Every generation of England squad has some kind of weakness.
At the moment, the Three Lions are severely lacking in central defence – with Harry Maguire and Joe Gomez considered the best of the bunch that includes the varying powers of Michael Keane, John Stones and Tyrone Mings.
The left-side of the midfield was famously a problem-area for Sven-Goran Eriksson during the period of England’s so-called Golden Generation, and often saw Paul Scholes shunted out to the left – something we now look back on with a pang of regret.
And of course who to pick as the first-choice goalkeeper has been a position of debate on-and-off for years, with England’s options between the sticks fluctuating wildly from David Seaman and Nigel Martyn in 2002, then to David James and Paul Robinson in the proceeding years, before Joe Hart came along and, more recently, Jordan Pickford.
But things got so bad between the sticks back when Fabio Capello became the England manager in 2008 that the Italian was willing to consider Manuel Almunia for the role.
Yep, that’s right, the Spanish goalie who’s career in English football is now looked back on as a curious cocktail of highs and lows.
To Watford fans, he’s one of the club’s great heroes of the last decade; his famous penalty save against Anthony Knockaert combined with numerous match-winning displays during the Hornets’ stint in the Championship means he’ll never have to buy himself a drink in a pub around that part of Hertfordshire ever again.
But at Arsenal, he’s widely associated with the Gunners’ difficult post-Invincibles period; when the side endured a waning influence on English football amidst the top-of-the-table dominance of Chelsea and Man United.
Almunia was part of the problem; wildly inconsistent, error-prone, and often guilty of letting in soft goals.
Notable moments in the 2009/10 season include his spilled shot against Birmingham City to allow Kevin Phillips the chance to equalise for the Blues deep into injury-time, his terrible positioning in a crucial Champions League tie against Barcelona which saw Zlatan Ibrahimovic chip the ball over his head to score, and you could even point to his poor decision-making in the build-up to Danny Rose’s famous thunderbolt in the North London Derby.
But Almunia was – at times – also a very capable goalkeeper and many argued he was the best keeper in the Premier League in 2009 – nodding to his brilliant performance against Man United in the Gunners’ Champions League semi-final contest and, although we criticised him just now in the game against Barcelona a year later, his first-half heroics in that match kept Arsenal’s hopes alive.
It was moments like this that increased his profile in England and led to a genuine discussion on whether he could become a naturalised British citizen in time to represent the Three Lions at the 2010 World Cup.
It actually, sort of, made brilliant sense.
Almunia was a goalkeeper in relatively good form, he had experience playing at a club which was regularly around the top end of the Premier League, and he’d played in the Champions League.
He’d also never played for Spain, as the Spanish had an abundance of great goalkeepers at that time – able to call upon Pepe Reina, Victor Valdes, and the best in the world in Iker Casillas.
England, on the other hand, were making do with the veteran shot-stopper James along with Robert Green, Chris Kirkland, Scott Carson and Ben Foster, as well as a young and inexperienced Hart.
So while the Three Lions’ squad boasted Premier League and Champions League winners across their outfield positions, their goalies were more familiar with the club football at the lower-end of the table.
Of course, Almunia never actually played for England – but he certainly could’ve done.
Due to residency rules, he qualified to play for the Three Lions after living in England for five years – meaning he was eligible to apply for citizenship.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger was all for it, saying at the time: “If it is possible legally, why not? I believe he is not only good enough, but he is the best.”
It was strongly ridiculed by others though, including Harry Redknapp – then the manager of Spurs – who wrote for the Sun in 2009: “I have nothing against Almunia; he is a good keeper.
“But he is no better, in fact I don’t think he is as good as David James, the current England No.1 – David is English, Manuel isn’t; Almunia should play for Spain, that is his country.”
But it was Capello’s decision to make, and when discussing Almunia ahead of the World Cup, the England manager simply told journalists: “Almunia, for me, is Spanish. He is Spanish and he plays for the Arsenal team.”
And that was that.
But was Capello wrong to turn his nose up at the Spaniard?
England’s run out at that summer’s World Cup was shambolic from start to finish; David Beckham was injured and missed the tournament, while Wayne Rooney – then England’s talisman – was unfit and under extreme scrutiny from the media.
Captain Rio Ferdinand also limped out of the first training session with an injury, while collectively the squad headed to South Africa exhausted after a gruelling Premier League campaign.
Green was handed the No.1 jersey, but there was little to separate him between James and Hart – the three shot-stoppers Capello decided to take to the World Cup.
Then, in England’s opening match against the USA, Green infamously allowed a weak equalising goal from Clint Dempsey to squeeze through him and roll agonisingly over the line, and that costly error saw him dropped for the remainder of the tournament in favour of James – perhaps cementing Capello’s lack of faith in his goalkeeping options.
After South Africa and with a new generation coming through, Hart became England’s undeniable first-choice keeper and that more-or-less ended any further debate regarding Almunia.
In a recent interview with the Athletic, Almunia discussed his flirtation with the role as England’s goalkeeper 10 years prior, saying: “I felt very happy in England – I loved English football, the country and the people. When things go well, you feel you can do anything. And I felt I could play for England.
“But part of me inside was thinking, ‘What the f*** are you saying? If you play for England, people in England will want to kill you. Then if you go to Spain in the summer, people in Spain will want to kill you too. What are you doing?’
“I’m not the kind of person that wants these kind of problems. I never considered it seriously.”
Still, it begs the question; would England’s fortunes have differed dramatically during that summer in 2010 if Almunia had been playing between the sticks?
Honestly, probably not.
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