For a long time, it felt like the goalkeeper position was a problematic one for Arsenal. Names such as Manuel Almunia, Wojciech Szczesny and David Ospina all held the No.1 spot at varying points in the club’s recent history, yet none excelled when doing so.
Petr Cech joined from London rivals Chelsea ahead of the 2015/16 season and offered a reliable presence in between the sticks for the following three seasons.
Yet despite that, the Czech’s best years were behind him meaning performances were solid, if not exceptional, and his age meant he could only be a stopgap whilst the club identified a more suitable long term option.
That long term option identified was of course Bernd Leno who signed for the club from Bayer Leverkusen in the summer of 2018.
At the time, despite only being 26, the German international had racked up a remarkable 230 appearances for the Bundesliga side and he was labelled by then Arsenal boss Unai Emery as “A goalkeeper of high quality and experience”.
Although he’d forged a strong reputation abroad, there was no guarantee that his form would translate from Germany to the highly competitive Premier League. However, we can now say with some certainty two years on that he managed to do so seamlessly.
The 29-year-old dislodged Cech from the No.1 spot in his first campaign, and he’s since gone on to have a standout impact on the club’s goal difference thanks to his high level of performances.
This point can be illustrated below, looking at last season and utilising post-shot expected goals against (PSxGA) data in comparison with actual goals conceded.
Put simply, PSxGA measures the quality of shots faced and assigns a value to them. Over a prolonged period, it can provide an insight into the number of goals a team would have been expected to concede based on the shots they allowed on their goal.
As we can see, despite Arsenal suffering an erratic campaign with streaks of poor form and a managerial change, they still enjoyed the best positive swing for any Premier League side in terms of outperforming their PSxGA.
The was predominantly due to the shot-stopping abilities of Leno, but it was also aided by the equally impressive form of Emiliano Martínez who played in the German’s place for a stretch of fixtures at the tail end of the season. The form of Martinez in this period did throw into doubt whether Leno could maintain the No.1 spot upon returning from injury.
The Argentine keeper had rarely been given the opportunity to prove himself over a prolonged spell of matches, despite being at the club since 2012, and there was a tinge of regret that perhaps previous managers didn’t turn to him during the years in which the club struggled for a standout No.1.
However irrespective of his good end of season form, Mikel Arteta maintained his trust in Leno and made it clear that the former Leverkusen man would be his first choice ahead of this season. The fallout out from this decision though was that the club reluctantly had to let Martinez leave to fulfill his wish of securing regular first-team minutes with Aston Villa.
Although there was a fear that this may be a decision that they’d come to regret, this hasn’t turned out to be the case. As highlighted below.
Interestingly, it’s both Leno – again – and Martinez at Villa who lead the way in terms of outperforming their PSxGA this. Villa will be over the moon with the impact Martinez has had at the club given that they’ve gone from ranking second from bottom in the same department last season to top this year.
And whilst Martinez has marginally outperformed Leno, it’s not by much, plus the £20million received for his sale was a welcome addition to the club’s transfer kitty in the summer.
On reflection then, it could be argued that Arsenal found themselves in a win-win goalkeeping situation in the summer. Opting to take on the season with either Leno or Martinez would have had an equally positive impact on their underlying numbers.
However, the former has experience of performing at this high standard over a much longer time frame, whilst the latter doesn’t. Furthermore, the money generated by Martinez’s sale enhanced the club’s capacity to strengthen the squad in other key areas.