number of excellent stops. That`s not to say that there haven`t been shaky moments. His nervous, edgy performance against Spurs in this season`s home fixture after being lobbed by Bentley went some way to costing us points in that game. But he has recovered and he has been a solid performer.
That keepers make mistakes is true of every top class keeper. It`s how they deal with those and get back under the magnifying glass that distinguishes the top keepers from the rest. So far this season Almunia has dealt with any rare, below par performances with solid composure and determination. Though still short of this 32nd birthday, a good age for a keeper, he will probably never carry the CV of more illustrious names. Maybe in the minds of many that will always count against him but those less easily persuaded by such trappings will perhaps recognise that he is at least worthy of his place among the best in the league.
If we do manage to pick up a trophy with Manuel between the posts he should, at the least, qualify as a candidate for any future ‘unsung heroes` features.
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