Erratic David Ospina justifying Arsenal starting spot over Wojciech Szczesny for the time being
While Szczesny's form has dropped over the course of the season, Ospina has done far better than the Pole in the last few games
Reports of Wojciech Szczesny smoking in the changing room showers after Arsenal’s New Year’s Day defeat at Southampton certainly did not please manager Arsène Wenger, though the incident did little to cover up for the Pole’s shaky display at St. Mary’s. Szczesny was directly responsible for both of Saints’ goals in their 2-0 win over the Gunners, earning a terrible WhoScored rating of just 4.70.
Szczesny was heavily criticised following the loss on the south coast, which saw his father leap to his defence and blame those in front of his son. "(Per) Mertesacker showed the agility of a rhinoceros," was perhaps the pick of Maciej Szczesny’s quotes in the aftermath of his scathing attack on the Arsenal defence.
Nevertheless, Szczesny’s woeful showing against Southampton was the final straw for Wenger, at least as far as the Premier League goes. David Ospina has started the last 6 league games, of which Arsenal have won 5, conceding just 4 goals.
Ospina was viewed as the ideal addition to the Arsenal squad by the majority of supporters. The 26-year-old excelled for Colombia in Brazil in the summer and the £3m paid to secure his services was seen as something of a coup.
His arrival was supposed to benefit Szczesny. Extra competition for a player means that, in theory, they will strive to maintain their high standards in order to keep their starting spot. The Poland international was the highest rated goalkeeper (7.04) in the Premier League last season, earning a place in the best XI of the campaign as a result.
However, his form has dipped significantly this term, so much so that his rating (6.46) ranks among the worst of all goalkeepers this campaign. The negative difference in rating between last season and this campaign (0.58) ranks among the worst of all Premier League players. In contrast, Ospina’s performances between the sticks have seen him gain a rating of 7.54, the best of all players in his position in England’s top tier.
Arsenal, boosted by the emergence of Francis Coquelin, have looked a more solid unit with Ospina in goal. The Gunners are conceding fewer league goals per game with the Colombian in the starting XI (0.7) than they were with Szczesny (1.2) and Ospina has firmly established himself as the Gunners’ current number one.
Back in July, WhoScored published an article about whether Szczesny’s number 1 spot will come under threat upon the acquisition of Ospina and while injury limited Ospina’s initial impact in England, the former Nice star has since usurped his goalkeeping rival at the Emirates.
There is an argument to be made, however, over whether Ospina’s Premier League form has waned in recent games. All 4 of the goals he has conceded have come in his last 3 games, while his lowest WhoScored rating in a league match (6.95) came in Arsenal’s 2-1 win at Crystal Palace on Saturday.
A rush of blood to the head in the second half at Selhurst Park almost allowed Palace back into the game when the north London side were two goals to the good. He charged off his line in the hope of denying Yannick Bolasie, who squared for Wilfried Zaha. Ospina must have been counting his blessings when the attacker missed the target with the goal gaping.
When Palace did eventually find a way past the staunch Arsenal defence - Glenn Murray on hand to turn in after the ball was parried into his path by Ospina - the Colombia international came close to gifting the Eagles a point late on. Bolasie swung the ball in from the left as Alan Pardew’s side pressed for an equaliser. Ospina came to punch clear, but completely missed the ball, which was headed onto the post by Murray and, fortuitously for the Gunners, into the waiting hands of the Arsenal goalkeeper.
Ospina showed similar signs of uncertainty against Leicester when, with Arsenal 2-0 up in added time at the end of the first half, he came to claim a Matty James corner. Despite Héctor Bellerín and Laurent Koscielny being better placed to deal with the danger, Ospina needlessly strayed from his line, before subsequently dropping the ball almost at the feet of the lurking Andrej Kramaric. A last-ditch Koscielny clearance was required to deny the Croatian from netting.
His erratic behaviour in his own 18-yard box is certainly a concern. At just 6ft, Ospina is on the small side for a goalkeeper, something he admits he feels pressured by. "When I am in the tunnel and I see the opposition goalkeeper, I am forced to raise my head. In England, they are all two heads taller than me! You laugh, but really it puts a little pressure on," he said earlier this week.
He has not allowed his lack of height to affect him, with Ospina claiming more crosses (3.3) and making more punches clear per game (0.9) than Szczesny (1.4 and 0.1, respectively), who is clearly apprehensive about coming off his line. Given Arsenal's defensive problems, a goalkeeper to claim crosses or punch the ball to safety is what they need rather than to rely on Per Mertesacker or Laurent Koscielny to deal with the danger.
Ospina frequently comes for the ball, but is prone to throwing caution to the wind and it's only a matter of time before his turbulent style of goalkeeping is exploited, as it almost was against Leicester and Palace. Nonetheless, with Ospina boasting a vastly superior save success rate (87%) compared to Szczesny (70.3%), Wenger has been justified in his decision to drop the latter in place of the former.
The hope now is that Szczesny will learn from his errors and return a better goalkeeper, much like Simon Mignolet and Joe Hart did when they were dropped for their respective clubs. A lacklustre showing against Brighton in the FA Cup would not have helped the Pole's cause, though a clean sheet in the 2-0 win over Middlesbrough will work in his favour.
Ospina’s unpredictability in coming for crosses, though, needs to be curbed sooner rather than later or he runs the risk of losing his starting spot to Szczesny, who would greatly welcome the opportunity to become Arsenal’s first choice goalkeeper once more.
An unconvincing performance from Ospina in Wednesday's Champions League defeat to Monaco raised further question marks over whether he deserves to be Arsenal's number 1 goalkeeper in the long term, even if the Colombian is unlikely to be dropped any time soon.