Manuel Almunia Rivero was born in Navarre on 19 May 1977. He played 109 league games for Arsenal and 175 games all told including cup matches. In his career in Spain and England he played 326 league games and 403 senior games in total.
He retired from football on 28 August 2014, as he was about to join Serie A side Cagliari when it was discovered that he was suffering from an apical hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) – a genetic heart disorder that can cause sudden death. It inevitably has caused the end of his career.
Prior to coming to Arsenal Manuel played for a series of Spanish clubs:
Osasuna, Cartagonova, Sabadell, Eibar, Recreativo and Albacete – the last on loan from Celta de Vigo from whom he joined Arsenal on 14 July 2012 as a backup to Jens Lehmann.
Manuel played his first game on 27 October 2004 in the league cup against Manchester City, in the League cup, and played his first Premier League game on 4 December 2004 against Birmingham. He played in most of the Champions League final of 2006 after Lehmann was sent off. He also appeared in the 2007 League Cup final.
Although Lehmann is revered in some quarters (not least this one) as the only goalkeeper to play an entire league season and never once be on the losing side, and Almunia is now considered by some not to have the high level of consistency in goal that Arsenal needed, it is interesting to remember that Arsène Wenger did drop Lehman in favour of Almunia in October 2007.
Of this event Lehmann said, “It’s possible that some day I’ll feel like talking about the whole issue. But at the moment I’m just swallowing it all as part of the humiliation. But I think – and this is aimed at my dear manager – one shouldn’t humiliate players for too long. I won’t just fade away quietly. Almunia has not yet showed he can win matches for us. I’ve experienced this before and know what the others are expecting from the goalkeeper.”
In March 2008 Almunia responded: “I treat people the way I would like to be treated myself. To have someone here who hates me is just amazing. Every morning I wake up I know it is going to be the same. But I don’t care any more. I come into training and work with Łukasz Fabiański and Vito Mannone. They are better than him anyway.”
In November 2008 Almunia was made captain of Arsenal, following the removal of the captaincy from Gallas.
After Jens Lehmann left Arsenal, Almunia became the lead goalkeeper for the 2008/9 season, having signed a new four-year contract, and he continued as first choice until 25 September 2010. On 26 April 2009 he kept his 8th consecutive clean sheet in an Arsenal home match – a club record.
He finally lost his place through injury, but his performance on that date against WBA led to some doubts about his future as the first choice keeper. By the time he recovered a new generation of keepers was in place, and the issue was no longer one about Almunia, but rather whether Fabiański or Szczęsny should take over.
Almunia was now third choice keeper, but still played in the FA Cup in 2011, and came on as the substitute keeper on 8 March 2011 in the Champions League match against Barcelona. Although Arsenal lost he was voted man of the match.
Through a curious set of chance circumstances three of Arsenal’s four keepers were then injured simultaneously Almunia became the lead keeper again, with Jens Lehmann (who was in London studying for his coaching badges) training at Arsenal, re-signed as emergency cover.
On 10 April 2011 Manuel Almunia injured himself in the warm-up of the away game at Blackpool, and Jens Lehmann, aged 41, played his first game for the Club in three years, and in totally unexpected circumstances made it to 200 appearances. That left the game on 2 April 2011 as Almunia’s last match – a 0-0 home draw with Blackburn Rovers.
On 30 September 2011, signed a loan deal with West Ham, covering for their injured goal keeper, and returned to Arsenal after that, but did not play for Arsenal again. His contract ended on 30 June 2012.
The following month Almunia signed for Watford, for one year. He played in the Championship play-off final which Watford lost, and then signed for a second year after which he left the club. It was as he prepared to move to his new club Cagliari that the news of his heart condition was revealed and he immediately retired from playing.
Here’s his Arsenal stats.
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Almunia was often criticised by Arsenal fans, but this was not because he was a poor keeper overall, but rather because of the occasional erratic moments – and there were times when, as with the Barcelona match, he was widely praised. But that is the fate of goal keepers – like every other player on the pitch they make errors, but when they make an error there is never anyone behind them to save the day.
I’d like to express my sadness on hearing of the news of Manuel’s illness and hope that he nevertheless is able to live a full and fulfilling life – and indeed that he quickly finds a new career path to follow.