Fabianski Cements Standing As Sturdy Pole

The memories of the 2010/11 season are ones most Arsenal fans have collectively made a distinct effort to repress. It was not a season without highs: the win against Barcelona, Arsenal’s last triumph over Manchester United, the emergences of Jack Wilshere and Wojciech Szczesny and… that’s probably about it. One that was buried far too quickly, mostly by Szczesny’s excellent start and its being placed in the earlier part of the season, was the transformation of Lukasz Fabianski.

The events that defined Fabianski’s first three seasons (more specifically his second and third) at Arsenal gave little hope that such a change was even possible. He arrived as third choice to an ageing Jens Lehmann and a questionable Manuel Almunia, mostly restricting him to games near-solely in the League Cup. They were impressive, in the main, without giving cause for outrageous expectations. Lehmann’s departure in the summer of 2008 pushed him up to second choice, with the long-term expectation that he would take Almunia’s place soon enough. Most of the season progressed as his first had: strong performances in cup games, nothing to inspire great adulation nor concern.

Almunia’s injury in April that year gave Fabianski the chance to push him (who, being fair, had played very well most of the season) and show he was ready to become first choice in the near future. It started as well as could be expected, until the FA Cup semi final against Chelsea. A simple Frank Lampard long ball over the top of the defence in the 84th minute proved far too difficult for the central defensive pairing of Kolo Touré and Mikaël Silvestre to deal with, leaving Dider Drogba essentially one-one-one with Fabianski around 25 yards from goal. He had to come off his line and do something. Only what he did was run out of his box and straight at Drogba, leaving the Ivorian an easy chance to round him and score the winner. A mistake of inexperience above all else, but a deeply costly one.

The rest of the season passed with a clearly shaken and indeed shaky Fabianski – though to hold him culpable for the defence’s incredible ineptitude in the 4-4 at Anfield would be too harsh. He had certainly failed his first audition. Then, the less said about his 09/10, the better. The ‘cross-shot’ and back pass incidents against Porto and the disastrous late losses to Wigan and Blackburn are still seared into the memory. After such a couple of years, anyone could be forgiven for a lack of faith in him.

All in the head

During Euro 2012, Arsène Wenger made a comment that has defined Fabianski better than any other. “Fabianski could become the best goalkeeper in the Premier League, even better than Wojciech Szczesny. He has incredible skills and dynamics. His problem is psychological – he relives his every mistake or moment not playing. I was hoping that the Euro 2012 Championships might help him; his injury is a great misfortune.” Fabianski’s displays after the 2009 semi final and throughout 09/10 were indicative of a player who struggles to overcome his errors.

Yet around nine months on, in March 2013, Wenger spoke of a “complete mental transformation in Lukasz’s attitude”, adding “he is more vocal, has more authority and mentally he absorbs the pressure of the game much better”. Now nearing 29, the time it has taken him to ‘adjust’ and grow mentally will probably be what holds him back from being the goalkeeper his talent dictates he should have been.

In the autumn of 2010, another injury to Almunia (or ‘injury’, after the notorious game against West Brom that season. No, not that one, the first one) gave him a brand new opportunity. He had again not impressed in the League Cup winner over Spurs, but the most significant moment came in his next game; the Champions League group game away at FK Partizan. He had been unable to save striker Cléo’s first penalty but at 3-1, the home side had been awarded another with around 10 minutes left – against an Arsenal whose defensive ability was rightly widely questioned.

His save, and an even better one he made a few minutes later, were made far more than just two-goal-lead-protecting stops by his reactions to them. Fabianski himself seemed changed afterwards. Though Arsenal’s results over the following couple of months were mixed, Fabianski’s performances – with the one exception of his mistake in the 0-1 home loss to Newcastle – were finally creating a belief that he could well be Arsenal’s number one goalkeeper.

Insult to injury

His individual showings in the wins against Manchester City and especially Everton and Wolves (all away) were outstanding. Crucially, the latter pair followed immediately after his blunder against Newcastle. He was visibly gaining a fortitude that few could have expected. The previous summer had been spent looking for a new first choice goalkeeper, but Fabianski had now made the role his. That was until he picked up a season ending shoulder injury in the warm-up for the home FA Cup tie against Leeds United. Just when it was all coming together for him.

Szczesny himself was mostly excellent when taking over, and from then on, the number one position was his. For Fabianski, the 11/12 season was a non-event. Szczesny played every league and Champions League game bar one – the dead rubber 1-3 loss to Olympiacos, which lasted only 25 minutes for Fabianski after he was injured by Thomas Vermaelen. His FA and League Cup games were consummate; no mistakes to mention, nor any heroics.

He missed Euro 2012 through injury, before (presumably) picking up another whose details remain most unclear in pre-season, dictating that he wouldn’t feature in the first XI nor the bench until he was drafted in to replace Szczesny for the second leg, away at Bayern Munich. Immediately, he was back to his 10/11 self, putting together five strong performances – so much so that many, myself included, believed he would start this season as No.1 – before again having his season prematurely ended. This time by a broken rib, caused by a gratuitous kick by part-time Roscoe Arbuckle impersonator Grant Holt.

Arsenal’s progress and higher level of opposition in the FA Cup this year have given Fabianski some more exposure in the final year of his contract. The fears about him are based on mistakes from almost four years ago, and that mental strength he developed in 10/11 is still distinctly present now. It shows itself best not just in the fact that he plays well, but that he does so despite playing so little. He does not panic under the weight of wanting to prove himself anymore, which has been huge in his progression. Ergo, ‘Flappyhandski’ is an outdated, media-heightened moniker.

His agility, reactions and distribution are fantastic, and his command of his area and ability off his line have come on greatly since his younger days. One thing that must be said is that his decision making still needs a lot of work, as does his communicating with his defence in non-dead ball situations. One would hope those will grow with greater game time. Fabianski will get his move in the summer; Arsenal will have a difficult job replacing him, and whoever gets him will sign a very talented goalkeeper, but one in need of a bit of polishing, and perhaps some careful treatment from time-to-time.