Bob Wilson knows what makes a successful Arsenal team. He was involved, whether playing or coaching, in all of their three Double wins. Wilson, of course, also knows something about goalkeeping. So when he says that Wojciech Szczesny could be "more valuable" to Arsenal's future than even Robin van Persie, currently producing weekly brilliance, it matters.
Goalkeeping, and the Arsenal, still define Wilson, and he is clearly thrilled with the 21-year-old currently holding the place that was once his. So much so that he sees Szczesny as the foundation of the next great Arsenal team. "He becomes as valuable in a way as Robin van Persie," said Wilson, "and in some ways more valuable. Because any side that's going to win things needs a solid spine. And it's fair to say that any side that wins the title, you will generally say their goalkeeper has been the most consistent keeper in that season."
Szczesny has the gifts to be that keeper. Only Van Persie has been more consistent over the last difficult nine months for Arsenal. Two moments stand out this season: his crucial penalty save in the Champions League qualifier in Udine from Antonio di Natale and a remarkable leaping claw from Lee Cattermole's header against Sunderland. "He's got incredible reactions, he made a save against Sunderland that was just unbelievable," marvelled Wilson, who is now life president of the Willow Foundation, after 28 years as the club's goalkeeping coach.
These reflexes combine with a powerful character which has impressed Wilson. "From the moment I met him I was taken by his confidence," he said. And while Szczesny could follow in a line of great Arsenal goalkeepers, his approach is different from one of Wilson's most celebrated successors. "Pat Jennings was unique in his calmness, he had this extraordinary presence, he made the goal shrink. Wojciech is totally different because he is a very up-front personality. And of course whereas Pat was 6ft, Wojciech is 6ft 5in.
"There's not a vulnerability or a shyness about him," Wilson observed. "Great goalkeepers have that: David Seaman had that. Jens Lehmann had that. For all his match-day strangeness – they called him 'Mad Jens' – he wasn't mad at all, he was a very, very intelligent boy. But he was the boss."
Szczesny's confidence does not entail conceit, his desire makes him an acute self-critic and self-improver. "You look at the pictures when we beat Barcelona, for the second goal, he's on his knees," said Wilson of the 2-1 win in February. "So that's what is going through him about winning. You have to want to win. He wants to be the best."
Arsène Wenger agrees. "He's a quiet boy usually, you know," said the Arsenal manager. "But he has something that is difficult to explain. Some keepers have that, some do not. That's what you call presence, charisma, confidence. It must be a mixture of all that. He is a deep thinker, you do not play at this level and make the decisions he makes if you do not think about the game."
On the rare occasions Szczesny does not reach his own high standards, he has the courage to face up to it. "He fronts up when he makes a mistake," said Wilson, referring to the recent north London derby – when a Kyle Walker shot snuck under Szczesny. "People still say I'm over-confident," said Szczesny yesterday, "but I'm a big critic of myself. I look at the games I play and try to learn from them. I speak to the coaches, analyse every little mistake. It's all to make me improve."
The defeat at Spurs was difficult for Szczesny, but cannot have been as hard as the Carling Cup final in February, where he collided with Laurent Koscielny, allowing Birmingham City's winner. He was only 20, but it never looked as if he would be shaken by the trauma. "His reaction to setbacks is calm, collected, and back to the belief," said Wilson. There is a sense that Arsenal have a better goalkeeper than at any time since Lehmann. Wilson concluded: "Everybody knows that he's already won the crowd over. I hate talking against the other two guys, Manuel [Almunia] and Lukasz [Fabianski]. But you know that with this boy there's something different."Reuse content