By James Goldman
Arsenal’s traditional late-season surge towards the safe haven of the Premier League’s top four is in full swing. The Gunners have rattled off four consecutive victories, and a fifth against Norwich on Saturday will see them overtake Tottenham for the first time since December 22.
No team lurches from rock bottom to bright new dawn quite like Arsenal but to have manufactured a position from which they are able to usurp their fiercest rivals, just six weeks after defeat in the north London derby rendered them seven-points adrift, represents an achievement worthy of praise.
|OUT OF FAVOUR
|SZCZESNY'S SEASON SO FAR
ERRORS LED TO GOAL
Injury has accounted for Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott, neither of whom has been seen in Premier League action since the masterclass in self-harm that was the 2-1 defeat at White Hart Lane, while captain Thomas Vermaelen and previously undisputed No.1 Wojciech Szczesny have been removed from the firing line.
The Belgian centre-half returned only as a substitute following Per Mertesacker’s red card against West Brom last weekend and is almost certain to keep his place while his team-mate serves a one-game ban. Szczesny, meanwhile, will have to settle for a place on the bench at best.
The Pole’s exile represents the culmination of a slow and puzzling decline that dates back to last season’s 3-3 draw against Saturday’s opponents that came perilously close to costing Arsenal Champions League qualification.
Form and fitness have eluded the 22-year-old almost from the moment he allowed Wes Hoolahan’s tame shot to squirm under his body. And although statistically he remains among the Premier League’s elite goalkeepers - he has been directly responsible for only two of the 22 goals he has conceded in the league this season and missed only two crosses - the immeasurable commodity of confidence has drained away.
The cocky 20-year-old who baited Ashley Cole on Twitter, demanded assurances of first-team football before he’d even made his senior debut and was undaunted by the prospect of taking his Premier League bow at Old Trafford is no more, unsurprisingly so considering all that his short career has encompassed.
Despite his rapid career trajectory from loanee at Brentford to Arsenal first choice, it has been far from an easy ride. Significant lowlights include gifting, in association with Laurent Koscielny, Birmingham the League Cup in 2010, conceding eight at Old Trafford and being powerless to prevent Newcastle’s astonishing and record-breaking Premier League comeback from 4-0 down. Euro 2012 was not quite the career-defining experience he had hoped it might be, either.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, it was “mental fatigue” rather than any drastic loss of form that Arsene Wenger cited when he opted to recall Lukasz Fabianski from the wilderness at the expense of his younger compatriot.
It would be too much to attribute Arsenal’s upsurge to Fabianski’s presence; he has kept goal competently if not spectacularly. If anything, he has benefited from playing behind a more settled and consistent defensive unit.
Since his return to the first team the only changes in defensive personnel have been brought about by Nacho Monreal’s Champions League ineligibility and Mertesacker’s clumsy foul on Shane Long which left Howard Webb little choice but to dismiss him.
Szczesny, by contrast, over the course of his 27 appearances in all competitions this season has watched Arsenal’s defensive line-up change on an almost constant basis. He has played behind 10 different defensive combinations and never has he gone longer than four matches without Wenger deciding, or being forced, to reshuffle those directly in front of him.
No wonder the vocal organiser who thought nothing of bossing senior colleagues around when he first broke into the team has seemingly retreated into his shell. His brittle confidence will no doubt have been gnawed at further by reports that see Arsenal linked to the signing of a senior goalkeeper on an almost daily basis.
Having to issue a statement apologising for the comments of his father, who publicly criticised Wenger, was another unhelpful episode.
No doubt there is a talented goalkeeper in there and one who is worth persisting with. Indeed, his plight is
not dissimilar to that of David de Gea at Manchester United - a view shared by the man against whom all Arsenal custodians are judged, David Seaman.
He told The Metro last week: “You have to recognise where you have gone wrong, admit you made an error and work hard to put it right.
“It’s important to have a lot of self-confidence as a goalkeeper and you need to be strong enough to tell your defence when they have gone wrong. But you never stop learning and the best goalkeepers recognise that.
“Look at David de Gea at Manchester United, that’s exactly what he has done. He had a wobble but was mentally strong and bounced back and now everyone is rightly praising him for being a great goalkeeper.”
It is the example Szczesny must follow if his recent demotion is not to define his Arsenal career. A reserve outing at Anfield on Monday might not seem like the best way to go about rebuilding his from but like so many before him, he must trust that Arsene knows.
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