So Manchester United have dumped Arsenal out of the FA Cup, leaving them with only one major trophy to play for this season.
The 2-0 scoreline in a game where both sides had their moments and their opportunities came about partly because of the superior finishing of the home side, but also owed itself in no small part to the fact that in Edwin van der Sar, United possessed a vastly superior goalkeeper to Arsenal’s Manuel Almunia. Three times a snap-shot from a player in yellow was not only saved but held cleanly by the Dutchman, who of course is retiring at the end of the season.
Upon noticing the high level of technical competence, this writer could not help but muse whether the same chain of events would have played out at the other end of the pitch, and if the United gloveman would have replicated the spill that gave the home side the lead.
Sometimes it is hard to notice the difference between the work of two goalkeepers and perhaps the best analogy is with the wicket-keeper in cricket. So much of what he has to do is routine and uncomplicated for anyone of a professional standard. However, that one awkward stumping or catch while stood up on a turning pitch can be the difference between a tame draw and a batting collapse that steals the win. The average/good gloveman nearly gets there but maybe fumbles the ball and/or allows the batsman enough time to get back by a whisker. However, the absolutely top-notch wicket-keeper pulls off the piece of brilliance and snares his man (this is why this writer would always choose the better gloveman over the better batsman but that sounds like one for another blog on a different website). Such moments can decide matches, and it is the same with the goalkeeper. 95 per cent of any professional keeper’s work in a match is elementary, but it is the 5 per cent that counts. This would include the awkward shot that the great goalkeeper (van der Sar) holds while the merely good one (Almunia) spills it into an opponent’s path.
Sir Alex Ferguson knows the value of the last line of defence as much as anyone. His greatest ever signing in this writer’s view was not Eric Cantona, but an imposing goalkeeper from Denmark purchased for the modest sum of £530,000 in 1991. Peter Schmeichel was a vital part of the side that dominated domestic football in the 1990s, and can probably be credited as much as King Eric for the come-from-behind title win in 1996. The night of 4th March that year underlined his significance as much as any other, for Schmeichel was in reality the difference between the two sides fighting it out for the gold at the end of that season. Pavel Srnicek was by no means a bad goalkeeper, but one doubts if he could have kept out the type of onslaught that his opposite number had to endure in a torrid first half. Without him, Cantona’s strike on the hour may not have been happened, or merely been a consolation. That 0-1 victory of course swung the pendulum and the psychology of the contest right back in United’s favour and it owed everything to Schmeichel’s technical brilliance, imposing style and raw courage.
Another way to see just how important Schmeichel was is to check some of the results his side had when he was absent. A 1-2 reverse at home to the Roy-Collymore inspired Nottingham Forest was their only home defeat of the 1994/95 season, and Schmeichel missed it. He had also been unavailable for the 1994 League Cup Final, where the black-shirted back four had shown uncharacteristic reticence while crashing 3-1 to Aston Villa. The late Les Sealey was indeed a good and reliable man between the posts, but was simply not on the same level. Kevin Pilkington’s only memorable moment as a United goalkeeper was a 4-1 New Year’s Day mauling at Tottenham, and we have not yet touched upon the most famous instance. Hamstrung by the three-foreigners rule, Alex (long before he became a Sir) decided to leave Schmeichel out and play Gary Walsh instead for an intimidating trip to the Nou Camp. Without the one man who could at least partially subside the inevitable alamo, United were hammered 4-0 by Romario et al. Seeing another name at the top of the team sheet represented an immediate weakening of the ability of the whole, and offered a chink of light to opposing players and coaches. Minus their best player, United were distinctly vulnerable, as the results showed.
The search for a successor was long, arduous and brought difficulties for manager, supporters and the players involved. For a multitude of different reasons, replacements such as Bosnich, Taibi, Barthez and Howard all fell short of the benchmark set by the man they sought to emulate. Bosnich’s career nosedived amid a wave of personal problems, and we already had the impression that he had fallen just short of the required level anyway. Taibi was, believe it or not, a superbly talented and agile goalkeeper in Italy (why else did United pay millions for him?) but it appeared the stage was just too big for a man used to starring for provincial teams in the wrong end of Serie A. Confidence was fragile, imposing his will on his penalty area proved impossible and the short string of erratic performances followed.
Barthez was arguably better than Schmeichel when the mood came to him, but he was equally capable of moments of stupidity that could only be explained by a loss of concentration. A gloveman whose mind is not on the job will be exposed pretty rapidly and dispensed with equally so. Howard did little wrong for United – he was generally reliable but fell just short of absolute top-drawer levels of ability. He was and remains a very good Premier League goalkeeper, but merely a decent one at the very highest level.
Finally, van der Sar became available, and the biggest compliment you can pay the man is that not only are there rumours of Sir Alex asking him for one more year, but many of us, this writer included, wonder how on earth United are going to replace him. Nobody is mentioning Schmeichel anymore, and it would appear unlikely that the Dutchman will leave the same ghosts and shadows hanging over his successor that he had to deal with himself. He has probably done future United goalkeepers a massive favour, and has fully earned his place in Old Trafford folklore. Van der Sar ticks every box you would wish for from that last line – technically first-class, reliable, consistent, decent at the footballing aspects that are important in the modern game, and proficient at delivering either a long kick or throw to start a counter-attack. Moreover, he owns his penalty area and is the undisputed boss of anywhere within 18 yards of his goal. Without him, would United still be going strong on three fronts at this stage of the season? We do not know for certain but one doubts that Sir Alex is too keen to find out.
He is one manager who understands the importance of a top-class ’keeper to the success of any team. This begs the question as to whether or not Arsene Wenger fully grasps the concept or if he even wants to? Nobody would seriously question the knowledge of a man who has a multitude of TV screens in his house showing different matches simultaneously. However, having been blessed with David Seaman upon his arrival at Highbury, and following this up with the shrewd acquisition of Jens Lehmann, it would appear as if Wenger is on some sort of ideological mission to prove that winning titles does not necessarily require a great goalkeeper, or at least a very good one. It is worth exploring this in depth to see if there are instances that blow the theory out of the water.
This writer can think of only two sides that consistently competed for honours at the elite level while in possession of a last line that was merely ‘above average’. One was Milan, who were so superior to their domestic opponents on every level at the time that Sebastiano Rossi was a virtual spectator for much of every game. Never capped by his country, Rossi at least had the adva