I find the whole concept of having an ‘FA Cup keeper’ a little bit odd.
Managers aren’t in the habit of wrestling the captain’s armband off one bicep and slipping onto someone else’s arm when it’s not a league game, are they? They don’t tend to give their back-up physio a chance to carry the bag in knockout competitions, or tell the club chef to come up with a less healthy ‘cup menu’ for their pre-match meal either.
Rotation is commonplace and (occasionally) necessary, that much I accept, but it still stuns me that so many managers are willing to tinker with such an important position when matches in the world’s greatest cup competition crop up.
I get the premise. While outfield players are afforded the chance to make contributions throughout a season, many sub keepers bed themselves in from August until May, and are rarely seen leaving their comfort of their luxury dug-out seats. They are paid handsomely to warm up the other guy, so if you can’t give them a chance to shine in the cups, when can you?
Call me old fashioned, but I’d say that’s what reserve team football should be for.
In my playing days, the stand-in keeper would play for the stiffs in midweek. This would keep their eye in (very important for keepers) while also regularly reminding the gaffer what a good player they were. It was a win-win. Should they ever be needed they were match-ready.
It was a system that worked just fine, but senior pros don’t get asked to play for the reserves too often in the modern game. This means first team managers are more pressured to rotate, and the end result sees cobwebs being shaken off on first team duty instead.
If Wojciech Szczesny is selected to start for Arsenal against Aston Villa this weekend, he’ll effectively be doing that in the FA Cup Final – and I find that peculiar.
Arsene Wenger’s selection dilemma is massively complicated because he played Lukasz Fabianski throughout last season’s triumphant FA Cup campaign, at first choice Szczesny’s expense. It paid off too, but the situation was different.
Back then the Gunners were striving to persuade Fabianski to sign a new contract. He’d shown major improvements and the club were understandably keen on keeping him on side.
His form had been so impressive, that many felt he was a better bet than his Polish counterpart anyway. A hero in the early rounds - especially in the semi-final penalty shootout - there was minimal apprehension felt around his cup final selection. That’s not the case with Szczesny.
In the last five months the Pole has started just four games (all in the FA Cup) and has looked wobbly. Disillusioned at losing number one status to David Ospina, his confidence and sharpness appear to have taken a predictable hit.
Having been out of sorts earlier on in the campaign, reportedly angering the manager with his behaviour after a defeat to Southampton, and quite possibly on the club’s ‘for sale’ list, Wenger’s obligation to play him is far less compelling than it was for Fabianski.
These are three straightforward questions…
Would Arsenal’s back four prefer Ospina to start? Even though he made a rare mistake last weekend, the answer would have to be yes.
Will Gunners fans at Wembley be less nervous if the Colombian is given the nod? The vast majority definitely would.
And is Szczesny, who hasn’t played for six weeks, under intense pressure to not make another big game mistake? Of course he is, and that won’t help his nerves.
Arsenal’s manager is an honorable person. There’s a part of him that will feel morally compelled to treat his deposed keeper in just the same way he looked after Fabianski last year. That’s why sticking with his ‘FA Cup keeper’ is such a difficult choice.
Yet by selecting Szczesny ahead of Ospina, Arsenal’s XI and their prospects of claiming a record-breaking 12th FA Cup success, will undeniably be weakened.
It’s the biggest match of the season. It’s a chance to make history.
I know what I’d do.
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