Friday spotlight: Wenger’s goalkeeping prodigies making it big now

STAYING POSITIVE ... Vito Mannone.

STAYING POSITIVE ... Vito Mannone.

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BACK in the day when Arsenal were brilliant at everything except stopping goals, we used to wonder why Arsene Wenger refused to do the obvious thing: go out and buy a world-class goalkeeper?

Chelsea bought Petr Cech, Manchester United recruited Edwin van der Sar and both reaped the rewards.

Why couldn’t Arsenal?

The Blues and the Reds were simply endorsing the time-honoured football adage that you build from the back and the first thing you need is a peerless goalkeeper.

Brian Clough reckoned Peter Shilton was worth 18 points a season, and Shilts was a major part of Nottingham Forest’s silverware success.

But Wenger – as stubborn a manager as he is a stupendously gifted one – has refused to budge since becoming all-powerful at the Emirates.

He has wanted to bring through and develop his own special keeper, bring through a goalie trained the Arsenal way.

Or maybe he was just giving the others a chance!

The truth is that since David Seaman quit Highbury in 2003, the only really universally acknowledged top-class keeper Arsenal have had is Jens Lehmann, the slightly-dotty German who played every game of the Invincibles’ season and still holds the record for most clean sheets, having not conceded in 10 games in the famous 2003-04 campaign.

But Lehmann bucked what was to become a trend – he was 33 when he was brought to Arsenal from Borussia Dortmund – not one of the young talents the club has looked to develop since.

It was when the German’s performances became more erratic with the advancing years and he was eased out of the side that the silverware stopped.

It hasn’t been the sole reason for Arsenal’s eight-year trophy-less run of course. but it has been a major contributing factor.

Instead of going out and spending a few million quid on the superb Shay Given or even less money, later, on the uber-reliable Mark Schwarzer, Wenger persevered with trying to bring through young keepers of promise.

It was the most unforgiving of spotlights for those young prospects to learn their trade and the French manager’s grand experiment has cost his side dearly over the years.

Manuel Almunia, Stuart Taylor, Lukasz Fabianski, Vito Mannone, Sebastien Squillaci, Wojciech Szczesny can all tell of the poisoned chalice that comes with being the Gunners’ last line of defence.

And yet this season, it threatens to be different with not one but two Arsenal goalkeepers rising superbly to the Premier League challenge – Szczesny at Arsenal, and ex-Arsenal stopper Mannone at Sunderland.

Despite his tribulations against Bayern Munich in midweek, Arsenal’s Polish goalkeeper remains the pick of the bunch in the Premier League this season.

He is out in front when it comes to clean sheets – his 12 in 26 appearances eclipsing Cech and Hugo Lloris just behind him, and a long way ahead of the rest.

He has also been a vital part of Arsenal’s improving defence this season, as the effect of coach Steve Bould’s defensive principles start to be seen.

At the age of 23, Szczesny is showing signs of coming of age as he stars in the most miserly home defence in the Premier League – just six goals conceded this season.

Only a fool, or perhaps a Frenchman, would seek to argue that the genuine emergence of a potentially world-class goalkeeper at the Emirates and the fact that resurgent Arsenal are again being linked with the title, are not in some ways linked.

But perhaps Wenger might claim he was right all along and that his long-term vision is paying off not just with Szczesny but with Mannone.

For Mannone’s record, too, is up there with the very best in the Premier League this season.

The Italian has conceded less than a goal a game since taking over the gloves from Keiren Westwood back in November.

And no keeper in the Premier League who has played more than 10 games this season – not even Szczesny – can claim a better record than that.

Mannone has kept seven clean sheets in 16 league games for Sunderland; the man he has replaced long term, Liverpool’s Simon Mignolet, has kept seven in 26.

More than that, Mannone has found a home on Wearside – a place where he is welcome and worshipped; a place where he has been given a chance and earned a chant.

A very likeable man, Mannone has bonded with his team-mates and gained what he always wanted in football – an assured first-team place and a place in the hearts of the fans he represents.

At the age of just 25, it’s quite possible that he could hear “Oh, Vi-toe Man-no-nee!” ringing in his ears from Wearside voices for a decade to come.

And I think he would like that.

The Emirates was unforgiving for him; he must finally feel he is on the verge of success at the Stadium of Light

Personally, I think Wenger is a genius, but maybe even geniuses are entitled to a blind spot.

And if the Arsenal manager has had one over the years, it is in not appreciating the absolutely critical value of a world-class stopper.

It can be no coincidence that at the moment Arsenal have found a keeper who can produce world-class form, they are suddenly being talked about again as title contenders.

It can be no coincidence that at the moment Sunderland have found a keeper who can produce world-class form, they have gone from dead in the water to swimming towards safety.

Tomorrow, the two former team-mates will face each other across the beautiful, pristine Emirates turf – both men in the form of their lives.

Regardless of the result on the day, they can consider themselves winners over the course of the season.

Twitter @sunechograeme

* Don’t miss the online Football Echo tomorrow – with the biggest coverage of Arsenal v Sunderland – plus much more. It’s available on sunderlandecho.com or the Echo app from around 6.45pm