The awkward question. It is one of the fundamentals of interviewing technique. How to phrase it respectfully. When to drop it into the conversation. Wojciech Szczesny was so personable, so communicative, so candid as he chatted away after training it did not feel like any subject would be too delicate. But then the topic of how important it is for a goalkeeper to organise his defence came up.
"It's a massive part," says Szczesny, whose big personality and instinct to shout and point on the pitch is one of his strengths. "I'd imagine it's the most important part of goalkeeping." Pause. Sorry Wojciech, time for the awkward question. "But sometimes," I try to suggest casually, "it looks like the organisation is not quite right?"
Szczesny is a bright spark in both senses of the phrase. He is a smart thinker and also has a lively and cheerful way about him. But this question narks him. "I don't agree," he says. "Over a long time I've honestly had enough of people saying Arsenal's defence is not good enough. People judge defence on the back of goals conceded but you have to have a look at the defending in general. If my back four are completely exposed against Chelsea most of the time in the first half there it was four of my defenders against six Chelsea players they were disadvantaged all the time. You have to look at the defending of the whole team, the shape of the whole team. People blame the Arsenal defenders way too much over the past couple of seasons.
"I feel for them, massively. I try to help them as much as I can. I am happy to take the blame sometimes for a goal conceded if I felt I could do better. They've been hammered. Of course sometimes people make mistakes but very often the Arsenal defenders have been criticised too much. It gets to public opinion and once people give you a label of a dodgy defender, whatever you do they look at you closely and there is always something they will find that you have done wrong. It's quite tough."
Szczesny's case for the defence takes an interesting turn when he implies there is a kind of inevitability about Arsenal's lapses because they aspire to play with the kind of commitment to attack perfected by Barcelona, but because they are not on that level, they get punished more. "It is quite hard when you are an attacking team like we are," he muses. "Barcelona push so many players forward and sometimes get caught on the counterattack, but their technical abilities are so good they don't often lose the ball in the middle of the park so they don't concede as many as we do. It's a style of play that can expose your back four. It's hard. Our fans want to see us attack, scoring goals, and then sometimes it doesn't work and people say: look at the defence. It is about balance."
That balance is a tough one to address. There are only two ways of trying to improve it; on the training ground, or in the transfer market. Szczesny's views on both are thought provoking.
There is, according to the 22-year-old goalkeeper, a noticeable difference between what Arsenal produce in training and on matchdays. Sometimes, on the journey between the secluded lawns of London Colney and the white line on to a Premier League pitch, some spark fizzles away. "The players often show much more qualities in training than we do in games," he says. "Whether it's down to what the opposition does, or us playing with the handbrake on as the boss likes to call it, it's hard to say. Sometimes I look at our training sessions and think this team is as good as any in Europe. And sometimes it just doesn't work out for us in the game."
Is that down to pressure? A tension in the stadium? Impatience that comes from high expectations? "Impatience is a very good word," Szczesny replies. "People talk about pressure in football but I don't think pressure should always affect you in a bad way. I love games under pressure. The players are impatient. We really want to win a trophy. The fans are understandably impatient, because we should be doing much better than we have been. It's a very long period that we have been disappointed. Very often, when we go on the football pitch, I feel like if we don't score four goals in the first 15 minutes people start being a little bit hesitant. Sometimes you hear boos in the crowd, although that's a different story. You get that kind of atmosphere where some people feel under a little bit too much pressure. But I don't feel pressure should paralyse you. It should make you even better if anything. It's hard to explain."
Szczesny himself tends not to feel negative pressure. He says he felt it most intensely last summer, when his adventure with the Polish national team went horribly wrong at a home European Championship. He was sent off for a reckless foul 69 minutes into the opening game. He does, though, feel the experience taught him to try to be more measured.
"I felt it was the best moment of my career," he recalls. "The whole country was really united and the atmosphere was fantastic. Then you feel like you've let your country down and that was a big pressure in my own head. It was quite tough. I had my holidays afterwards, I was off for five weeks after that."
He reflects on the whole episode as "very weird" as his emotions fluctuated from the calamity of the red card to the elation of watching the penalty kick he conceded in the process saved by the substitute goalkeeper. His feelings lurched again as he watched Poland excel against Russia from the stands and then falter in their final group game to end their participation in the group stage. "It was a period of going up and down from up to the heights right down to the bottom. I suppose it's a lesson to learn for me as a young player and person in general, to try to stay in the middle of your emotions at all times. It's quite hard to deal with. Exhausting. So maybe it's better not to get excited about good things too much, and not to put yourself down too much when you make a mistake."
Another painful lesson he had to absorb came when Arsenal lost the 2011 Carling Cup final to Birmingham. He brings it up himself, a reference to how much desire there is to win a trophy, and the deep impact of that failure. "That was when me and Laurent [Koscielny] had that little mix-up," he explains. "From that moment on the team collapsed. It was quite unbelievable to see. I did feel responsible for it in a way because it was my fault that led to that goal. It was quite painful."
His keenness to achieve success is palpable. The top four is, he reckons, the least of Arsenal's requirements. Despite their inconsistencies, Szczesny is as confident as ever that will be accomplished. Two home games are coming up, against Liverpool on Wednesday night and Stoke on Saturday, which are vital to that aim. He happily retells the story of being written off last season: "I read an article saying we were never going to finish above Tottenham and come the end of the season I see them playing Europa League again."
He claims to be "nowhere near" where he wants to be as a goalkeeper. "I'm 22. I've won nothing in football. Literally nothing. The only trophy I have won was the Emirates Cup and that is not exactly enough, is it? The manager does stick with me when I have ups and downs with my form. That's what you get at this age. He shows a lot of faith in me and sticks with me all the time but I am trying to improve."
Wenger's willingness to build up young players rather than always buying ready-made is contentious and Szczesny accepts that. "You understand the fans' frustrations when you see other clubs spend massive money on exciting players, but I've benefited from the club's policy so I support it. I came to the club at 16 and came through the ranks. So in my opinion it's quite clear. Giving young players the chance to prove themselves at the club they were brought up, at the club they love, is the right way to go. In terms of bringing young talent through, there is no one else who can compete with us. Some clubs can't produce top-class talent so they have to spend big money. It's a very long debate."
Szczesny's love for his club is plain and uncomplicated. One of the main reasons he wants to win something is to repay those who have helped him along the way. He reels off a list of people who have looked after him since he arrived from Warsaw in 2006. It's not far off an Oscars speech, encompassing everyone from Bobby Arbor, the scout who found him and watched out for him when he did not speak much English, to Liam Brady, David Court and Steve Bould who oversaw his progress in the youth development, to his landlady Bobbie, Shirley the headmistress who advised him on education, Rob the chef
"I came here as a 16-year-old boy and everything I know right now, I know from this club and the people who took care of me when I was young. Some of them have had the most influence of course you have your parents and relatives, but people I have met here have given me so much. It's everyone. I love this place. I feel I have something I want to give back to them. It gives me a lot of desire to do well."
Wenger has made a big noise about a young British core recently, but good luck to anyone who wishes to suggest any of them care more deeply about doing well for Arsenal than the big Pole in goal.