ANALYSIS | By Arsenal correspondent
The parallels in the Arsenal goalkeeper position between now and 12 months ago are distinct.
An established No1 who is selected for every Premier League match and a deputy who gets the nod for FA Cup games.
The only difference is that Wojciech Szczesny has swapped places in the pecking order. A year ago, he was Arsene Wenger’s first choice, the go-to man for the ‘money’ matches which decided Champions League qualification and success.
Now the 24-year-old Pole founds himself cast in the role of back-up ‘keeper to David Ospina, who has taken his chance with both gloves since the turn of the year. In 12 Premier League matches since dethroning Szczesny, the Columbian has conceded a mere seven goals, including just five in the team’s remarkable run of eight consecutive league victories.
By contrast, Szczesny has been reduced to a bit-part role. He has started three of Arsenal’s four FA Cup matches this season but has otherwise been a spectator amid speculation that he could be sold this summer. Chelsea’s Petr Cech is among the celebrated names linked with taking Szczesny’s place.
Yet Wenger is nothing if not loyal. Despite Ospina’s Premier League excellence, the manager confirmed on Thursday morning Football Insider’s exclusive that Szczesny will start Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final against Reading.
Last year, Lukasz Fabianksi continued to be selected in the FA Cup and finished with a winner’s medal before signing for Swansea on a free when his Arsenal contract expired last summer.
Where does this leave Szczesny? Will the man who broke into the Arsenal team as a 20-year-old be given one final tilt at glory before saying ‘goodbye’ at the end of the season?
Football Insider sources understand that Wenger retains total belief in Szczesny and does not want to sell the Poland international.
“Arsene still has faith in Wojciech. He believes a period on the bench will help him recover his powers,” said one insider. “He wants Szczesny to get cup-final experience. He thinks something will change in him if he wins a trophy. Arsene wants him to get the hunger back.”
Privately, Arsenal feel Szczesny has lost his way a little, his commitment dulled by five years in the spotlight.
Only the gifted few are regulars at Europe’s biggest clubs while barely out of their teens. It is even rarer for such a young player to be a goalkeeper, a position with unique pressures and demands. There is no hiding place if you make a mistake.
Szczesny has made some horrible errors, on and off the field. Wenger had no choice but no discard him in the wake of Arsenal’s 2-0 defeat at Southampton on New Year’s Day, a match in which the Pole was at fault for both of the home side’s goals. Embarrassingly for player and club, Szczesny was then caught smoking in the showers afterwards, which earned him a fine and a public rebuke from his manager.
The ‘keeper has had to go away, lick his wounds and watch Ospina show that football moves on very quickly and there is always someone able to take your place.
Yet the Szczesny-Arsenal story is far from over. He has been forgiven by his manager and the chance to prove that he can help his club win a trophy.