2013-14 Season Preview Part 1 - The Goalkeepers

It is never easy to write a full season preview for an English Premier League side this at this point in the off-season. The money-spinning tours have been completed, there have been some comings and goings, but the squad that wears the shirt as the transfer window creaks shut is often an imperfect match to the one we have in the first week of August.

Also, we may as well address the giant elephant (juggling ten flaming chainsaws with its front paws and snout) in the room - the state of any future transfers involving the club is in flux, to say the least. We'll get into that in depth as the preview progresses, but the short version is that I'm highly skeptical that any big names will be coming in.

Before I get to the main event of the show here, I wanted to share two interesting tidbits that I came across while gathering my data:

1. The only players with 10+ starts who did not get a TMG Man of the Match Award were Nacho Monreal, Aaron Ramsey and Bacary Sagna.

2. The average of all of the squad's average ratings was 6.66. If that doesn't sum up our season, I don't know what does.

Anyway, given that I expect further departures (that will be part 2), I'll begin this year's preview by running the rule over a position that I do not expect us to strengthen, despite the wails of many of our Gooner brethren. We begin with my spiritual brothers, the men with the cajones to venture between the sticks behind our backline...our goalkeepers.

# 1 - Wojciech Szczesny

Age: 23
2012 Appearances: 29 (0)
2012 Average TMG Rating: 6.86
2012 TMG Man of the Match Awards: 4

Szczesny is an interesting case, to put it mildly.

I see it as a given that there are two unalienable truths about our young Wojciech - first, he is an immensely talented kid who has the potential to be among the best in the world some day...second, he is not all the way there yet and is coming off an inconsistent season where he alternatively won and lost us points single-handedly.

We all know that he was injured early on in the 2012-13 season, was benched at a critical juncture after a series of iffy performances, and then took advantage of his competitor's injury to finish the season strongly. Well, that is unless you're one of those folks on Facebook or Twitter penning poorly-spelt screeds about how we should have bought Pepe Reina or Mark Schwarzer or Sebastian Bloody Frey Those Ten Seasons We Were Linked With Him. Sorry to sidetrack, but can we all zip our lips about Reina? Anyone who watched 30 seconds of a Liverpool match last season knows what an absolute shower he was, and it's telling that the Scousers paid all that money for Simon Mignolet when there are gaping Stewart Downing-sized holes all over their outfield squad. Nothing happens in a vacuum, folks.

That aside, those who don't subscribe to Twitter groupthink will understand that despite his struggles, Szczesny was somewhere in the middle of all Premier League goalkeepers last season. To listen to some, you would think he was worse than Joel Robles or Kelvin Davis after they were shot with a horse tranquilizer. I won't mince words here - if you think we need a new # 1 keeper more than we need a defensive midfielder, competition for our center halves and/or depth at striker, I will immediately write off your opinion as irrelevant.

On the other hand, I won't try and claim that we are in front of our main rivals at this spot, either. Petr Cech isn't what we was, but he is still one of the best around. David De Gea learned from his own mistakes and improved drastically as the season wore on. The fact that the mouth-breathers in the English punditocracy rounded on Joe Hart is all the evidence I need of his excellence (as I keep saying, the next English journo that knows anything about goalkeeping will be the first). Szczesny does pale a bit in that company, but on the other hand you can't convince me that Hugo Lloris was significantly better last season. For me, he was guilty of the same roller-coaster tendencies that Szczesny exhibited, except that he is a 26-year old with 47 caps and should be beyond this stage.

I do keep coming back to the De Gea example though, because I believe that Darth Ferg played his cards perfectly with him. Anders Lindegaard is solid enough where you can play him with a mild degree of confidence, but he was never good enough to displace De Gea in the long term. You get all of the benefits of strong competition, but none of the downside of having your expensive young talent sitting on the bench in the end. Further, the young kid gets to learn from the seasoned professional in this scenario. The list of things that infuriates me about Arsene Wenger probably numbers in quadruple-digits, but near the top is the fact that he doesn't understand this and hasn't replicated it.

Long story short, Szczesny is still the best goalkeeper that we have. His best qualities are the ones that you cannot teach - he plays with the fearlessness of a samurai facing death. His reflexes are solid, and his instincts are improving all the time. I challenge you to note all of the times where he is decisively off his line in a nanosecond, smothering a chance in the cradle before the striker knows what's happened. He is capable of astonishing saves that the others could only dream of making. His communication skills and command of his area are top-notch. He is still the only one who I believe can rebound from a bad goal or bad game and still play to the level that we need.

His weaknesses, of course, are well known. His distribution is shocking and has shown no signs of improving. Last season, he gave up several soul-destroying goals at crucial times - most of which were down to a lack of concentration. He has been visibly demoralized at times by the shoddy defense in front of him. Clearly, his maturity let him down at times last season.

At the end of the day though, I keep coming back to my instincts from my business-world day job. Any investment has to be justified by showing the level of improvement over the current state. I don't see how we could significantly improve over Szczesny without paying so much that it's not worth it in the final reckoning. As mentioned, there are other areas where that same investment level can improve our squad much more dramatically.

To sum up, Szczesny is not that bad if you'll stop foaming at the mouth for three seconds.

# 21 - Lukasz Fabianski

Age: 28
2012 Appearances: 5 (0)
2012 Average TMG Rating: 7.40
2012 TMG Man of the Match Awards: 1
Those of us who work with statistics are always vigilant against reading too much into small sample sizes. It's why in most cases I hate averages so much - the example I use on client calls is: "OK, what is the average of 1, 2, 3, 4, and 1000?".  That goes a long way towards summing up Fabianski's 2012-13 season.

Fairness dictates that I mention the visit to Bayern Munich early on, though. Before the match, I posited on this site that the only reason Fabianski was getting the start was to protect Szczesny from the legendary ass-whooping we were going to cop in Bavaria that day. I mean, we all know Fabianski's history - error-prone, indecisive, the very antithesis of what a professional goalkeeper should be.

However, the Fabianski that played for us that day exhibited none of those frailties. It was as if he had molted his former skin and emerged as a confident, assured custodian. You may remember that Fabianski kept a clean sheet that day, and only our disgustingly-risible performance on home soil prevented us from knocking out the eventual champions that day.

Further, he went on to give us several additional top-notch performances before once again succumbing to injury, which allowed Szczesny to regain his alpha-dog status. Again, those of us capable of stringing four words together without berating the manager for upgrading our 7th-priority position realize that this version of Fabianski was actually pretty damn great when he was fit.

Ahh...but there is the caveat emptor of the whole thing, though. Whatever your thoughts on Fabianski, he has historically been unable to go any length of time without finding his way to the treatment table.  There are many qualities that a club does not want in a reserve goalkeeper, but a propensity for injury has to top that list. As Vito Mannone showed us last season (more on him in Part 2), the more you have to rely on your third-string goalkeeper, the worse off you are.

Ideally, Fabianski should have left us in this off-season. As decent as he was in his short run as first-choice last season, he will never have the same ceiling that Szczesny does (let alone any fanciful Buffon/Casillas pipe dream you may have). He may be a few years older, but he doesn't have the same gravitas that a potential No. 2 in his mid-thirties would have. He won't get the first-team opportunities that a guy his age would expect to get, but there are smaller clubs out there that would eat their babies to get a guy of Fabianski's ability. He could walk into a team like FC Copenhagen and win the No. 1 shirt blindfolded.

However, he remains at Arsenal...he remains injury-prone, and he remains the clear No. 2. At this point, he is nowhere near as bad as the Twitter Realm of the Damned (seriously, 99% of Twitter is only a half-step above YouTube commenters) would have you believe, but it does strike me as the worst possible situation for all involved.

# 36 - Damian Martinez

Age: 20
2012 Appearances: 2 (0)
2012 Average TMG Rating: 6.00
2012 TMG Man of the Match Awards: 0
I mentioned that I'll have more on Vito Mannone when I get into the dearly-departed in Part 2. As bad as the Italian was at times though, I had a million times more confidence in his ability (we'll always have that one game at Craven Cottage) than I do in this young Argentinian. Keep in mind that we are concurrent injuries to two made-of-porcelain keepers away from this kid potentially having to face Manchester United or Chelsea or Insert Champions League Opponent Here.

Frankly, a minimally-talented 20-year old should not be within 100 astronomical units of the first team of a club like ours. He played twice in the League Cup last season, where he followed a barely-acceptable performance against Coventry City with an epically-horrendous showing against Reading in the following round. We all look back fondly on the 7-5 win, but it nags at me that we could have won comfortably in normal time had we not had a gaping liability in goal on the day.

Sure, I can be accused of churlishness for bagging on a 20-year old with only a handful of senior appearances...in a position where older is generally better. On the other hand, we are in a position where a not-unlikely series of events would result in that same 20-year old starting in goal for us in games that matter. Like I said, four-digit list of reasons why I disagree with the manager.

# 68 - Dejan Illiev

Age: 18
2012 Appearances: 0 (0)
2012 Average TMG Rating: N/A
2012 TMG Man of the Match Awards: N/A

Know how I just said we're a not-unlikely series of events away from Damian Martinez starting in goal for us? We're the same not-unlikely series of events away from an 18-year old from the Macedonian Third Division (no, really) being his backup.

I don't know about you, but I just threw up in my mouth a little.

Position Strength:  C+

The grade would be higher were it not for the propensity for injury that our top two choices have shown in the past. Once you get beyond them, our lack of depth is beyond frightening. 

 Coming up next:  Part 2 - The Departed