Lukasz Fabianski: ‘I needed to build myself up again almost from scratch’

West Ham’s goalkeeper on making more saves than anyone in Europe’s top leagues and why it was fair to question his quality at Arsenal

Lukasz Fabianski looks on curiously as a piece of paper is passed across the table. It shows the 10 goalkeepers who have made the most saves in Europe’s top five leagues over the past five seasons and the player leading the way is the same man who has just been thanked by the photographer for doing a decent job in goal for his fantasy football team. “Oooh, I’ve never seen a stat like that. That’s cool,” says Fabianski, running his eyes over the names and numbers before pausing for a moment. “But you should also include the most goals conceded in there.”

That last remark, made with the hint of a smile, is typical of Fabianski. Self-deprecating and unassuming, Fabianski is not the sort to get swept along by praise for his performances, or some impressive facts and figures. Asked how he interprets those statistics, the 33-year-old breaks into laughter as he replies: “Well, the first thing that comes into my mind is that I’ve been busy!”

Overworked would be another way of putting it after three successive seasons of fighting relegation with Swansea and a challenging start to his West Ham career. Nine games into the campaign and only Joe Hart has made more saves in the Premier League, which partly explains why the Poland international is so popular with fantasy football fans. Fabianski has another theory. “I’m probably one of the cheapest ones,” he says.

West Ham certainly got value for money when they paid £5.5m for Fabianski in the summer, with the positive reaction from their supporters to his signing indicative of how much his reputation has changed over the last few years. After all, it seems unlikely the transfer would have gone down so well if Fabianski had moved to West Ham straight from Arsenal in 2014. “Yeah, I think that’s fair to say. Before my last year at Arsenal, when we won the FA Cup, I was really up and down, never really consistent, and never really put my mark on the team. I understand that then there were question marks over my name.”

Looking back, Fabianski says there is a “massive difference” between the goalkeeper who left Arsenal and the one who signed for West Ham. He highlights the influence Javier García and Tony Roberts, the goalkeeping coaches he worked under at Swansea, had on his career – “They were on me every single day” – and also the way his mindset totally changed because of regular football.

“When I played for Arsenal, like once per month, you always had this feeling you had to perform. Then you end up either having a good game or a really bad one [because of the pressure]. And that was the biggest difference. Now there is pressure but in a different way, because you focus on the things that, for example, the people are demanding from you, rather than just trying to show yourself, so you kind of flow with the game rather than force the game.”

Lukasz Fabianski, here in action for West Ham at Arsenal, says ‘probably life will punish me’ if he slips into a comfort zone.
Lukasz Fabianski, here in action for West Ham at Arsenal, says ‘probably life will punish me’ if he slips into a comfort zone. Photograph: David Klein/Reuters

Talking in a cafe in Hornchurch for more than an hour, Fabianski comes across as such a likable guy. There is no ego or edge to someone who describes himself as “easy-going and family-oriented”. Once the goalkeeper gloves are off, he just wants to blend in with the rest of the world, which is why he appreciated that throughout his time living in Swansea he was “always seen as a person rather than a footballer”.

Fabianski’s last appearance for Swansea, against Stoke in May, ended in tears, after the sound of the fans serenading him on the day the club were relegated became “too much”. Six weeks later, West Ham completed his transfer and Fabianski, who was away at the World Cup at the time, went to his hotel room to write a letter to the staff, players and supporters at Swansea. “I had two attempts, if I’m honest,” Fabianski says, smiling. “Obviously I am foreign, so I don’t know if it was correct when it came to the grammar. But I did the first attempt and I didn’t feel it was a good one.”

Asked why he felt the need to write a letter, given the majority of footballers would happily leave anything like that in the hands of their agent, Fabianski replies: “I think all the people I met at the club at Swansea, they deserved the respect they showed me over the time I was there. It’s the club that took a chance on me – a goalkeeper who was mostly questioned, someone who was 29 years old and who wasn’t first choice for seven years, so that’s one part of it. The other part is that all the people I met in Swansea, they were always very kind towards me and my family, even if we had a bad run of results. The four years we spent there were really good, my son was born there, so I wanted to show respect.”

Fabianski smiles when it is put to him that he has not swapped Swansea for West Ham to sign up for another relegation battle. “No, no, I haven’t. But, to be honest with you, because I’ve experienced so much at Swansea, I don’t want to make it sound like I don’t mind it. But I don’t get hyped about having such a bad start, or winning against big teams. So I wasn’t really panicking when we lost the first four games. This is an exciting team at West Ham that needs a bit of time to get in the right groove.”

Lukasz Fabianski prepares to pull off a contender for save of the season from Manchester United’s Marouane Fellaini.
Lukasz Fabianski prepares to pull off a contender for save of the season from Manchester United’s Marouane Fellaini. Photograph: Marc Atkins/Getty Images

Although West Ham, who travel to Leicester on Saturday, have lost six of their nine league matches, Fabianski’s displays have been impressive and he has filed a contender for save of the season with the brilliant one-handed stop that kept out Marouane Fellaini’s header in the 3-1 victory over Manchester United. Fabianski’s take on that is fascinating and turns into a conversation on the art of goalkeeping.

“I was pleased because looking at the details of it, it was something we work on during training sessions [with Xavi Valero, the West Ham goalkeeping coach] and I’m not saying only about the save. I’m talking about the movement I’ve done before I made the save – the adjustment. For example, it was a cross and for a cross you try to put yourself in a position when first you can maybe claim it. Then if you don’t claim it, you have to make another step to put yourself in a position to be able to make a save, and then you have to stop at the right time and at the correct distance. The last bit is the natural aspects of your sharpness, physicality and technique. But all the little movements before ... you have to read the situation.”

What is clear is that those question marks over his game at Arsenal have long gone, and even someone as modest as Fabianski must take satisfaction and pleasure from that. “When I look back at that moment when I decided to change club [in 2014], I knew I had to leave,” he says. “I needed to go somewhere where I could build myself up again almost from scratch and I’m happy with the way things went. But if I say today I have pride in that, probably life will punish me. There is no comfort zone. You continue to work hard, to be consistent and to deliver performances.”