Can Arsenal win the League with Almunia in goal?
by Paul Collins
A couple of weeks ago I saw an article in a major newspaper that asked the question “Can Arsenal win the League with Manuel Almunia?” The writer concluded that Arsenal could not win the Championship with Almunia playing in goal. The writer used the example of Nottingham Forest in the late-1970’s as “proof” of his assertion.
In case you are too young to remember, in 1977 Nottingham Forest were promoted to the 1st Division (the equivalent of the Premier League back then) and had Brian Clough as manager. One of the first things he did was buy Peter Shilton, who was then England’s No. 1 goalkeeper (along with Ray Clemence – this was a time when England produced fine goalkeepers). Nottingham Forest famously won the League Championship with a watertight defence and for years afterwards Clough maintained it was the best bit of business he ever did as a manager. Because of this, the writer of the aforementioned article decided that EVERY League Championship winning side needs a great goalkeeper, and additionally mentioned Schmeichel, Seaman, and Cech as further examples of the solidity of his deduction.
Something bothered me about this assertion, however. A name kept coming into my mind over and over and over again. Those who followed football in the 1980’s will probably know straight away the name I am going to reveal in a moment.
Bruce Grobbelaar won 6 Championships, 3 FA Cups, 3 League Cups and 1 European Cup with Liverpool. He was NOT a great goalkeeper. In fact, Grobbelaar’s various mistakes and blunders were legendary among supporters. It was always said that it was lucky he had such a great personality, because otherwise the Liverpool supporters would hate him. But Grobbelaar was a shot stopper, pure and simple, and had a great team in front of him.
However, the thought of Grobbelaar made me want to look further into this idea that you can only win the League with a great goalkeeper. It isn’t as clear-cut as we seem to be told it is by “people who know”.
Of course there are the obvious examples such as Schmeichel, Seaman and Cech. Before that you could include Ray Clemence in the 1970’s for Liverpool. Maybe you could even add Van Der Saar and Jens Lehman to the list. But in many of these cases, it quickly becomes clear that these guys played on great TEAMS, many of which would have won the League with anyone playing goalkeeper.
Let’s face it, Tom Thumb could have played in goal for Chelsea last season and they would have won the Championship (and have we all forgotten all the criticism Cech got for his numerous mistakes in the first half of last year? The criticism stopped but how much of that was due to the fact that Chelsea scored 4 goals a game in the 2nd half?). Manchester United in the 1990’s were similarly miles ahead of everyone else (until AW came along).
But what about the case of Tim Flowers (Blackburn), John Lukic (Arsenal AND Leeds Utd), Colin Boulton (Derby County), Jimmy Rimmer (Aston Villa), Gary Sprake (Leeds Utd), and Alex Stepney (Manchester Utd)? The list goes on and on. These are not bad goalkeepers by any means, and some of them would be regarded as very good goalkeepers. But none of the above names would be called “great” by even the most biased fans. And yet they were all goalkeepers for Championship winning sides.
Rather than a Championship winning side needing a great goalkeeper, what seems instead to be the case is that teams often win the Championship when a previously average or “decent” goalkeeper has a great season amidst a career of normalcy. What is instead true is that you cannot win the League with a goalkeeper having a “bad” season. That is a subtle but important distinction. Last season, our goalkeepers were bad. We did not win the League. I see a much clearer connection there.
Take the case of Tim Flowers, one of the most recent examples. Many will say “oh, but he won England caps” and that would be true. But he won England caps on the back of his one great season, Blackburn’s Championship season, and never again did he come anywhere those heights. For that one glorious season he was able to raise his game to its highest level and sustain that excellence. This is a common occurrence in English Football history.
So, if it isn’t quite as clear-cut as we previously assumed, we should return to the basic question. Can Arsenal win the League with Manuel Almunia in goal? The obvious answer to this question is “not if he has a bad season” but that would be the answer to the same question for 98% of the Championship winners in history. Only a few sides (Chelsea last year perhaps, Liverpool in 1987-88 etc) have been so far ahead of the rest of the League as to make it irrelevant who played in goal. But the answer “not if he has a bad season” suddenly presents to us a mirror image that seems far more optimistic.
Instead, we could in fact answer “yes, Arsenal could win the League with Manuel Almunia if he has a great season”. And remember, before the comments go crazy, I am not saying that Manuel Almunia has to become a “great goalkeeper” for a season. I just don’t think he has that in him. I am simply saying that Manuel Almunia has to have, for him, a great season. If so, then there is absolutely no reason that Arsenal cannot win the Championship this year with Manuel in goal.
It is easy for us to believe these clichés that are thrown around with ease. You can’t win with kids. You can’t win without a great ‘keeper. You can’t win without a great target man. Some are truer than others. Great goalkeepers undoubtedly help, of that there is no doubt. But it isn’t necessary. So much is dependent on the players around the goalkeeper, the style of football that is played, the number of goals scored. Instead it is merely necessary that a ‘keeper plays well for that season, and so far Manuel Almunia has had a pretty decent start. We should support him now and keep his confidence high, because there is no historical reason to think that we are unable to win with him in goal for us.
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