However Arsene Wenger chooses to portray Arsenal’s defeat to Manchester United, he cannot hide the reality of the result.
Twice now Arsenal have faced their title rivals at the Emirates Stadium, twice they have found themselves facing up to a crushing defeat, as both Carlo Ancelotti and Sir Alex Ferguson’s sides have bested Wenger’s.
In truth, the results may not have reflected on the balance of play. As against Chelsea, Arsenal enjoyed their fair share of possession but found themselves on the back foot courtesy of an individual error.
Manchester United, as Chelsea did before them, merely punished Arsenal’s ambition to reduce the arrears—with United’s three-pronged attack twice springing past the home team’s overstretched defence with ease.
After the match Wenger lamented his team’s “massive individual errors”, and insisted that an analysis of the match would be forthcoming. In truth, the root cause of the problem hardly needs spelling out.
The sight of Manuel Almunia’s name on the United goalscorers’ sheet probably tells a story in itself, but the devil lies in the detail.
Nani’s instinctive flick past Clichy and Nasri was an inspirational move, as was the burst of acceleration which took him past Denilson. Yet in driving to the by-line, there was little chance of him scoring, until he lifted the ball over a poorly-positioned Almunia.
It is at moments like this where you appreciate the importance of a goalkeeper in a tight game. Indeed in recent years, goalkeepers have decided this of all fixtures on numerous occasions.
Both Arsenal and Manchester United fans will remember Fabian Barthez’s howler at Highbury where he twice gifted goals to Thierry Henry, or Jens Lehmann’s superb diving stop against Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to secure Arsenal victory at Old Trafford.
But while few Manchester United fans would dispute the capabilities of Edwin van der Sar, few Arsenal fans would be willing to fight the corner of Manuel Almunia.
Almunia has more reason to remember games against United than most, but often for the wrong reasons. His first loss as an Arsenal player came at the hands of Manchester United, and he has done little against Arsenal's biggest rivals to cover himself in glory since.
Arsenal fans may remember his needless charge from the goal-line in the corresponding fixture two seasons ago which ultimately proved costly, and similarly against United in September his rash dash from goal felled Wayne Rooney and let United back into a match they were in danger of losing.
Of all the keepers for the supposed "top four", Almunia remains by far the weakest, while clubs such as Manchester City and Manchester United have stockpiled two or three goalkeepers who could well be viewed as his superior.
As with all his players, Wenger remains stubbornly loyal, but at some point mistakes cannot be ignored. In both games against Manchester United, and also against Liverpool, Arsenal’s goalkeeper has been found wanting.
It can be little coincidence that the top teams in both the Premier League and the Champions League have top international goalkeepers.
Almunia’s inability to force his way into a squad which already contains the likes of Iker Casillas, Pepe Reina, and Diego Lopez is understandable, but then when talk of an England call up surfaced—it was damning that Fabio Capello was so quick to dismiss such talk.
But while for Spain, and perhaps less so for England, the options remain wide-ranging, for Wenger they are rather more limited.
He is a keen admirer of the ability and potential of young Polish keeper Lukasz Fabianski. Yet despite being capable of moments of excellence, more often than not he remains a heartbeat away from disaster. Like Almunia, in the biggest of matches such unreliability can prove fatal.
Those close to the club praise the potential of Vito Mannone and Wojciech Szcesny—but at 21 and 19 respectively they remain, perhaps like their team, ones for the future. But as the pressure for silverware grows with every season, can Arsenal afford to wait for them to develop?
Perhaps the option lies away from the club, however such a move would very much be at odds with the virtues frequently extolled by Wenger. And for a man who preaches value, could Wenger hope to secure a capable goalkeeper at the appropriate price?
For a man renowned as having one of the finest eyes for a footballer, Wenger’s record with goalkeepers remains strangely haphazard. After inheriting David Seaman, only Jens Lehmann has truly come up to standard.
It remains curious that for a man so keen on creating both football and footballers of the highest standard, he has been slow to rectify the problem which continues to undermine his side’s inability to challenge for either the Premier League or Champions League.
In the wake of their latest defeat, Wenger said that at that point in time, no signings appeared likely to be arriving at the Emirates, a development Arsenal fans will doubtless feel aggrieved about given the comprehensive nature of their defeat.
Arsenal fans have been calling for Wenger to secure a goalscorer in the hope that it could be the cure for all their ills, but perhaps signing a goalkeeper should be Arsenal’s number one priority.
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