Dennis Bergkamp, Arsenal (vs Newcastle United, 2nd March 2002)
Dennis Bergkamp, Arsenal (vs Newcastle United, 2nd March 2002)
Aaron Ramsey, Arsenal (vs Manchester City, 8th April 2012)
Freddie Ljungberg, Arsenal (vs Bolton Wanderers, 12th March 2005)
David Seaman, Arsenal (vs Sheffield United, 13th April 2003)
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.
Jens Lehmann, Arsenal (vs Manchester United, 17th September 2006)
Ah Jens. ‘Mad Jens’. Where to start with you?
Well maybe it’s best to begin by stating that our second inductee into The Gold Club is unquestionably a more left-field choice than debut entrant and certified Premier League legend Ryan Giggs. Lehmann can not hope to compete with Giggs’ in terms of domestic longevity nor trophy haul. His name will not be sung high and low through Welsh valleys nor, for that matter, through the lederhosed hinterlands of his native Deutschland. He doesn’t have a ‘that moment’ on par with Giggs’ marauding run through the Arsenal backline, in fact when attempting to conjure to mind an equivalent for Lehmann you are more than likely left with a montage of the German aggressively wagging his gloved finger in an opposition striker’s face or screaming in protestation at a decision gone against him. The closest thing the keeper has to a tangible ‘moment’ is the farcical confrontation with Didier Drogba embedded below.
And yet his name too will be written indelibly into Premier League folklore. Perhaps not front and centre as will be the case with Giggs, but scrawled in messy biro on the outer margins of the page. Not neat or conventional but deserving of a place all the same.
Why you ask? Well he was an Invincible for one; one of Arsene Wenger’s heroic league-romping squad who went the entire 38 unbeaten in 2003-2004. Then again so was Pascal Cygan and it’ll be a cold day in hell before he forces his way through The Gold Club’s rigorous screening process and into our hearts and minds.
Well, then there’s the fact he was a damn fine keeper too, a fact his controversial reputation sometime serves to obfuscate. His fiery disposition together with a reputation for baiting opposition players and making inadvisable, gung-ho charges from his goal line at the first hint of the ball entering Arsenal’s half (an admittedly hilarious weakness) leads many to overlook the German’s quality; at his most awe-inspiring he was among the best in the world.
Really, you ask, sort of rudely now. Well let’s break it down. His size and aforementioned (over) eagerness to rush from his goal made for an opposing and intimidating presence should a pacey striker chance to slip in behind the Arsenal rearguard. Yes, this propensity to dash from his goal line did cost him on the greatest stage of them all – a early red card in the Champions League Final against Barcelona not only terminally crippled his side’s chances but cruelly ended Robert Pires’ Arsenal career as the Frenchman was substituted eighteen minutes into his self-confirmed last match, a game his entire family had traveled the bereted vineyards of Francais to watch.
However, the keeper’s admitted rashness, here and in other instances, was an accepted risk of the attacking full-back system Wenger employed. More often than not Lehmann’s quick reactions would immediately extinguish an opponent’s attack or, even better, disperse the ball immediately back into opposition territory. A similar sort of system was employed by Spurs and Hugo Lloris under AVB this season although Lehmann was less of a ‘sweeper keeper’ and more of a steaming locomotive hellbent on retrieving the ball at all costs.
The German also called upon a biscuit-tin pilfering reach to pluck crosses from the sky, a cannon-like throw to find distant teammates always looking to break and seemed able to defy the laws of physics to save shots that had looked predestined to nestle into the back of his net. Throughout these moments Mad Jens would simultaneously be throwing a barrage of insults at the referee for not spotting supposed infringements (of which he, of course, claimed to be the victim) occurring on a constant basis in and around his six-yard box. ‘I’ve done my job. Now you do yours’, the goalkeeper seemed to be constantly telling the referee.
But the ref only got half the German’s thunder as he marshaled Arsenal’s defenders in a way that can only be described as Schmeichelesque; commanding, rebuking and outright bullying teammates into doing his bidding at times. Given Arsenal’s more recent problems it’s hard not to feel they’d benefit from a more Lehmannic presence lurking behind their backline; an angry voice spreading through the team’s ranks like a forest fire, gaining in momentum and ferocity as the game wears on. Undoubtedly talented as Wojciech Szczęsny is (and arguably a better handler of the ball than the German), he cuts more of a jovial presence in The Gunner’s goal, an impression Lehmann actively avoided. You’d be hard-pressed, for instance, to imagine Mad Jens taking a self-satisfied ‘selfie’ after a shaky North London derby win or allowing the complacency that occasionally creeps into the Pole’s game to creep into his own; in fact, Wenger’s later occasional preference for Manuel Almunia in goal ensured complacency simply couldn’t become an issue for Lehmann.
There’s also a sense that Szczęsny, like his team, has folded during the big games whereas Jens came emphatically alive one way or another during them. He had the uncanny ability to utilize all the aforementioned skills just when Arsenal needed it most; a crucial penalty save against Villarreal in a Champions League semi-final here, a full-face block from a scorching Ronaldo volley there (advancing the parameters of what we understood to be goalkeeping, via his face). The supernatural, man-of-the-match performance against Manchester United in a FA Cup final his team deserved to lose but Jens stubbornly insisted upon winning perhaps typifies this best.
However, he also had a nasty habit of spectacularly imploding in those same games. Big mistakes against Tottenham and Chelsea in his first season in England, the aforementioned red against Barcelona; the German never hid from the important matches but all-too-often made game-changing errors through instinct-based decisions.
The problem was all of his skills lacked a key essential ingredient; consistency. Throughout his career Lehmann rode sensational peaks and suffered embarrassing troughs. His mistakes were never a result of complacency – Lehmann’s self-confidence was always twinned with an iron-willed application – they seemed instead to be ingrained within his genetics. The player’s form shifted with his mood and the same qualities that led him to pull off remarkable saves were intrinsically linked to the weaknesses that led to a number of high profile errors.
Wenger’s decision to test Almunia in his place may seem bizarre in retrospect, (Almunia at times made errors seem an artform; the 2010-2011 season saw Almunia’s Salvador Dalí compete with Heurelho Gomes’ Vincent van Gogh for the title of worst goalkeeper in the Premiership; a title made all the more impressive considering the category also contained well-versed fumblers Scott Carson, Steve Harper and a fresh off the World Cup plane, Rob Green), but it seemed intended as a jolt to the system for Lehmann. Upon his return Jens excelled in key matches but mistakes still intermittently appeared throughout his game. Wenger’s plan seemed to misunderstand the German; he believed by dropping Jens the mistakes could be eradicated from his game, theorizing a shot to Lehmann’s confidence would make him train harder and become more focused. But the problems were never a matter of poor focus or under-training. The goalkeeper was unshakably confident, yes but it could be argued this skill is essential for a top-level keeper. The ability to not get rattled and to pick yourself up again post-blunder is vital and a generation of England goalkeepers attest to the fact that one high profile mistake can ruin a once-promising career. Lehmann was never rattled. When he was dropped his response was not to look inside himself, it was to look to exterior sources; Wenger’s incompetence, Almunia’s inferiority. Wenger’s dropping just made Lehmann resentful and angry at those around him.
What Wenger initially didn’t understand was that these mistakes were a byproduct of the same iron and fire that made Lehmann such an asset to his team. The same confidence that inspires his team mates around him, the same instincts that are responsible for countless stunning saves are the same traits that proved Lehmann’s downfall on a number of occasions. This “fire” is what distinguishes him from his contemporaries and earns him a place in The Gold Club; a temperamental impulse equally likely to lead to self-destruction as to a moment of magic. It can’t be bottled, it can’t be tamed but at its most potent it made Jens a magnetic, mesmeric presence. A ominous storm swiftly approaching over the hillside. Hurricane Jens.
Aside from his five years in the English top flight (in addition to a brief cameo in which he was parachuted in to cover Arsenal’s never-ending injury problems), Lehmann played the majority of his career in his native Germany intersected by a brief and unhappy spell in Italy. Over the next two weeks we’ll dig a little deeper into these spells and his international career to give a fully rounded picture of the German. We’ll also look more closely at his rivalry with Almunia and the many controversies that have blighted and characterized Mad Jens’ career.
Lauren, Arsenal (vs Manchester City, 31st August 2003)