Date: 3rd June 2009 at 11:02am
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Considering Arsenal`s players of the season has been a very curious proposition indeed. The squad has been beset by inconsistency and ravaged by injury. The likes of Fabregas, Eduardo, Walcott and Adebayor have missed large chunks of the season through injury (whilst ironically, one of the few players to have stayed relatively fit for the whole season has been van Persie). The defence looked flaky and susceptible to concede at any time during the autumn, but took on a more impenetrable persona through the winter until Gallas succumbed to that familiar old foe- injury. Pretty much every possible combination of centre halves has been tried at one point or another, whilst the midfield combinations have had more permutations than a George Graham transfer negotiation. Could Gallas feature in the running for player of the season in the season he was stripped of the captaincy in disgrace? Could Arshavin win it despite having only joined in February? Can van Persie resist all other challengers even though nobody seems to be particularly sure where he fits into any other system bar 4-4-2? We shall see. Over the next five days I shall be conducting my run down for my top five players this season in reverse order, with an article on each.

So we begin in 5th place, which appears apt as we spent most of the season fretting that that`s where we would end up in the league. 5th place is reserved for someone who received only hushed recognition this year despite a year of clear improvement and progress. Manuel Almunia joined the club in 2004 as an occasionally excellent shot stopper, but cut a nervy figure in the Arsenal goal. Following an indifferent spell in the side in the winter of 2005, Almunia became an excellent back up goalkeeper but little more. Then after a series of blunders that showed us old father time had ushered Jens Lehmann into its grasp, Almunia was appointed number 1 in the summer of 2007. Suddenly, having started the season as a stopgap, he was thrust into the position of chief custodian and coped admirably, if unspectacularly. This season he has been the clear bona fide first choice from day number one and has grown into the role with a solid, consistent season. I still have a slight misgiving about his big match temperament; the only goals I can think of this season that I felt he was culpable for came against United (Ronaldo`s free kick), Keane`s goal for Liverpool, Djourou`s own goal at Stamford Bridge and most definitely Bentley`s lob for Tottenham. That said, his display in the first leg of the Champions League semi final suggests a step in the right direction on that front, being as it was possibly the most virtuoso performance of any Arsenal player this season. You rarely see Almunia flap at or drop a cross, he clearly has the confidence of the defence that plays in front of him. And Almunia has had many a different defence in front of him this year.

Almunia has developed many facets of his game which have gone unnoticed. For instance, I scarcely believe there is a goalkeeper in the Premiership more adept when one on one with a striker. He has made crucial saves in this scenario from, off the top of my head now, Craig Bellamy at Upton Park (with the scores at 0-0), Yakubu against Everton (when we were a goal down), Keane against Liverpool, Micah Richards against Manchester City (we were one goal to the good), Michael Owen against Newcastle (again, we were one goal ahead), Anton Ferdinand (scores at 0-0) and Kevin Davies against Bolton (we had just gone 1-0 up with three minutes to go). Significantly, a number of the aforementioned saves were made with his feet; Almunia has mastered the art of knowing when to rush out to a striker`s feet, keeping his legs together and on the ground, whilst his body remains upright, making it impossible for the striker to lift the ball over him. He has also become quietly accomplished with penalties. Arsenal have never lost a penalty shoot out with Almunia in goal- and having spent a few seasons as our “cup keeper” he has faced a fair few. A penalty usually has to be high into the corners and pretty emphatic to beat him. Obefami Martins, Ashley Young and Vucinic have all discovered this season that a low penalty that is not placed precisely into the corner will see Almunia save it. You might argue that all of the aforementioned spot kicks were pretty poor ones, but 90% of the time a poor spot kick that is on target goes in as the keeper dives the wrong way. Almunia has mastered his decision making to the point that he stays up as long as possible. Only Gareth Barry beat Almunia from the spot in open play this season when he powered the ball into the top corner in front of the Holte End so emphatically that the ball bounced straight out of the net and back into his arms. That is the quality of spot kick usually needed to defeat Almunia.

Almunia has also shown great bravery on a plethora of occasions this year; you may recall whacks he has taken at the feet of Michael Carrick, Craig Bellamy and Josebi Llorente this season as he dives out fearlessly to an opponent`s feet. With the 5th place for Player of the Season being a goalkeeper, perhaps it is best to summarise by pontificating on his finest save. The series of excellent point blank stops from Tevez and Ronaldo remain relatively fresh in the conscience, but I think his finest came way back in September in the home match against Porto. Fresh from the traumatic defeat at home to Hull, the Gunners began the match very much on the back foot with Rodriguez`s header having hit the bar in the opening minutes. Shortly after, Lisandro Lopez hit a hard, high arrowed drive from the corner of the penalty area that had top corner written all over it. Had the ball`s progress not been interrupted, it may well have gone in off of the woodwork. The shot came suddenly and out of the blue as the ball broke unexpectedly to Lisandro, yet Almunia instantly shuffled his standing foot, reacted to the shot and flung himself full length to tip the venomous shot around the post. It was a save of agility, both physical and mental and at a make or break time. Porto rarely threatened again and Arsenal went on to win the game 4-0. Whilst the goal scorers Adebayor and van Persie took most of the plaudits, Almunia`s stop gave them the plateau on which to weave their patterns of destruction. Much like Almunia`s form this season, his piece of recognition has become lost in the mists of time. Tomorrow I will reveal the man in 4th place.LD.