Shipwrecked and Comatose

At the Emirates Stadium, nothing is as it seems. A defence that seems to be the fourth-best in the league is one that crumbles in the face of an airborne football. A coach who seems to have three Premier League titles on his mantelpiece would not know a trophy if it threw a bottle of water at him. A squad that would appear to have four goalkeepers actually has none at all.

Arsenal needing a goalkeeper is album-filler in the soundtrack to the British summer. It’s a warm-up act for the headliners, which are things like contract wranglings, transfer sagas and, occasionally, actual sporting events. Say it out loud a few times and you can’t help but notice your voice becoming increasingly insistent. Arsenal need a goalkeeper. Arsenal need a goalkeeper.

And they haven't bought one even though there are loads of them around. Shay Given, he’s a goalkeeper. Mark Schwarzer is another one. Brad Friedel is definitely a goalkeeper. So urgent, it seems, is Arsenal’s need for one of these that many have wondered why Arsène Wenger hasn’t yet risen from his swivel-chair, stood tall, stared into the middle distance and declared “Arsenal need a goalkeeper, by thunder!” before stalking decisively to a telephone or flicking purposefully through the nearest Rolodex.

The reason, the only reason why that has not happened is that Arsenal don’t need a goalkeeper. They need an Arsenal goalkeeper. The somersaulting, why-catch-when-you-can-parry stylings of Shay Given are all very well for the unblinking camera-happiness of a high-octane Premier League, but Arsenal need someone altogether more Arsenal. The kind of man who will stamp his authority on a stray pass, even if it means taking leave of his box, or his half, or his senses. The sort of goalkeeper who isn’t afraid to keep his eyes off the ball as he traps a backpass (and only occasionally see it skim merrily off his studs and scurry alarmingly on toward the goal).

Arsenal need a man who can lose his head when all around him are losing theirs. And that man is already at the club. That man, that man, is Manuel Almunia.

Charting Almunia’s narrative (Almunarrative? Narramunia?) since his arrival in England seven years ago has been one of the more enduring and underappreciated pleasures of the Premier League.

A deliciously chilling vision of things to come was provided on February 1st 2005. Almunia had just won a place as starting goalkeeper from Jens Lehmann (a wicked, twinkle-eyed piece of effrontery from which the German’s eyes are yet to un-narrow) and Arsenal faced Manchester United at Highbury. The game remains best-remembered for Roy Keane squaring up to Patrick Vieira after the latter (presumably) told Gary Neville that his moustache has always looked a bit rubbish.

This is a shame, because Almunia put in a memorable, shriekingly hysterical performance. He flibbered and flustered, he wriggled and squirmed. He went tearing out of his goal like a startled jackrabbit to meet a ball he had no hope of winning. And he got lobbed by John O’Shea.

He got lobbed by John O’Shea.

So ended the first phase of Manuel Almunia’s Arsenal career, one which began with his arrival in London and ended with a steely resolve in Jens Lehmann’s narrowed eyes snuffing out Almunia’s chances like an anvil being dropped onto a lavender-scented candle. For the sake of convenience and awesomeness, this first stage will be referred to as the Triassic period.

The next era (the Jurassic) was one of unbridled Lehmannation, punctuated by a second chance for Almunia on the unlikeliest of stages. In the 2006 Champions League final against Barcelona, Almunia was summoned after Lehmann’s sending-off in the eighteenth minute. It would be heartening to think that Manuel gave Jens the smallest and most nervous of triumphant smiles as the latter stomped to the dressing-room, but he probably didn’t.

In 2008 Lehmann went to Stuttgart, and Almunia’s Cretaceous epoch began with a glorious, lord-of-all-he-surveys season as Arsenal’s starting goalkeeper. He was, literally and symbolically, given the number one shirt.

But even in an environment totally devoid of glowering Teutons, Almunia managed to drop a few league appearances to Łukasz Fabiański, and even Vito Mannone made a cheeky last-day showing.

In subsequent seasons Almunia’s first-choice status began to resemble a rubbish metaphor in which Almunia was an enormous marshmallow encased in ice that was gradually being chiselled away by Fabiański, Mannone and Wojciech Szczęsny.

These late-Cretaceous days of Manuel Almunia see him painted as the worst goalkeeper ever to walk the earth. When he does make an appearance, like when Szczęsny went off injured against Barcelona, Almunia plays like a man who has crawled to the very bowels of Hades and back. Like a man who has watched his spirit shattered to pieces and spent a thousand years re-assembling the shards. He plays with the square-shouldered nihilism of a man who knows how unwanted he is, but knows no way of confronting the situation other than just to keep goal. What else can he do?

At the Emirates, nothing is as it seems. Almunia isn’t the worst goalkeeper in the world, he just seems like it. But he’s a fantastic Arsenal goalkeeper, in the sense that he encapsulates their failings but also in that he suits their style of play. He’s not a pure shot-stopper like Given or Friedel, he’s a man who strives for goalkeeping universality and misses it by quite a long way. But there is something admirable in the struggle.

You see, sometimes there’s a man. I won’t say a hero, because what’s a hero? But sometimes, there’s a man. He’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there.

Everything Is Alright

All of the following is a lie. It will never happen.


Phil Jones’ Manchester United début is cast into doubt after it emerges that the central defender is actually an arbitrarily-generated player from the videogame Football Manager 2011. “It’s a shame that he’s not actually real,” mumbles United’s assistant coach Mike Phelan, expressing an opinion, “because we had him pencilled in for the weekend. We should have noticed something was wrong when we saw his incredibly generic name, and in retrospect he does look a bit pixelly.”

The opening day of the Premier League season sees Andy Carroll ruled out for eight weeks with a collapsed fetlock. Michel Salgado, who was playing in a different game, is banned for ten matches because it had to be somebody’s fault. The Prime Minister announces a zero-tolerance policy on violent full-backs with great hair, declaring them “the single greatest threat to that Enormous Society thingy”.

Jack Wilshere buries his studs in somebody’s thigh and nobody notices, except the man whose thigh suddenly resembles a fleshy colander. Wilshere tweets something about giving 110%, and forms the Honest Tackle Preservation Society.

It is revealed that Joleon Lescott earns a basic wage of thirty-five thousand pounds a minute. The Manchester City defender buys a majority stake in the Bank of England and demands that they print more minutes.


Arsène Wenger absolutely loses his shit. “Look, I’m not going to buy a tall, experienced central defender. Sébastien Squillaci is thirty-one and over six foot and he’s not very good” wrote the Arsenal manager in his programme notes ahead of the game against Swansea. “Thomas Vermaelen, on the other hand, is in his mid-twenties and under six foot, and he’s very good. Furthermore, I am considerably better at coaching a football team than all of you put together.”

International week happens, and everyone cares so little about it that they pick apart both England fixtures with surgically masochistic glee. “I would give Capello a five out of ten at best” explains one fan who probably only watched the game and formed a detailed opinion on it ironically.

The second round of World Cup qualifiers begins in the CONCACAF region, and Canada playmaker Dwayne De Rosario proclaims that he would “literally devour my own eyeball” to play at Brazil 2014. MLS commissioner Don Garber, recognising an opportunity to grow the league, hastily arranges an All-Star Eye-Gouge at the Rose Bowl, with Chelsea competing against a team of MLS All-Stars to prepare the tastiest garnish for De Rosario’s ocular jelly.

With nothing to separate the two garnishes, MLS All-Stars win because they used a square plate. Joleon Lescott hires Landon Donovan as a pastry chef.


The Champions League group stages intensify, and it becomes apparent that poor performances by the French teams are due to all the players in Ligue Un having been bought by Newcastle United. “It is ridiculous” shrugs Olympique Lyonnais chairman Jean-Michel Aulas, struggling for breath having just put in a real midfield shift against Shakhtar Donetsk, “they – they’ve got all the players. There aren’t any more.”

In Serie A, Roma coach Luis Enrique faces a tactical conundrum. “In the last game Francesco Totti did, statistically, absolutely bugger all” said the former Spain midfielder, “Look at this spreadsheet. Kilometres run: zero. Passes attempted: zero. He just stood in the centre circle with his hands on his hips, swivelling around and demanding the ball.”


In the Bundesliga, the titanic clusterfuck at the management level of Bayern Munich results in statements by one member of the club’s hierarchy being immediately contradicted by another. “Yes, Leighton Baines is a player we are very interested in” says Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, ending a sentence with a preposition. “We will certainly be attempting an audacious summer swoop.”

“I don’t know who Leighton Baines is” said Uli Hoeness five minutes earlier, “is he a nineteenth-century industrialist?”

“We were never at war with Eurasia” confirms Franz Beckenbauer.

Jack Wilshere has bits of Yorkshire pudding between his teeth, and forms the Tapas Bar Condemnation Affiliates. Joleon Lescott buys St Peter’s Basilica “as a sort of summer house.”


Manchester United slump out of the Champions League after Sir Alex Ferguson is diagnosed with a case of quivering jowls, forcing Mike Phelan to take charge for the crunch game at Lyon. “I forgot that he isn’t real” says the charismatic assistant of the decision to pick Phil Jones. “He had a tackling stat of eighteen, and twenty for anticipation. I’m not made of stone. Credit has to go to Lyon, though, they exploited the space well. Aulas’ run from deep for the winner was worthy of deciding any game.”

There are calls for a public inquiry after a hundred thousand football fans all claim to be the only one who likes Mario Balotelli. The Italian striker marks the occasion by doing something utterly despicable, like wearing sandals or not jumping for an aerial ball.

Preston North End, flying high in League One, suffer a blow as manager Phil Brown returns to the Hull City job. “My ambition is as boundless as my talent, which is really fucking boundless” grins the hideously-tinted headset-wielder. “I will take this club to the very top – and back again.” Also in the Championship, Ian Holloway says something and everybody laughs at all the right bits.

In La Liga, a midweek round of fixtures sees several games experience chilly and rather bracing weather.


Midfielder Michael Bradley, son of United States coach Bob, changes his name to avoid being tarnished by association with his father’s unpopularity. “I’m so sick of being blamed for dad’s tactical substitutions, man” whinges the Gladbach player, “It’s like there’s so much focus on me during games, I just want to be less conspicuous. And I think Prometheus T. Badass is a better name anyway.” Bob Bradley does not comment, either because he isn’t available or because journalists are scared of him as he looks a little bit like Voldemort.

Swansea City are roundly patronised after holding Chelsea to a 1-1 draw. Scott Sinclair, who scored the Swans’ goal, is asked how it felt to score against his former club. He can’t remember the last time he scored a goal against a club he’s never played for.

Jack Wilshere is knighted in the New Year’s Honours List for “services to Tudor houses, antique tables, billiards & cetera.” It emerges that Joleon Lescott has become the heir to several baronetcies in the East Midlands.


The Premier League forecasts a record number of Swoops, Warchests and Snappings-Up for the fiscal year 2011-12. “Seriously you guys” says chief executive Richard Scudamore to Top Top Sky Sources, “that yellow ticker thing at the bottom of the screen is going to go literally bananas.”

A hotly-anticipated fixture at Old Trafford sees Manchester United’s team of wingers take on Liverpool’s élite squadron of energetic central midfielders. Javier Hernández, United’s only central player, receives the ball in midfield and looks up to see a stampede of thigh-pumping homegrown box-to-boxers razing the turf in his direction. He has but a split second to think about the wrath that’s about to set down on him.


Manchester United go fifteen points clear at the top of the table, and Mike Phelan is hired as Barcelona assistant coach. “This is an outrage” barks Sir Alex Ferguson, jowls a-quiver, “Now I will have to go without a number two for the rest of the season.” The massed ranks of the press are too scared to giggle.

Controversy in the Premier League as thirty minutes of injury time are added to the end of a match at Craven Cottage which the home side are losing 1-0. Fulham go on to win 3-1, and the referee’s report explains that “thirty minutes were added onto the end of this game due to numerous time-wasting tactics employed by the away side, and also because Fulham are just really nice. Look at this lovely ground. Nobody wants them to lose.”

A disciplinary hearing is cancelled after it transpires that nobody does mind all that much because Fulham really are just lovely.


Disaster at the Nou Camp as Barcelona are are knocked out of the Champions League by Borussia Dortmund. Kevin Groβkreutz sneaks in a hat-trick, but the continent is far too busy getting angry at Sergio Busquets to notice until they see the score in the morning papers. It also turns out that Busquets was actually rather badly hurt, and everybody feels bad for a while.

Hull City knock Tottenham Hotspur out of the FA Cup, and Phil Brown immediately changes the club’s name to The PB Amber-And-Blacks Feel The Force FC.

Luis Enrique substitutes Francesco Totti in the eighty-sixth minute and is immediately sacked.


The Premier League draws to a close with Norwich City already relegated, proving once and for all that being an intelligent and multilingual coach never got anyone anywhere. The league’s final day sees Blackburn and Sunderland join the Canaries in the Championship. Many distraught fans still haven’t learned not to wear fancy dress for the final game if your team might be relegated. The rest of the nation is treated to the sight of a grown man crying real actual tears while dressed as a banana.

Manchester City spectacularly win the title after overhauling United’s fifteen-point lead. Joleon Lescott wears a pair of enormously opulent trousers for their final game against QPR.

The PB Amber-And-Blacks Feel The Force FC beat Arsenal in the FA Cup final. Jack Wilshere has a particularly bad game, but it’s okay because he was thinking about the Queen.

Lyon become the second French team to win the Champions League, a team of their former managers overcoming Dortmund in Munich. Raymond Domenech scores the winner, somehow making himself even more unpopular in the bits of France not named Lyon.

With Euro 2012 approaching, things are looking up for England as nobody really expects them to win. The pre-tournament friendlies are encouraging, with Fabio Capello having finally settled on a system that solves the Lampard/Sidwell midfield conundrum. The Three Lions look good for a spirited quarter-final exit, and everybody is pretty much okay with that.

Football has happened for another season, and everything is alright.