Less than a month ago, we approached a Premiership game away at Fulham with the goalkeeping position in disarray. Almunia had been struck down for over a week with a chest infection, and with Fabianski also out with a long term injury, young Mannone had been thrown into a Champions League game in Liege. One shaky performance later, coupled with an impressive display from fourth choice Szczesny in the Carling Cup, and many were calling for the unpronounceable Pole to get the nod. Mannone was fighting just to be third choice.
Four weeks later, and he remains the number one custodian despite Almunia’s return to fitness. It was a strange sight to see the Spaniard on the bench against Alkmaar – the one man we considered to have no realistic competition for his place was suddenly out of favour.
It is easy to draw comparisons with the way Almunia himself ousted Lehmann a couple of seasons ago, but the reality is much different – Jens had made a couple of horrendous mistakes, Almunia had been waiting in the wings for a number of seasons, and at thirty was in the prime of his career. Mannone, on the other hand, is a complete rookie, not even exposed to Carling Cup games, Fabianski being the cup keeper of last season. To promote someone of his experience may have been forced by the absence of the first two picks, but to keep him after their return is a massive risk.
The trouble Mannone has is that at his age, mistakes are inevitable, and sooner or later one will cost us a game. So far, his errors have come in games we’ve won regardless, and his best display, that fateful game at Craven Cottage, single handedly earned us three points. That the Alkmaar draw in midweek was his first taste of anything other than a win indicates that he hasn’t yet done enough wrong to warrant removal from the team. But twenty one year old goalkeepers are a liability at times, no matter how talented they may turn out to be – experience is crucial in a position where a single mistake is usually punished.
So, even if Wenger persists with the Italian, it is highly likely that sooner rather than later, he will be given good reason to reinstate Almunia as number one. I have to say I’m not entirely convinced by that approach – it won’t do Mannone’s confidence any good to be axed after costing us a game, but then on the flip side it could be even more of a kick in the teeth to be benched without just cause. When all in said and done, I’d be stunned if Almunia wasn’t back in the side sometime in November.
However, if his exile continues, we can expect the media to amplify the story, with inevitable reports of ‘bust-ups’ between him and Wenger. When that day arrives, I’ll have to crack a smile, as there is little less likely than two such calm characters at each other’s throat.
The one person I have real sympathy for in Fabianski. Certain of his position as number two after a series of promising cup displays (so much so that the first line of his player description on the official site still reads ‘Lukasz is now the established No 2 keeper behind Manuel Almunia’), this is exactly the situation he would have been waiting for. But unfortunately, his knee injury came at exactly the wrong time, and he missed the perfect opportunity to establish himself in the side. Now, instead of competing for the gloves, he finds himself looking over his shoulder at the other emerging talents at the club, and wondering how far down the pecking order he has dropped in his absence.
There is an argument that if Almunia is truly out of favour, Fabianski may get the nod when his returns to fitness in the next few weeks, but I think this would throw even more confusion on the situation. Competition for places is a great thing, but there needs to be some consistency at the back for a defensive unit to operate successfully. It seems to be a straight fight between Almunia and Mannone at present.
I expect Almunia to win out eventually, but as and when he does, his mental state could have a massive impact on our season. If his confidence is destroyed, so may be our chances of winning trophies. However, if he returns as hungry as when keeping Jens out of the side, then this might turn out to be a masterstroke of management.
Much of our season depends on it. Let’s hope the gamble pays off.