Welcome to World Class: Wojciech Szczesny

Max Cooper
Dec 9, 2020, 11:35 AM GMT
Juventus goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny is a world class operator
Juventus goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny is a world class operator | Matt Burt / 90min
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If your cast your mind back Wojciech Szczesny's time at Arsenal, you may start to smile thinking about the copious amount of meme-fodder blunders the man committed.

But that grin would soon turn into a grimace - particularly among Gunners supporters - who saw flashes of the brilliant goalkeeper their protégé was destined to be as well, but were all too often punctuated by clownish mistakes and foolish decisions - on and off the pitch.

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Now the top goalkeeper in Serie A, protecting the goalposts of Italian champions Juventus, few who witnessed his fall from grace could have predicted that Szczesny would turn his fortunes around so spectacularly.

And yet, here we are. So, how did it go so wrong, only for it all to go so right? Well, he's world class - that's how.

The Polish starlet arrived in England as a promising up and comer, and began learning his trade for a season in League One with Brentford during the 2009/10 campaign. Initially signed on a one-month loan from November to December, Szczesny's impressive form convinced the Bees to retain his services for the rest of the season.

Szczesny in action for Brentford
Szczesny in action for Brentford | Stu Forster/Getty Images

A smart move. He may have only been at the club for half a year, but his impact was so long-lasting that he was voted Brentford's Goalkeeper of the Decade in 2015. They clearly recognise class when they see it.

This laid the foundations for his imminent rise to Arsenal's first-team, and the beginning of his rollercoaster five years in and out of the side. Szczesny ousted Lukasz Fabianski and Manuel Almunia to become first-choice keeper halfway through the 2010/11 campaign, excelling in a memorable victory over Barcelona in the Champions League.

Over the next few years, we witnessed the growth of an excellent, elite level goalkeeper. Standing 6'5, Szczesny dominated his penalty area with an imposing presence while showing off great athleticism and tremendous reflexes.

Szczesny attempts to smother at the feet of Lionel Messi
Szczesny attempts to smother at the feet of Lionel Messi | LLUIS GENE/Getty Images

His big game performances were exceptional, and he demonstrated a strong mentality, able to overcome the pain of making mistakes - no matter how minor or catastrophic.

Szczesny's quality was there for everyone to see. Unfortunately, so were his irrational tendencies. A last-minute clanger in the 2011 League Cup final handed the trophy to Obafemi Martins and Birmingham City, in one of the competition's biggest ever shocks.

This wasn't an isolated incident.

Szczesny's game became riddled with errors in judgement and lapses in concentration, and as his confidence dipped, technical faults dripped into his performances. He was synonymous with rushing off his line and hacking down opposing strikers with mistimed lunges. Crosses were dropped, tame strikes were spilled, points were lost.

Initial optimistic hopes that these blunders were down to inexperience and would be eradicated with time were slowly extinguished, and as the years passed, the clangers only grew in number and profile.

And at a club with supporters as vocal and demanding as Arsenal, it was only a matter of time before the knives were sharpened.

Szczesny didn't help his own cause, either. He was fined by the club after being caught smoking in the dressing rooms showers and his off-field antics only added to common beliefs - he would never fulfil his promise.

By the end of his spell in north London, Szczesny had become a bit of a laughing stock. Social media was full of humiliating clips of the keeper abandoning his duties, and his treatment online and in the stadiums became borderline cruel. He was a walking meme.

Luckily, this is a story of redemption.

People change, youngsters grow out of bad habits, reckless tearaways learn from their errors and goalkeepers grasp how to handle the pressures of the job.

Having given up on their man, Arsenal shipped Szczesny out to AS Roma on a two-year loan deal. His first season was mixed, suffering a dislocated finger, making the odd mistake and getting caught smoking (again) by his employers. Old habits die hard, and all that.

But there were notable signs of progress. The Pole was slowly but surely cutting out the sloppy errors and lapses in judgement from his game, and away from the limelight of the Premier League, he was developing into a much more well-rounded goalkeeper.

Szczesny in action for AS Roma
Szczesny in action for AS Roma | MIGUEL MEDINA/Getty Images

It was the following year that he really excelled, though. Faced with competition from a young Alisson Becker, Szczesny fought off the Brazilian to star in all 38 league games, forcing his backup to settle for fleeting appearances in the Europa League.

It was a ruthless, no nonsense season from Szczesny, who finally grew into the goalkeeper he was destined to be. It was a marvellous campaign personally and collectively, with Roma setting league point records and their number one recording the most clean sheets in Serie A with 14.

Szczesny cut out the erraticism from his game, and when the persistent rushes of blood to the head disappeared, all that was left was a competent, consistent and accomplished goalkeeper.

Some would say, world class.

Juventus certainly thought so. Roma decided against making his stay in the Italian capital permanent - they had a secret weapon of their own waiting in the wings - so I Bianconeri paid the measly fee of €12m and took a chance on the Polish star.

Turns out that was money very well spent. Szczesny shared the gloves with club legend Gianluigi Buffon in his debut campaign, showing all the maturity and quality needed to make the role his own. The 30-year-old had to be patient, but his time was coming.

When he was given his chance, he didn't disappoint. With a series of crucial point-blank stops, cat-like reaction saves and sprawling, outstretched dives, he proved he could do it all.

Eventually, Szczesny was rewarded with the keys to Turin, and he's given his coaches no reason to hand them back. Effortlessly brilliant, commanding and now a leader, he is following nicely in the giant footsteps of the aforementioned Buffon.

Szczesny has been vital to the Italian giants' success in recent years, and it's no secret that Juventus have reached the end of a cycle so to speak - even though they are still Serie A champions. But much of that success has been down to individual brilliance, and, in particular, a world class goalkeeper doing his utmost between the sticks.

It's been a long and winding road to the top for Szczesny, but he now sits deservedly alongside the very best in the business.

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