Wednesday 18 October 2017

Inner strength helps Szczesny to keep his head and his place

The Polish star has recovered from the Old Trafford nightmare to establish himself as Arsenal's No 1 man, says Amy Lawrence

It takes a certain type of personality to walk away from the scene of the crime and sleep soundly in your bed. When Wojciech Szczesny left the pitch at Old Trafford in August, with the evidence of Arsenal's misdeeds writ large on the scoreboard and witnessed by a global audience of millions, it would have been understandable for the 21-year-old to have endured at least one wretched night, maybe even carry some scars around for a while.

There were a couple of reasons why this gutsy goalkeeper did not reveal the slightest crack in his armour. First, he has an unnaturally high level of self-confidence, which allows him to effectively shed any disappointments as easily as ripping off his gloves at the end of a game.

And second, as Arsene Wenger points out, not one of the eight blows during that calamity in Manchester could reasonably be put down to a Szczesny mistake. "He conceded goals that you would not even consider he had the chance to save the ball," the Arsenal manager says.

That explains why Wenger did not even feel it was necessary to take his young goalkeeper to one side for a pep talk in the aftermath of an episode that could knock an experienced man sideways. "I talk to him when he concedes a goal when he is responsible," Wenger explains. "A goalkeeper becomes vulnerable when he feels he let the team down."

With this in mind, there have been a couple of chats lately. Szczesny has had a terrific season so far overall, and his response to the 8-2 at Old Trafford was exemplary in terms of performance and character, but a couple of costly errors in the recent defeats to Swansea and Fulham served as a reminder that he remains a work in progress.

Considering this was has not been a season overflowing with highlights for Arsenal, Wenger was conspicuously cautious about heaping too much praise on Szczesny in the build-up to today's challenge against Alex Ferguson's team. Why doesn't he want to go overboard? Because Arsenal are intent on doing everything they can to make sure this talent at their disposal is maximised. They know Szczesny has all the qualities needed to be an outstanding goalkeeper, but it seems the odd gentle nudge that he is not there yet does not go amiss.

When Wenger was told that Szczesny's father Maciej -- who was an international standard goalkeeper himself -- phones his boy every week to tell him what he did wrong, Wenger could not suppress a grin. "Really? I will pay him," quipped the Frenchman.

This abundant self-belief makes a refreshing change between the posts at Arsenal. In many ways Szczesny is everything his immediate predecessors were not. Where Manuel Almunia and Lukasz Fabianski too easily spread a feeling of anxiety, Szczesny exudes authority. His presence, his exuberance, his capacity to shout passionately at defenders or try to unnerve opposition attackers has made him first choice at the expense of his elders.

The club first spotted him playing for Poland at the age of 15, and when he was invited to London to train and take a look round he made an immediate impression. Szczesny travelled with Arsenal to a youth tournament in Verona, and playing in the same team as Jack Wilshere and Emmanuel Frimpong, he threw himself into the dressing-room spirit as impressively as he handled himself on the pitch. When he first moved to England, he lived with the landlady, Bobbie, who also looked after Wilshere. These two tyros could not wait to get into the first team and show how good they were.

Liam Brady, the head of Arsenal's academy, remembers how the goalkeeping coach at the time, Mike Salmon, was struck by what he saw in young Szczesny. "He thought we had something special on our hands," remembers Brady.

"Wenger has given him the chance and he is taking it. But he still needs to get experience and keep learning. I reminded him of the two great goalkeepers I played with, Pat Jennings at Arsenal and Dino Zoff at Juventus. I told him to ask his dad about those two. They did their talking on the field and never off it."

His brief career so far has taught him that it is best not to dwell on either of the famous twin impostors. He appreciates how quickly triumph can flip into disaster. Last season he made his Champions League debut in a much-heralded victory over Barcelona, and 11 days later played a part in the mix-up that led to Arsenal throwing away the Carling Cup final. This season he was the penalty hero in the Champions League at Udinese and five days later picked the ball out of his net eight times.

It is all very well for Wenger to be trying to manage his unbreakable confidence, but it certainly has its upsides. If there is one Arsenal player who will come face to face with United without a trace of nerves, it is Szczesny.

Observer

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