Wojciech Szczesny – the unexpected star of the World Cup

Wojciech Szczesny of Poland celebrates his side's first goal scored by Piotr Zielinski (not pictured) during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group C match between Poland and Saudi Arabia at Education City Stadium on November 26, 2022 in Al Rayyan, Qatar - Hector Vivas - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images
Wojciech Szczesny of Poland celebrates his side's first goal scored by Piotr Zielinski (not pictured) during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group C match between Poland and Saudi Arabia at Education City Stadium on November 26, 2022 in Al Rayyan, Qatar - Hector Vivas - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

It is a measure of the lack of a particularly outstanding nation so far at this World Cup that the various selections for ‘Team of the Tournament’ have so far delivered such an eclectic selection.

There has been consensus, though, on the goalkeeper and it is a player who was allowed to leave Arsenal in 2015, aged 25, just as he was entering what should have been the peak years of his career.

Wojciech Szczesny’s last Premier League game would be a 2-0 defeat at Southampton during which his mistakes contributed to both goals before later being caught smoking in the showers of the away dressing room.

Arsene Wenger fined Szczesny for that indiscretion and, while there was a partial reprieve in selecting him for the victorious FA Cup campaign that season, there would be no way back and Petr Cech – a player some eight years his senior – was recruited as the new first-team goalkeeper.

Seven years on, and after three Serie A titles with Juventus, Szczesny was saving a penalty from Lionel Messi in Qatar after clean sheets in the two earlier group games to clinch Poland’s place in the last 16 of the World Cup.

And, for all the understandable focus on striker Robert Lewandowski, it is Szczesny who has been Poland’s player of the tournament and was repeatedly cited by the French ahead of Sunday’s match.

Poland goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny saves a penalty from Lionel Messi of Argentina during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group C match between Poland and Argentina at Stadium 974 on November 30, 2022 in Doha, Qata - Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images
Poland goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny saves a penalty from Lionel Messi of Argentina during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group C match between Poland and Argentina at Stadium 974 on November 30, 2022 in Doha, Qata - Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images

“Szczesny is playing a magnificent tournament in goal – they have a great goalkeeper,” said Hugo Lloris, the France and Tottenham Hotspur captain.

France manager Didier Deschamps added that, “Szczesny has been decisive in getting Poland” to the knockout phase.

His form has been of on surprise to his Poland team-mates. “Wojciech Szczesny started to be a great goalkeeper this tournament,” said the Juventus and Poland striker Arkadiusz Milik. “He showed a lot but it is not a coincidence. We all knew what we could expect.”

There will be a mixture of reactions from Arsenal fans, former players and coaching staff. Most will be delighted to see him flourish. Szczesny was a popular, if sometimes outspoken, part of the team and there was always great confidence that he had the attributes to play at the very highest level.

Wenger predicted that Szczesny was destined for greatness when he made his first-team debut at 19. A single season on loan at Brentford was sufficient for the club’s fans to vote him their goalkeeper of the decade and he then became an Arsenal regular at the age of 20.

No one really doubted Wenger’s decision at the time. Szczesny was part of a crop of young players who he really thought could go on to dominate the Premier League but, like Jack Wilshere, hindsight suggests that it was all a little too much too young.

Szczesny did play nearly 200 games for Arsenal, winning two FA Cups in a period when the club never fell out of the Champions League, but he was also part of a squad that would repeatedly come up agonisingly short in the biggest games. Some of the defeats – the 2011 League Cup final loss to Birmingham City, the 8-2 against Manchester United, the 4-0 against AC Milan, the 6-0 against Chelsea – were sporting traumas that would have shaken the confidence of even the most experienced players.

Goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny of Arsenal looks dejected after a defensive mistake leading to the Birmingham City winning goal during the Carling Cup Final between Arsenal and Birmingham City at Wembley Stadium on February 27, 2011 in London, England - Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny of Arsenal looks dejected after a defensive mistake leading to the Birmingham City winning goal during the Carling Cup Final between Arsenal and Birmingham City at Wembley Stadium on February 27, 2011 in London, England - Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

All parties perhaps needed a different challenge by 2015 – and Aaron Ramsdale is now flourishing – but it is impossible still to look at Szczesny's development and not at least question the wisdom of allowing him to leave.

As well as the smoking incident, Wenger had been annoyed when he posted a celebratory ‘selfie’ with Kieran Gibbs and Lukas Podolski after a win against Tottenham in 2014.

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Szczesny was then simply asked by his manager whether he could ever have imagined Iker Casillas behaving in that way.

Wenger has been watching multiple matches in Qatar in his role as Fifa’s head of global football development and is expected to be at the Al Thumama Stadium on Sunday when Poland take on France.

He will also then see Kylian Mbappe – another player he tipped for greatness in his teenage years – go head to head with Szczesny. Milik was asked on Saturday how Poland might stop Mbappe and replied that it would be “difficult without a motorbike”.

There might be some truth in that assessment but, in Szczesny, they have perhaps the next thing. A 6ft 5ins wall at his absolute physical and mental prime.