Arsenal, like Nigeria recently, have had persistent goalkeeping problems, with both seemingly struggling to find a consistent player between the sticks for different spells in the last 10 years or thereabouts.
While the Super Eagles’ issues began in the second half of the last decade following Vincent Enyeama’s final appearance in 2015, the Gunners’ stretches back over a decade, after Jens Lehmann’s understandable decline in the late 2000s.
The German shot-stopper was Arsene Wenger’s man in goal for Arsenal’s Invincibles campaign of 2003/04 and ensured a smooth transition following David Seaman’s departure in 2003 after 13 years at the club.
Lehmann’s time as first choice saw the club win the Premier League in unprecedented fashion as well as claim the FA Cup in 2005. The German was also a Champions League finalist in 2006, but the game at Stade de France will probably be remembered for the shot-stopper receiving his marching orders early on in the encounter.
Arsenal’s move to the Emirates Stadium at the start of the 2006/07 campaign was meant to herald new beginnings for the Gunners; however, it began a deterioration that crept into the club’s goalkeeping position.
Over the next decade, Wenger used Manuel Almunia, Lukasz Fabianski, Wojciech Szczesny, Petr Cech and David Ospina to mixed levels of success.
What made that period peculiar was how each understudy thrived amid the incumbent’s poor form, only to then churn out inconsistent displays after supplanting the mainstay.
This was the case with Almunia (after replacing Lehmann whose form dipped badly in 07/08), Fabianski who replaced the Spaniard and to a lesser extent Szczesny, whose mixed performances then may have been down to his relative youth. The Pole has since improved markedly at Roma and now Juventus to become one of the best shot-stoppers in Europe.
However, could Arsenal have found the consistency they lacked in those frustrating years in Enyeama?
The legendary shot-stopper saw to the Super Eagles’ hitch-free changeover from Ike Shorunmu in 2002, becoming a mainstay for the three-time African champions for over a decade before his acrimonious retirement in 2015.
Perhaps things may have gone differently had the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations winner had a different view to Arsenal’s interest in 2006.
The 37-year-old recently revealed to ESPN how the North London club made overtures in 2006 and 2013 for his services, but negotiations broke down as Wenger only wanted him as a subordinate.
"Arsenal wanted me for second choice, but I was not interested. I also had an offer from Tottenham that wanted me for second choice also and I wasn't interested,” the veteran told ESPN. "It was after 2006 Africa Cup of Nations and then again around the 2014 World Cup. When I turned them down, that is when they [Arsenal] took David Ospina.
"For me, I was at the stage where I preferred playing even if it was for one of the smallest teams, that is what the agents that were involved told me. Arsene (Wenger) wanted me but he was not so sure because of my height and things like that.
"People have their choices and I respect their choices."
From the outside looking in, it’s easy to understand why Enyeama wasn’t convinced of Arsenal’s interest in 2006.
Lehmann, then-36, was still the club’s best goalie while the Nigerian hadn’t come to be the household name he’d eventually become.
Still in his first season with Israeli side Bnei Yehuda, a failed move to the Gunners may have damaged the budding stopper’s career, and consequently seen him fail to hit the heights he eventually reached with Nigeria and LOSC Lille in Ligue 1.
Perhaps it would have been sensible for the two-time Caf Champions League winner to have made the move in the knowledge that the German’s career was winding down and he was being groomed to take his place.
Nevertheless, if the failed move in 2006 was somewhat understandable, Arsenal’s logic circa 2014 was odd and bordering on insulting.
At the time, Enyeama was already an established figure in the Lille dressing room, so it was bizarre the North London side imagined he’d swap first-team football at the Stade Pierre Mauroy for infrequent gametime at Szczesny’s expense (although it should be noted Ospina made 18 league appearances in 14/15, one more than the Poland star).
Cech’s time at the club was largely underwhelming with the Czech Republic man already past his prime upon his arrival from Chelsea, and they’ve turned to Bernd Leno since 2018/19 to provide the sustained consistency they’ve lacked in goal for over a decade.
Arsenal couldn’t afford the creme de la creme of players after leaving Highbury in 2006, and convincing Enyeama in the same year could’ve prevented years of toil for Wenger as he searched for Lehmann’s replacement.If things had turned out differently, perhaps the veteran will have ensured a smooth transition for Arsenal like he did for Nigeria in the early 2000s.