In the annals of sporting history there exist several epoch defining battles; boxing had Ali vs Fraizer, Formula One had Senna vs Prost and for a few glorious years football and, more specifically, Arsenal had Lehmann vs Almunia, a titanic clash of egos brought to a head once weekly in front of a raucous Gunners crowd baying for blood and thunder. It would not be an exaggeration to state that the petulant squabbles and mutual scorn that characterized the goalkeepers’ relationship over the four years they spent together in North London, may just constitute the greatest sporting rivalry of all time.
It all started rather anticlimactically. Newly-crowned league champions Arsenal, coming off the back of a spectacular unbeaten campaign, needed a backup for first-choice keeper Jens Lehmann, himself only a season deep into his Gunner’s career. Perhaps the the most impressive part of The Invincible’s aforementioned run is that they managed the whole thing with anonymous, space-holder Graham Stack as first reserve for Lehmann and the team’s success only heightened the need for an able understudy.
Step forward fresh-faced Manuel Almunia, signed for a princely sum of ‘undisclosed fee’ from Albacete which we can only assume translates fittingly as Able City. This signing itself changed nothing at the business end of the team; Lehmann was the undisputed first choice keeper, Almunia the recognised second. Even the arrival of the ridiculously named Estonian stopper Mart Poom a season later failed to disrupt the natural order of things and for three mildly successful seasons Arsenal’s first-choice keeper pottered along without a care in the world.
However, two horrific Lehmann errors in the opening two games of the 2007-2008 season would provide the opening Almunia had been waiting for. The first, a erratic piece of miscontrol allowing Fulham’s David Healy to pass the ball into an empty net, was farcical yet ultimately meaningless as Arsenal won the game 2-1 . The second, an inexplicable fumble into his own goal from a tame David Dunn shot, would prove more costly as Blackburn held on to secure a 1-1 draw against The Gunners.
In the wake of that match, Mad Jens was heavily criticized for his lackadaisical display and an injury conveniently incurred the following week whilst on international duty gifted Almunia a starting place without the ignominy of formally dropping the German. The only problem was upon Lehmann’s return to full fitness the Spaniard selfishly and rudely remained in the starting line upon merit rather than humbly vacating his place to the German. Around this point the story gets sour.
Unwilling to accept responsibility for his own catalog of errors and subsequent demotion, Lehmann sought desperately to blame his failings on factors and people around him; a technique more recently known ‘Bendtnering’. First he blamed his fitness declaring that upon full recovery he’d regain his place. When he could no longer conceivably claim injury as a factor he inevitably found solace in blaming his Spanish counterpart; Almunia was responsible, there was no other possible explanation.
So Lehmann declared war and began a merciless campaign of smear-tactics reminding Almunia again and again through the press that he was only temporarily occupying a position that was Lehmann’s to reclaim whenever he saw fit. He did so by questioning his counterpart’s quality, suggesting Almunia’s replacement of him was a ‘humiliation’ and generally treating his colleague with equal-parts rancor and disrespect. At one point during this ordeal Almunia is legitimately and hilariously quoted as saying ‘To have someone here who hates me is just amazing. I know he hates me.’
This wasn’t a secret war contested behind closed doors and vocalized through intense stares; Lehmann was openly and actively hostile towards the Spaniard.
In return, Almunia eventually bit back. After five months of being constantly berated for essentially doing his job, he replied ‘I treat people the way I would like to be treated myself… Every morning I wake up I know it is going to be the same. But I don’t care any more. I come into training and work with Łukasz Fabiański and Vito Mannone. They are better than him anyway.’ The one-way assault had suddenly encountered some resistance.
It is important to declare at this juncture that there is no rule stating teammates have to get along, nor definitive proof animosity between teammates necessarily prevents success. Andy Cole and Teddy Sheringham (in)famously hated one another and yet the two were part of, arguably, the most successful English club side of all time in the form of Manchester United’s Treble-winning squad. What stands out about Lehmann and Almunia’s clash in particular is that rather than keeping their feelings to themselves, the two (Mad Jens especially) deliberately antagonized one another in the public eye.
‘Stop!’ a teary-eyed Łukasz Fabiański once begged the two (probably). ‘Can’t you see you’re tearing this family apart.’ But poor, little Lukasz’s cry fell upon death ears.
Something had to give and that something turned out to Lehmann. After appearing in a smattering of games at the end of the season (thanks in no small part to an Almunia injury) both club and player opted to part ways with the German coming to the end of his contract.
Rather than prospering upon finally freeing himself of Lehmann’s shadow Almunia flattered to deceive. Blundering and bungling his way through the following two seasons, the Spaniard’s intermittent moments of brilliance only served to frustrate, providing fans with an image of what could be were he to deliver on a more consistent basis. Thanks to a combination of injuries and poor form he eventually lost his place to Polish understudies Łukasz Fabiański and Wojciech Szczęsny. Lehmann meanwhile returned to his native Germany to make war with the entire city of Stuttgart. This wouldn’t be the last time the two crossed paths however.
In 2011 Arsenal were going through an injury crisis (or as it’s more commonly known at Arsenal, spring); both Polish understudies were out leaving Almunia as the sole available goalkeeper. Once again Arsenal needed an able backup and in a bizarre twist of circumstance he turned this time to the German to support the Spaniard. Having retired the previous summer, Lehmann was free and ready to oblige Wenger and he returned as he had left; with words of warning to his counterpart, stating he was prepared to fight for a first team place. The difference this time was that the battle was not just between these two men and after a spirited cameo against Blackpool (a match Arsenal won 3-1), Lehmann was thrust back into the shadows never to play again. Almunia too was pushed to the bench as everybody’s favourite spelling-mistake Wojciech Szczęsny returned to the starting line up after a quick recovery.
That summer saw Lehmann bid his second farewell to his Arsenal teammates. The details of his final day are sketchy but we’ll endeavor to piece together what we can from the limited information we have.
As he said his goodbyes Lehmann began shaking hands and hugging his way through a changing room full of well-wishers whilst Almunia noticeably kept his distance at the back of the crowd. Making his way to the door the German hovered briefly, stopping at a teary-eyed Łukasz Fabiański.
‘Do you have to go’, little Łukasz sobbed.
‘I’m afraid so Łukasz’, Jens replied, crouching down on one knee to meet the Pole’s eyeline. ‘But this isn’t goodbye,’ he continued. ‘Just so long. Remember what I taught you. Keep your chin up and your ear to the ground. And more than anything remember Papa Jens will always love you.’
Łukasz Fabiański smiled weakly and wiped clear his eyes. ‘I’ll miss you Papa Jens’, he whispered.
‘And I you little Łukasz.’
Jens put a reassuring arm upon the Pole’s shoulder and beamed broadly before rising to his feet. As he reached the door he looked back once more and hesitated, taking a final, lingering look at the dressing room that he had called home for so long. As he motioned to leave, from the back of the huddle came a pronounced clapping, slow at first but gradually it began to build as other joined in. Soon enough the entire room was applauding the German and he swallowed back a wave of emotion as he took in the moment. As the crowd parted Jens became aware of the originator of the clap; the Able City Spaniard himself, Manuel Almunia.
The two shot-stoppers shared a look for what seemed like eternity but in reality was only a few milliseconds. Then Lehmann nodded a nod so feint and subtle Dennis Bergkamp would have been proud of it. Manuel responded with a cheesy grin that seemed to say ‘You can be my wingman anytime.’ And with that Jens was gone.
That story may not be completely true in terms of facts or events but the essence is true and it was important this piece had a poignant ending. For the pedants who like their true stories heavy on the truth and weak on story perhaps the quote below will satisfy you. It isn’t a heartwarming tale touching on subjects as diverse as fatherhood, forgiveness and loss with a cheeky Top Gun reference to boot, but it’s full of that truth you seem to love so much.
Almunia was recently interviewed regarding his time at Arsenal (he has since left for Watford) and although only touched on it briefly he did shed some light on his current relationship with Lehmann:
“In his last season at Arsenal there was a team dinner for us all to say goodbye. Jens and me didn’t speak — and I mean never — but he came to me with his wife and showed me a totally different face. I thought, ‘oh my God, who is this? This is not Jens!’ We talked about life, football, Spain, Germany, everything.”
So there you have it. The fiery German and the meek-come-embattled Spaniard left their differences on the pitch, their rivalry now just a sidenote to what would prove to be a increasingly sobering decade for Arsenal after the euphoric high of The Invincibles which coincided with the start of Lehmann’s tenure. But what a sidenote it proved to be. It may lack the intricacy of a Henry finessed finish or the delicacy of a Bergkamp touch but in many ways it is just a representative of modern day Arsenal; a beautiful, unstoppable car-crash contested by two drivers with undoubted talent but inexplicable blind-spots making you sometimes question why Wenger gave them the keys in the first place.
THE CONTEST: Lehmann starts the stronger of the two and is merciless in his assault relying on cheap shots to do the bulk of his damage. Despite initially refusing to stoop to the German’s level Almunia eventually fights back landing a few hard hits himself and seemingly put Lehmann down for the count. However at nine Mad Jens finds a new lease of life rising and landing a killer blow on his opponent before sinking to the floor himself.
FINAL VERDICT: DOUBLE KNOCKOUT. No winners except the fans.