I suppose you could sum up Manuel Almunia’s Arsenal career through his performances during two of his first few games at the clubs.
In late-2004/early-2005, Arsene’s patience with Jens Lehmann had apparently snapped after a few chaotic goalkeeping performances (I remember one particularly erratic performance in Greece against Panathinaikos that had cost us three points in the Champions League group stage). As a Mourinho-inspired Chelsea began to pull away in the league, Wenger decided it’d be a good time to see if his new keeper could cut it or not. So, as you do, he decided to draft Manuel Almunia into the first-team for a clash in early February against Manchester United.
To say Arsene had picked Almunia from obscurity would be an understatement. He’d been playing on loan in the Spanish second division prior to signing for us in the summer of 2004, and had never represented Spain at any age level.
We were desperate for revenge over United after their referee-assisted victory over us in November, which had ended our unbeaten run. Both teams were pumped, sparks flew before the teams had even made onto the pitch, and we raced into an early lead thanks to a goal from Vieira.
You can’t really blame Almunia completely for what subsequently happened, but the warning signs about his ability as a goalkeeper, which never subsequently disappeared, were there for all to see. The first goal took an unlucky deflection, and the second was an excellent finish by Ronaldo from a tight angle.
But, for the third, Almunia decided to leave the six-yard box, run to the edge of the area, and miss the ball, thus allowing himself to be chipped, and presenting Ronaldo with a tap-in at the far-post as the goal was vacant. For the fourth, Almunia came, stopped in no man’s land in the middle of his box, and allowed John O’Shea to score an improbably brilliant goal by simply dinking it over his head.
These were to be common themes of Almunia’s goalkeeping career – hesitation, panic, and leaving the goal untended.
But let’s concentrate on the positives for a few minutes. A couple of weeks after the debacle at Highbury, which had promptly seen Lehmann regain his place in the side, Arsenal played Sheffield United in the FA Cup, away from home. After an uninspiring 120 minutes, the game went to a penalty shoot-out. Almunia saved two penalty kicks and Arsenal won the tie. In a way, therefore, he was a crucial part of our last successful cup run, although it is notable that Jens played in the final.
Jens was subsequently immense for the 2005-6 and 2006-7 campaigns, possibly because he knew that Almunia was ready to take his spot where there to be any further errors. But at the start of the 2007-8 season, big errors from Jens in games against Fulham and Blackburn saw Almunia reclaim a starting spot.
Now, I think this was an error. There is a persistent myth that says that Almunia had a good season in 2007-08. He didn’t. He had a season that you would expect from a mid-table keeper. I would say, at best, he had an adequate season in 2007-08. Accordingly, he had a few big moments, such as the penalty save against Spurs in December that helped us to win the game. But he also had his fair share of catastrophies, such as another moment of panic against Manchester United in the game at the Emirates, where he once more abandoned his area and let United score with ease. I wrote this in the aftermath of that game, which essentially said that we couldn’t rely on Almunia when it mattered, and I think what I said then was proved to be true.
Because when things started to get a little tougher in the seasons after 2008, Almunia was found repeatedly wanting. Yes, we can all cite his moments of glory, such as the incredible series of saves he made against Barcelona in the first-half of the first-leg in 2010. But people conveniently forget how he was beaten with ridiculous ease at his near post by Zlatan in the exact same game.
Ask someone to name an Almunia blunder from 2008-11 era, and you’ll probably get a different answer each time. Here’s just a few. Letting in a ridiculously speculative shot by David Bentley from the halfway line in against fucking Spurs; letting Ronaldo score from a farcical freekick in the Champions League semi-final; palming the ball into his net in a vital away match against Birmingham in 2010; or the series of catastrophic errors in our two matches against West Brom last year which meant they took five points off us in the league. This is all without remembering Almunia’s nightmare in Paris – not only getting beaten twice at his near post, but, in the case of Belletti’s goal, actively assisting it into the net.
Because this is what it comes down to for me – Almunia was not just crap, he was consistently crap and he cost us points and, arguably, trophies. Yes, Jens got sent off in Paris – but we only got to the final because of his saves in early rounds, including his remarkable performance in the home leg against Madrid.
Almunia, by contrast, was always a disaster waiting to happen. You could see this from his first games at the club, and I think it’s actually a myth that he ever substantially improved. Minor improvements due to a run of games? Possibly. But he was never anything more than a mediocre keeper that was a perennial, marked weakness in a team that was supposedly pushing for trophies.
Almunia stands as perhaps the ultimate example of certain critical problems that have beset the club over the last few years. Firstly, and maybe most obviously, Almunia represents the club’s repeated desire to penny-pinch in the transfer-market. Secondly, he’s an example of Wenger’s occasional, stubborn refusal to admit when he’s got it wrong in terms of judging a players ability and potential. I mean, you can blame Almunia for being a poor player, but I can’t blame him for being picked an incredible 175 times, when it was obvious after 20 that he wasn’t good enough. That ultimately comes down to Arsene.
But, perhaps most pertinently, Almunia represents a culture in which players were rewarded with exorbitant, long-term contracts in return for achieving the square-root of fuck all. Because Almunia wasn’t just a poor player – he was a poor player earning wages that bore almost no relation to his ability. By the end of his time at the club, we literally couldn’t give him away. Some have suggested we should feel some sympathy for him due to the year he spent in the reserves. I feel none. I firmly believe if he was really interested in playing football, he could have expressed his unhappiness and forced through a move, preparing to take a lower salary in the process. But he didn’t. He knew he’d won the lottery, and had no desire to give up his winnings.
And so that’s why this isn’t a positive piece. Ultimately, when I think of Almunia in the future, it won’t be for the fact he won three memorable penalty shoot-outs for us, or that he did, occasionally, pull off the odd great save. I will remember him as a player who represented many of the negative aspects of the club between 2005 and 2012. And, for that reason, I feel a profound sense of relief that he is no longer at the club.