Unhappy Players at Arsenal

Just when you thought that winning competitive games would keep players in a team satisfied; up comes the eternal question of selection policy.

Anyone who fancied playing the Football Manager series (the precursor of the well-known Championship Manager series) would understand what this selection policy means. We have the clumsy German goalkeeper Jens Lehmann issuing a thinly-veiled warning to his manager Arsene Wenger that this Germany goalkeeper would no longer tolerate waiting on the bench since he was sidelined with a injury after he put in a flawed performance on August 19 against Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park. In that game, he spilt a shot into his own goal when at least 90% of Premiership goalkeepers would have kept it away from what they are guardians of. Then Gilberto Silva, first hugely disappointed that he was not handed the captain’s armband and then suddenly dropped from his favoured defensive midfield position to centre-back then to the sidelines. But we’ll deal with the more vocal and vociferous one first.

The first game against Fulham which the Arsenal won 2-1 was also marked with Lehmann’s poor judgment when facing against David Healy which gifted the diminutive striker to score his side’s opener. For these howlers of such a cranky keeper, it may seem justified that Arsene Wenger would place the German keeper on the bench to put him back in line and as a warning that no player is guaranteed an automatic spot in the Arsenal team. In his stead, the often-shaky Manuel Almunia was called to the fore and has produced an amazing 7 clean sheets in his place.

For Almunia’s part, these clean sheets were great news and certainly no mean feat. On the other hand, the Arsenal has yet to face stern opposition in their march to the summit of the Premiership yet. But from what I’ve seen, I concede that Lehmann is correct and that he’s the only ‘world-class’ keeper in the team now. At 38 years old, it’s ridiculous to demand the same sort of performances which made him a UEFA Cup champion like he did with Schalke 04. Even the great David Seaman made several howlers late in his career, notably in World Cup 2002 against Ronaldinho’s Brazil.

Why I thought that Almunia is not the best man for a long-term job between the posts is primarily due to his poor aerial ability. He’s taller than Lehmann by 1cm but he seemed stiff when handling crosses and lobs into the box. Gareth Bale’s wonderful freekick went in off Almunia and even Kenwyne Jones had an easy headed goal when Sunderland visited the Emirates Stadium some 2 weeks ago. In one-to-ones, he wasn’t the most confident but then he had large slices of luck. I’m not saying that Lehmann was excellent. In the classic example of the lesser of the 2 evils, Lehmann is the viable bet that he could be counted to be a steadier stolid guardian at the posts. But ultimately, Almunia did not commit howlers in the way Lehmann had and for that reason alone, Wenger has probably made the right thing by making sure that the affable Spaniard keeps his performances in tune and win championships with them. After all, the Spaniard has already waited for his chance patiently for so many seasons after keeping goal at Celta Vigo that a prolonged run at goal is probably a fair and just reward for perseverance.

Wenger took note of Lehmann’s uneasiness but we can infer that the boss did little to alleviate his goalkeeper’s fears. The German coach Joachim Loew was already long ago saying that only keepers with consistent performances would make the cut to his first 11 of the ”Mannschaft”.  Naturally, it’s not hard to see that Lehmann was anxious to cling onto his crown of a first team place for the upcoming Euro 2008 in Austria and Switzerland. It was meant to be swan-song if you like. If Lehmann was thinking of World Cup 2010, he’d better luck getting a place in any team participating in his native Bundesliga than anywhere near the national team starting 11.

Whatever Lehmann can allege,  I still think that even without this whining about first-team football, it’s understood that even without taking consistency into question, the most important aspect of a team is to keep everyone happy. At least Almunia has already has his time manning the goal frontier and it’s important to note that little Lassana Diarra has already started making noises about starting more times for ‘Les Bleus’ rather than for the red and white of the Arsenal team. This is where Arsene Wenger, as pointed out in many forums dedicated to the team that the central midfield and defensive midfield position is already saturated. Time to take out the trash, no? Maybe we can start the spring-cleaning with crap players like Alexandre Song or even the fairly average Mathieu Flamini. I’m saying that Flamini is average, despite his exceptional workrate is his average technique and passing. Even his shooting and final delivery is quite sub-par at times. Like I’ve said, at least his redeeming quality is his industry and for his extra coverage, it seemed that he has masked his mistakes rather well.

I also take note that Nicklas Bendtner may also be worried about promises of more first-team football. When he came on, he did everything right and was tidy with this final product. The quandary is whether he would decide that enough is enough and pack his bags. His solid built and aggressive style of play epitomised the main reasons as to why the Arsenal did not fare well against ‘physical teams’ and he would make a valuable addition to any Premiership squad.

At the time of this posting, Arsenal has whacked Slavia Praha 7-0 at home in the European Champions League. I can only hope that internal strife would not mar such performances in the future. Maybe Wenger can start with doing away with the age 30+ players and retain the youth squad and win titles after titles in the future. Or maybe he can do like what most Football Manager armchair managers do and keep players satiated by maintaining a fine-tuned squad rotation policy. Whatever happens, Wenger’s devotion to the first team squad, while making fans believe in miracles for a while by winning games, would incense core players in the long run. Then again, Wenger has been confronted by Robin van Persie before; Flamini has thought of leaving on a free transfer; Bendtner was temporarily questioning his immediate future not too long ago and even William Gallas was making noises about lack of squad quality. Wenger would have the last laugh by having a squad with adequate quality but with too much competition. I don’t think that rich individuals would wonder how the grass could be greener on the other side.

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