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.