Leyton Orient 1-1 Arsenal: The Manuel Almunia Experience

Much of the inquest surrounding this result has focused on second-guessing Arsene Wenger's team selection for the match. While I have been known to do the same from time to time, I find myself failing to agree with them on this occasion. For me, with more pressing responsibilities in the Premier League and Champions' League upcoming (and the trifling matter of our first cup final since the Pleistocene Era coming up this Sunday), the team selection was fine. This was also borne out by the first 88 minutes - while it was unfortunate that the team were only 1-0 up at the time, the game was well and truly under control. At no point did I ever see the home side scoring or even threatening to do so.

Sadly for us, in the 88th minute, the Manuel Almunia Experience struck again.

We'll get to him in a moment, though. Let's talk about the team selection that caused so many talking points immediately upon the third blast from referee Kevin Friend's whistle. Kieran Gibbs and Bacary Sagna manned the fullback positions, bookending a worrisome central defense of Sebastien Squillaci and 18-year old debutant Ignasi Miquel. Alex Song and Denilson were the holding midfielders, with Tomas Rosicky in the hole ahead of them. Nicklas Bendtner and Andrei Arshavin were on the wings, with Marouane Chamakh leading the line up top.

On paper, that is a side that should annihilate a third-tier side. Then again, our previous encounters with Leeds, Huddersfield and Ipswich this season should have put paid to the idea that we just needed to show up in order to win. In fairness though, I thought the team worked a lot harder this time around and on most days, would have done enough to get the win.

We didn't know it at the time, but a foreboding omen came just minutes into the game. Stephen Dawson took a long shot from distance - it had a little steam on it but nothing a professional goalkeeper should have trouble with. Almunia fumbled it, and had to scramble to scoop it up at the second attempt. Up the other end, a mirror image of the play happened when Chamakh's header was spilled by Jamie Jones, who also collected on the second attempt. Then again, one is a 22-year old kid in his first season as a starter, and one is 33-year old with over a century of Premier League appearances.

The game quickly settled into a rhythm after that, with Arsenal unsurprisingly having most of the ball. To their credit, Orient defended well as a team and closed down spaces quickly. Their efforts were undeniably helped though by the compound efforts of Chamakh's shaken confidence and Bendtner's indifferent form (and the fact that HE'S NOT A FUCKING WINGER). I think we at times forget that this is Chamakh's first season in the Premier League, and opposing defenses have now had the time to look at tape of his torrid early-season performances and make adjustments. It's now on the Moroccan (with the help of the coaching staff) to make the necessary counter-adjustments, but I absolutely believe he'll get there. Mark my words, he'll have a part to play between now and the end of the season.

Bendtner, though, is a different situation entirely. I know he's not the favorite player of many Gooners, and I admit my frustration with him at times as well. However, I also have a large degree of sympathy with him given the manner in which he's being used (though in turn I have sympathy for Wenger's selection headaches given the brilliant form of Robin van Persie). So yeah, it's a complicated state of affairs. Here's the thing, as far as I can see: Bendtner is a guy who enjoys the big occasion, and has the mindset of a big-game player. When I think of the Dane, I immediately recall the thumping header that completed an Arsenal win over our nearest and dearest a while back. Further, as I keep saying, HE'S NOT A FUCKING WINGER. I believe we're the only side on the entire planet who would employ a big, gangling target man as a guy to drill in crosses to a 5'5" midget Russian (says the 5'5" midget American). He has decent enough ball skills, but not to the extent that most of his teammates have...and he's not a guy who will weave through two or three defenders to make space for a cutback to the top of the penalty area.

It's real simple: You take a guy like Nicky and shunt him off to the wing in a low-key affair against a lower-league side, and you're going to get a lackluster performance. Yes, he's a prima donna for being this way. But, his mental makeup is not a fucking mystery at this point. Again, I don't blame Wenger for not playing Bendtner in bigger games this season given the way that RVP is torching everyone, but I do blame him for effectively shutting down the production of one of our wings by using the guy there. The way I see it, an effective Arsenal team can have Bendtner or Chamakh in it, but not both.

As for the Moroccan, he had some half-chances as the first half went on, but nothing came off for him. Other than that though, the game continued on its turgid path to the interval. I wasn't sure where our goal would be coming from, but that question was answered early in the second half.

It turns out that the answer was "a Tomas Rosicky header"...which before the match would have been only slightly less believable than "a double-back-hoof shot from a unicorn". Despite my rantings above, Super Winger Nicklas Bendtner was the man who supplied the cross. Rosicky beat his marker and connected on a fantastic glancing header (placement rather than power) to guide the ball into the net. Jones had no chance, and Tommy had his first goal in over a year. I'm not banking on it, but if he can get going and chip in with some goals, we'll be much the better for it.

Photo: The Guardian

With that one moment of Premier League quality, Arsenal had the lead and were quite content to let the game settle back into its previous pattern. As I mentioned before, the proceedings were largely under control and I would have bet a fair amount of money on a 1-0 win at the time. Even in retrospect, I can't argue with the tactics - if it did finish that way, we'd be applauding the team for getting a result with the minimum required effort given the big games we have coming up.

I did overhear one topic come up a few times from in the in-game discussions among the audience at the Blind Pig - why weren't there any substitutions? Wenger has never been one to panic and throw guys on early when the situation doesn't warrant it, but usually he gets one or two pairs of fresh legs on once it gets to the last quarter of an hour. Here, the XI that started the game finished it, and that may have had something to do with the result. It was a strong bench (Cesc Fabregas, Jack Wilshere, Samir Nasri, Gael Clichy, Laurent Koscielny, Emmanuel Eboue), but I don't see why some two of Wilshere, Nasri and Eboue couldn't have come on to ensure that we kept possession in the last stage of the game as well as we had done up to that point.

A warning shot came from Orient in the 82nd minute, when Jonathan Tehoue crossed well into the area for Alex Revell. The Orient striker connected with a volley that was going to give Almunia all sorts of bother if it were on goal, but it was blocked by Squillaci. Immediately, the Orient players pleaded with Friend for a penalty kick, claiming that the Frenchman had handballed. The replays showed that not to be the case - Squillaci ended up taking the shot full-force to the noggin. I've had that happen to me before in my park-league goalkeeping adventures, and I can assure you it's not fun. All credit to the guy for sacrificing himself to the cause.

For all that though, the scores were leveled six minutes later. That man Tehoue was in the center of it again, picking the ball up just outside the area and making fools of Squillaci and Miquel with a simple feint. I can forgive that from the 18-year old rookie, but for a guy with Squillaci's experience to get destroyed so badly by a third-tier striker is fucking unforgivable, and must be added to the ever-growing list of times where he's cost us this season.

That said, the reason you have a goalkeeper is to be the last line of defense when the center-halves are beaten. No team goes 90 minutes (unless it's against Wolves at home) where that doesn't happen, so you have to be able to depend on him in those cases. Now, look...as I said, I'm a keeper myself and I'm the first to defend my spiritual brothers when it's warranted. Most pundits don't know the first thing about keeping...for example, the people calling Slovenia stopper Samir Handinovic a coward for ducking out of the way of Landon Donovan's point-blank shot at the World Cup. Let me stand about 6 feet in front of you and fire a large object at your head...we'll see how fucking brave you are, you stupid fucks. Digressions aside, if the center-halves get beat but the resulting shot is stoppable, then as far as I'm concerned, all blame or credit then goes to the goalkeeper in that situation.

Tehoue's shot was eminently stoppable, and Almunia fucked it up. AGAIN.

Photo: The Guardian

Another common misconception about goalkeeping is that a keeper should never be nutmegged. Of course, that's horseshit. If a guy is coming in one-on-one and makes a move that forces the keeper to open up and go side-to-side, there's not much you can do if the striker nutmegs you...that's just physiology at work. But when a shot comes in from even a medium distance that you see the whole way, letting it slip through you is inexcusable at the highest level of the game. Let me reiterate - a professional goalkeeper should save that 99.999999999999% of the time.

Think back to all of Almunia's high-profile errors over the last few seasons though. There's the odd one here and there that came from goalmouth scrambles or corners, but aren't the vast majority shots from distance? It's funny how he's perfectly OK as long as he only has to react rather than think, isn't it? Well, not funny in the ha-ha sense, but it is telling. Manuel Almunia is a man whose confidence has long deserted him, and whose thoughts are already on wherever his next opportunity lies.

In a way, I don't blame him. He has been a No. 2 for much of his career, and was all of a sudden handed a shock transfer to one of the world's biggest clubs. When his chief competitor was sent off in the Champions' League final, he was all of a sudden thrust into a spotlight far brighter and far harsher than I'm sure he could have possibly imagined. We all know he bottled it badly on that day (the second goal conceded being particularly dreadful), but he got his chance again when Jens Lehmann was relegated to the bench. For a while, he did OK and seemed to be growing into the role. But, once the setbacks started coming again, his spirit broke and there just wasn't any mental reserves there for him to draw on. The fact is that he is not a goalkeeper equipped to handle life at the highest levels of the game. He just fucking isn't.

Don't get me wrong though - I'm not blaming Wenger for playing him in this game. With Lukasz Fabianski injured and Vito Mannone on loan to Hull, I think he had to know what the guy had left coming off of his shoulder injury and re-demotion to the bench. While it's unfortunate for us and for Almunia himself that the answer was "not bloody much", the fact is that we've learned that information at the cost of only a replay as opposed to the fate of, say, Chelsea (speaking of which: HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH! Fuck off and die, Cashley).

In the end, it was a frustrating result and a replay that we didn't need, but it's not the end of the world. We're still alive and kicking, still in all four competitions. I still have hope that next Monday's match report will have a picture of a shiny silver thing as opposed to a string of 3,792,719 f-bombs.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Almunia 4, Gibbs 6, Squillaci 6, Miquel 6, Sagna 7, Arshavin 7, Song 6, Denilson 6, Rosicky 7.5 (MOTM), Bendtner 5, Chamakh 5