The 20-year-old Polish goalkeeper makes an impressive Premier League debut in demanding circumstances
Arsenal did their best to prove Sir Alex Ferguson right last night. Marouane Chamakh, Andrey Arshavin, Gaël Clichy and Alex Song were all booked for fouls on Manchester United players to whom they had just lost the ball, backing up Ferguson's pre-match claim that this is a more physical side than Arsène Wenger has sent out for some years.
Perhaps that combativeness helped keep them in the contest against a United side themselves clearly prioritising the need to establish physical supremacy. When the fog of disappointment clears after a night of hectic football, Wenger may be pleased with the spirit shown by his players but not with their accuracy, which fell below the standard he imposes and which he blamed, with some justification, on an unhelpful pitch.
But what a night on which to make your Premier League debut. It is some time since Wenger nominated Wojciech Szczesny as a definite future No1 goalkeeper for his club and last night, with only three League Cup appearances for Arsenal and 28 matches on loan at Brentford last season to his credit, the 20-year-old Pole was invited to defend Arsenal's lead in the championship table in front of a full house at Old Trafford.
Szczesny certainly has the breeding. His father, Maciej, was Poland's goalkeeper and Wojciech made his senior international debut last year, displacing Tomasz Kuszczak, who was in his usual place on Manchester United's bench last night. Three inches over six feet tall and powerfully built, the debutant began the match as if trying to pay homage to the wholly inaccurate caricature of a Polish goalkeeper created by Brian Clough when he described Jan Tomaszewski as a "clown" on television during England's celebrated and fruitless siege of the Polish goal at Wembley in 1973.
Under the eyes of 26 of the 33 Chilean miners whose miraculous rescue was followed around the world, as well as those of David Beckham, Szczesny's first touch, after a mere 15 seconds, was a hesitant throw-out to Sébastien Squillaci, followed by a poor kick when the ball was rolled back to him. Two minutes later there was a weak clearance under no pressure which gave possession back to United. Eventually he began to rebuild his confidence with a series of simple catches from crosses and free-kicks by Nani and shots from Wayne Rooney, but the home team's approach was abundantly clear: fire on sight.
United had already given Arsenal both barrels in the build-up. One trigger was pulled by Patrice Evra, who remarked in an interview with a French television channel that Wenger's team played very pretty football but, given their recent aversion to actually winning things, can be seen as nothing more than a glorified school of excellence. The finger on the other trigger was that of Ferguson, who used his programme notes to suffocate the north London club with bonhomie by praising Wenger's recent acceptance of the tradition of reciprocal post-match fraternisation with the opposing manager.
Evra's comments were surely calculated to cause affront at the Emirates but the full-back was doing no more than voicing the thoughts of a large proportion of Arsenal's fans in the five years since the team snatched the FA Cup from Ferguson's men. It is always mildly astonishing to find an Arsenal fan who thinks it is time for a change of manager but such encounters have long since become commonplace.
This was the 15th time Wenger has taken a side to Old Trafford for a league match since arriving at Highbury in October 1996. United have won eight of those games to Arsenal's three but the London club never scored more than one goal in a league match on United's ground and last night they were able to cause Edwin van der Sar only the most minimal inconvenience, in the shape of a fine fingertip save from Samir Nasri's shot 10 minutes into the second half, even though they enjoyed the bulk of the possession.
Given the recent uncertain form of the make-do partnership of Squillaci and Laurent Koscielny in the centre of Arsenal's defence, there was some amazement at Wenger's readiness to give an opportunity to an untried goalkeeper in a match of such significance to both sides. But neither the young Pole nor his defenders deserved censure for the instinctive header from a deflected cross for United's goal.
Szczesny ended the half with a nervously mis-hit clearance but Arsenal came out after the interval pressing so hard that they exposed their goalkeeper to a series of rapid counterattacks. From one such raid, in the 54th minute, the goalkeeper saved them going further behind with a reflexive effort to block Anderson's shot from point-blank range, and there was a fine save from Rooney's attempted chip four minutes from time.
"Every good goalkeeper begins at 18 or 19," Wenger said in explanation of the decision to pick Szczesny. Look at Van der Sar, he said, now 40 years old, but he remembered seeing him when the Dutchman was a teenager. Once again Wenger has an eye on the future – at the expense, some will continue to suggest, of the present. So Evra, too, can feel that his point was proved.