By Jennifer Juneau
Arsenal have recently been put on the alert that twenty-eight-year-old goalkeeper Pepe Reina will be available come summer 2011 when his six-year contract with Liverpool is up. Reina has not exactly denied that he wants out of Anfield by stating “I will stay at Liverpool at least until the end of the season, but I have no intention of going back to Spain.” Although this doesn’t necessarily mean that he is staying in the Premier League, what it does mean is that Arsenal are on the lookout for a goalkeeper since the thirty-three year old Manuel Almunia had failed to deliver a good season. Shortly before the Spaniard was benched for what Arsenal claimed was an elbow injury, critics have voiced that as a goalkeeper in his thirties if he isn’t breaking records now he won’t get any better. The red flag also went up when Almunia’s name was left out of Spain’s list of backup goalkeepers for the 2010 World cup. The thorn in Arsenal’s side was temporarily pulled when Arsenal’s second goalkeeper, Łukasz Fabiański, became the 2010-2011 season contender. The Polish national, age twenty-five, is much younger (in football years) and notably better than Almunia. He has made some impressive saves this season, especially a penalty taken by the opposition during the September 28 Champions League match against Partizan Belgrade giving Arsenal a 3 to 1 victory over the Serbian side and awarding Fabiański Man-of-the-Match. But if this ready-made replacement is the answer, Arsenal may be in danger of dropping out of the Premier League’s top four. In last Sunday’s game on November 7 against Newcastle United Fabiański let a goal from striker Andy Carroll whiz by. Carroll, who clearly did not have a taste for Coca-Cola (referred to now as the Football League) has bounced back from last season’s relegation from the Premier League and with courtesy of Fabiański landed the Magpies a fourth spot position on the charts directly underneath Arsenal.
Would Reina, the second vice captain, having kept goal for Liverpool for five years and having secured his place as Spain’s second goalkeeper to the world class Iker Casillas, be the right choice for Arsenal? As far as being sold on the experience side of the Youth versus Experience postulation, I don’t buy it. After all, although an experienced player has, well, experience, they are more likely to have been slowed down after years of injury due to fouls in a sport that starts to kill you the moment you hit thirty as opposed to younger players who have not yet succumbed to worn-out limbs. Although the shelf-life of a goalkeeper does not expire as quickly as that of a forward or a midfielder, they still need lightening-fast reflexes and must be comfortable taking risks as well as bouncing back from hard falls. With all the new blood rising in their early twenties hitting the pitch, young players are hungry to progress, eager to please, perhaps even a tad bit naïve: they haven’t been around long enough to suffer the frustration of management-related politics. They are too concerned with proving themselves and making their mark upon the scene. Besides, young players come cheap: Man City paid a measly six-hundred thousand pounds (which translates to roughly nine-hundred and sixty-seven thousand dollars) when they signed Joe Hart on May 22, 2006 before loaning him to various teams such as Blackpool and Birmingham City (where he had kept twelve clean sheets) compared to the millions that are spent on the average for players. Since Arsenal have recently disclosed that they are a financially sound club, there would be no spending discrepancy in a bid for Hart. This has crossed the mind of club manager Arsene Wenger back in May 2010 before Hart had walked onto the Man City pitch at the start of the 2010-2011 season. We hear of triumph popping out of the blue, but this twenty-two year old England goalkeeper popped into the blue and made a name for himself immediately when he started the opening game ahead of Shay Given against Tottenham Hotspurs. The headline “Hart Stopper” graced sports pages after an astonishing seven saves between the eleventh and seventy-second minute of the game earning Hart Man-of-the-Match. Although he is young, the beauty of Hart’s stopping abilities does not fall short of experience. He was England’s number one goalkeeper in the Under-21’s team. During the Euro 2009 Under-21 semifinal match, Hart was shown a yellow card for leaving his line and taunting his Swedish opponent as he prepared to take a penalty shot resulting in suspension from the final match. Having made a handful of saves and a resume of clean sheets, he is already regarded as one of the best young goalkeepers in the world, having been capped for Fabio Capello’s England national team for the 2012 Euro qualifiers.
Would the twenty-two year old Hart feel at home at Emirates Stadium? There is no doubt that Arsenal court youth. Nine out of the thirteen players in the current squad who start a game are under the age of twenty-five compared to teams like Manchester United and Chelsea who pride themselves on older, experienced footballers. Wenger is no stranger to recruiting young players and developing them into world-class footballers, as he did with Cesc Fabregas, Kolo Touré and Robin Van Persie. For one thing, a younger player has more energy to run fast. As Wenger’s approach to a match is placed on attack, he certainly has the fuel in his notoriously packed midfield formations. His reputation also rests on a strong defense which is the key to less concessions when paired with a solid goalkeeper. Having sacrificed the 2005-2006 and 2006-2007 seasons weighing in at number four in the charts (if making it to the Champions League two years in a row is considered a sacrifice) by starting new players only proved consequent upon finishing in third place for the 2007-2008 season with a younger-experienced side. This may sound all well and good for Arsenal fans to see Hart’s name on the future roster—but where does Hart stand? According to the latest reports, he’s not going anywhere.
Recently Joe Hart had caught the attention of the media on a different level when seen partying at a club with his buddies on an evening before a match. His response, “I just think you have to be a bit smart about how you do it. Maybe at my age and not realizing the position you are in, naivety comes into it a little bit, but you have got to learn fast as a footballer. People are out to get us and there are places you should be and places you shouldn’t. The manager just told us to be a bit more careful with our private lives. I would never disrespect football because it is my livelihood. But I’ve always felt that I’m totally 100 per cent ready for every training session and every single game.” Hart is right: people are out to get him, but in more ways than one. All eyes will be fixed on the goalkeeper on the evening of November 10 for the volcanic Manchester derby. Besides finding a young goalkeeper who’s competent enough to bring Arsenal a Champions League title, what more could Arsene Wenger possibly want?