As summers go, to describe the close-season as ‘challenging’ is probably an understatement. The selling of your best player, whose likely departure was announced the day after the European cup win; the inability over most of the summer to sign any players; and the apparent disagreements between manager and technical director all contributed to the general feeling of malaise and doom approaching the start of the new season.
The only thing that was missing from this collection of calamities was a rift between players and manager, but not to worry, because come the first game of the season, and with the news that Alphonse Areola was starting in goal, along came Lukasz Fabianski to make sure that we didn’t miss out on that particular treat.
Fab made his feelings very clear in an interview in the Polish – note, not the English – press, saying it was a ‘massive shock… The information made me angry. I wasn’t mentally ready for something like this. The way the situation was handled feels weird. ‘You can probably feel my pain. All I will say is through my work with the club, coaching staff and manager, I deserved the situation to unfold in a much different way.’
After the match – which of course marked the start of an unbeaten run through to the international break – Moyes said: ‘I am not going to reply to it too much, but what I will say is that it was handled as well as we could do. We spoke with him, both me and the goalkeeping coach, and we explained ourselves.
‘Lukasz Fabianski has been incredibly good over the years and has earned his new contract from the games he has played… we have got two number one goalkeepers and at the moment I choose Alphonse because I see it is the way forward and the future.’
All perfectly reasonable. But let’s just analyse Fab’s comments here. Firstly, leaving aside the fact that many people might take the view that playing in the cups – and in the European competitions – carries prestige which Areola will now not get because he’s the league goalkeeper, it can hardly be a massive shock to Fab that this was coming.
He’s 38 years old now. It will have been clear to him what the longer-term plan was for absolute ages, and the switch was always going to be likely to be made at the start of a season. And of course, it’s the manager’s prerogative when this decision is made. To say ‘you can probably feel my pain’, well to be honest, no I can’t. I mean, I know that it’s a struggle to get by on £65k a week, and to still be active in the cup competitions, but it’s hard for me to empathise that much.
If it’s a question of game time, and if he plays in the Europa League, which seems likely, he’ll get a fair few matches across the cups. In the end, this decision was always coming. Now, none of this is to say that Areola is the perfect goalkeeper. He isn’t. I watched him against Brighton, and he was excellent. I watched him against Luton and I thought he could have been better.
But his stats are worth looking at. In the opening four games of the season, Areola’s saved around 85% of the shots he’s faced, conceding four goals. The lack of a clean sheet is disappointing, and the save percentage probably unsustainable, but it’s worth noting that last season, across the whole of the campaign Fab only saved 69% of shots against him, and conceded every 68 minutes, placing him very firmly ‘mid-tier’.
Of course, this is against the backdrop of a difficult season in the Premier League for the whole squad, so the comparisons are maybe slightly unfair. I love Fab, and I think he’s done a great job for us on the whole, and in no small measure contributed to our successes on the field.
But let’s just reflect on some telling words from Moyes: ‘I choose Alphonse because I see it is the way forward and the future.’ And that’s the reality: as brutal as it is, everything that has gone before – the trophy win, the penalty saves, the European qualifications – all of that has now gone. We have to look forward.
Fab’s comments smacked of bitterness and anger, and I thought they were a bit petty, but I don’t blame him for being annoyed. He’s a competitor. I hope though that on reflection, he’ll feel that he still has a part to play for us and his comments may have been a bit rash and ill-judged. Perhaps another European victory might help soothe those wounds a bit but who knows?