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.