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Lukasz Fabianski exclusive interview: From struggling at Arsenal to starring for West Ham
Lukasz Fabianski tells Sky Sports how he overcame a psychologically challenging spell at Arsenal to prove himself in the Premier League
Last Updated: 16/09/19 8:31pm
Lukasz Fabianski will be making his 81st consecutive Premier League start when he steps out at Villa Park on Monday Night Football. It is a run which stretches back to his penultimate season at Swansea and reflects the consistency and reliability that have come to define him as a goalkeeper.
It also shows how far he has come. West Ham fans welcomed his arrival from the Liberty Stadium last summer and his subsequent performances have more than justified the £7m expense. But it is not so long ago, during his fraught early years with Arsenal, that he was viewed very differently.
Fabianski remembers the pressure building with every appearance. He remembers waiting impatiently for his chances and brooding on his mistakes. It is five years since he left the Emirates Stadium, but on a sunny afternoon at West Ham's east London training ground, he also remembers the criticism - and the feeling of not quite knowing how to deal with it.
"It was a massive challenge, psychologically," he tells Sky Sports. "I had come from Poland and the attention on you is much bigger when you get to the Premier League, so everything was doubled or tripled. Obviously, there were times when I struggled to deal with the criticism. It's a process and, in my case, it took a bit of time to learn how to deal with it."
'I think I needed to leave Arsenal'
Fabianski's final act as an Arsenal player was to help them win the FA Cup in 2014 - their first trophy in almost a decade - but he departed that summer having only played 32 Premier League games in seven seasons. Every error put him further away from the No 1 shirt he coveted, and the circumstances made it difficult for him to put them right.
"I wanted to prove myself on the pitch, but I didn't have many chances, so it put a lot more pressure on every single game that I played," he says. "I found myself in situations where I was so keen to show my qualities, but many times it worked against me and I was punished for being too eager.
"I think what happens when you don't play regularly is that all the little things that are very important for our position are a little bit off. Even when I started pre-season this year, I could feel a bit of a difference. Your timing is not there, your feeling of the game, your distances. When I made the decision to leave Arsenal, it was based on that."
As for the criticism, Fabianski was eventually able to use it as an extra motivation. "That's how I approached it," he says. "I never spoke about it in a loud way, but inside of me I felt like that was actually one of the things that helped. It was something which drove me to get better.
"Over the years I think I have developed a better understanding of being a goalkeeper - and I mean on and off the pitch. I mean how to deal with certain situations, how to prepare myself for games, how to read the game. I think I needed to leave Arsenal to do that. I needed a new challenge in my life and I am very happy with how things have gone from that moment."
Fabianski is a picture of contentment now. It was at Swansea that he rebuilt his reputation, missing just three Premier League games in four years under no fewer than five different managers, but it is here, back in London with West Ham, that he has taken his game to another level.
Fabianski was named West Ham's player of the year last season. According to Opta, he made more saves than any other goalkeeper in Europe's top five leagues. "It is not only about his performances during the games," said Manuel Pellegrini, "but also his performances every day of the week."
Indeed, while Fabianski's improvement owes a lot to the stability he was never afforded at Arsenal, it also comes down to a more meticulous approach to preparation. His "better understanding of being a goalkeeper" can be seen in the professionalism and dedication with which he trains.
"I have the idea that when you put yourself through hard, detailed training, and you put a lot of attention into all the little details - the analysis of the opposition, the movement and understanding of the game, the way your opponent plays - then you shouldn't be afraid of making mistakes.
"That's what I always try to explain to myself before games because there are always some kind of nerves. Mistakes can always happen, but if you can ask yourself if you are ready in your mind and the answer is yes, because you know that you've done all the hard work, then you have done your job, so you're ready to go."
'It has opened my mind even more'
Fabianski is grateful to the technical staff at Swansea - specifically Tony Roberts and Javier Garcia - for instilling that mindset in him. At West Ham, though, his development has gathered pace under Pellegrini's reputed goalkeeping coach Xavi Valero, whose decorated CV includes spells at Liverpool, Real Madrid and Inter Milan.
"I have been lucky that, in recent years, I have always had goalkeeping coaches who have been so detailed in their work. They have pushed me to do more and more to raise the level of my game. I have always been a person who is very self-critical - it's another thing that drives me - but I have had goalkeeping coaches who have been even more like that.
"Xavi has a great reputation and I'm not surprised. The way he works, it has opened my mind even more. It was funny because in my first few days or weeks at West Ham, he didn't really speak to me about my game, so I assumed he must be happy. But then we had this meeting, he showed me some videos and said, 'Listen, you have to do this, this and this.' I was like, 'Jesus, okay, here we go again.'"
Fabianski laughs as he recounts the story, but he has embraced Valero's methods and they have paid off.
Last season, Fabianski's saves were high on quality as well as quantity. According to Opta's data for expected goals, he conceded 12 goals fewer than he should have, based on the quality of chances he faced. In other words, things would have been a lot worse for West Ham without Fabianski. No other Premier League goalkeeper was so valuable to their side.
The statistics are a source of satisfaction to Fabianski, but he is quick to point out that shot-stopping is not the focus of his work with Valero. The Spaniard, he says, is more interested in the finer details of goalkeeping.
"He loves positioning, he loves decision-making and the calmness when it comes to making decisions," says Fabianski. "With the positioning, I'm not just talking about where you put yourself in your penalty box, but also the way your body shape is. Little things like which foot is facing forwards.
"It's really, really detailed stuff. Sometimes you might think you are in a good position, but then he will show you how you could be in a better one. I like that. Sometimes it might drive you a little bit mad, but then on the other hand you think, yeah, it's the right way to go to develop.
"When we are judged by the media and the fans, it shouldn't only be about the saves because sometimes with better positioning or better decisions, you can avoid making a save. Also, the game is changing - even the rules of the game are changing - so that demands the goalkeeper to develop as well. The role is changing and that's important too."
'I don't need that recognition'
Fabianski is judged far more favourably now than he ever was at Arsenal, but does it bother him that he is often overlooked in conversations about the Premier League's best goalkeepers? He was loved by Swansea fans and he is already cherished at West Ham, but does he feel he deserves broader recognition?
Fabianski shakes his head. An added bonus of learning to cope with criticism is that he no longer craves praise, either. "It doesn't bother me," he says. "As long as I have the feeling inside that yeah, I've had a good season, or I've had a good game and I've been an important part of the team, then I don't need that recognition.
"For me, the main thing has always been the approval of the manager and the goalkeeping coach. If they are happy with me, and obviously if my team is happy with me, then I don't really need all the other things. It's just something extra that is there, for the media and for the fans. It's something the pundits love to talk about, but my focus is on the job on the pitch."
That attitude is another reminder of just how far he has come. Fabianski is not just a different goalkeeper to the one who started out in English football at Arsenal, but a different man too. And the good news for West Ham fans is that, at 34, he still feels there is more to come from him.
"I don't know how much I've got left in the tank, but I feel good," he says. "I just want to prepare myself well and keep trying to develop, because I think there is always room to develop and get better. I will just keep pushing. My aim is to get as much as I can from whatever I've got left."
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