Action Images via Reuters/John Sibley
The clock showed 21 minutes when Petr Cech mis-hit the ball just inches wide of his own post. The 36-year-old goalkeeper was lucky not to have scored an own goal: his head dropped in shame, avoiding any eye contact from his perplexed teammates.
He didn’t, though, avoid mockery. When Bayer Leverkusen’s official Twitter account posted a video suggesting Bernd Leno would have done better in the situation, Cech took his anger to Twitter.
It didn’t help. As the drama unfolded, the verdict from Arsenal fans was unanimous: drop Cech.
When it turned out Unai Emery was keeping the German international on the bench against Chelsea, the protests got vociferous. The Arsenal side of Twitter was outraged: “We’ve got Leno, drop Cech!”
Similarly to the Manchester City game, though, Cech pulled off some highlight-worthy saves at Stamford Bridge and prevented the match from descending into a hockey-game result.
Which raises the question: are we sure Bernd Leno is better than Petr Cech?
Cech’s reverse goalkeeper ageing
Wresting Cech from Jose Mourinho’s grasp in 2015 for only £10 million was heralded a piece of masterly business from Arsene Wenger when it occurred.
A Chelsea and Premier League legend, once considered world’s best goalkeeper, with hundreds of games of experience under his belt, moving to a direct rival from the same city? “Chapeau bas, Monsieur Wenger,” Arsenal fans thought.
As goalkeepers tend to get better with age, Cech was expected to remain in contention for another four to five years.
Key stat: In 2017/18, no other Premier League goalkeeper made more individual errors leading to a goal than Petr Cech with six.
The Czech international, however, seems to have only declined since his move to Arsenal. Hesitant in the air, incapable of saving penalties and with perpetual problems while defending the near post – Cech seemed to cost points at times, not winning them for the club.
A penalty specialist but not immune to errors
Bernd Leno is certainly not uncontroversial. The German international made the spotlight early in his career while playing for Bayer Leverkusen in both Bundesliga and Europe.
The youngest German goalkeeper to play in the Champions League, Leno debuted against Chelsea in 2011 and helped Bayer Leverkusen top their group ahead of the Blues.
From then onwards, Leno established himself as Bayer’s defensive linchpin. Having grown up idolising Iker Casillas, he became a similarly stalwart figure for his club: only missing five games in seven Bundesliga seasons.
With quick reactions on the line and good with ball at his feet, Leno made a name for himself with his penalty-saving abilities: an area that certainly gives him an edge over Cech. He saved nine penalties in Germany – more than any other active goalkeeper – including four in a row in the 2013/14 season.
If error-making is something Arsenal fans hold against Cech, though, then perhaps they should be more cautious in rushing Leno between the posts.
In 2016, he made second-most errors (9) leading to a goal. One of them, against Augsburg in October 2015, was even more embarrassing than Cech’s mishap against City and actually resulted in Bayer losing points.
Cech’s stepping up
Leno’s arrival at the Emirates certainly motivated Cech to improve his game.
Pictures of him uncharacteristically bulked up in the pre-season spawned some chuckles amongst the fans. However, this gave an early sign that the experienced goalkeeper was picking up the gauntlet in the fight for the starting spot.
Admittedly, he could have made a better attempt at saving Raheem Sterling’s shot against Manchester City and generated some meme fodder with his blunder in the same game.
Nevertheless, he made a number of world-class saves and even beat red-hot Sergio Aguero in a one-on-one situation at the end of the game.
On top of that, he seems to be adapting to Emery’s attacking style in which he has to initiate offensive plays with precise short passes.
Although he's still shaky at times, the Arsenal defensive line trusts Cech and they aren't scared to play the ball to him: only Matteo Guendouzi touched the ball more than him against City with 57 touches.
Against City, Cech also made 42 passes: more than in any Premier League game last season.
In the Chelsea game, he started the build-up to the Arsenal beautiful equaliser while keeping on pulling off some sublime interventions.
He was also vocal, giving his teammate directions and proving worthy of the captaincy given to him by Emery ahead of the season
Are we sure?
Seeking out competition for Petr Cech was, without doubt, an excellent decision from Unai Emery and his recruitment team.
The Premier League veteran is not getting any younger and, with his performance level from the last few seasons, he certainly gave the club enough reason to bring in another keeper.
However, it needs to be stressed out that this specific position is very vulnerable to form given the importance of morale and the psychological aspect of goalkeeping.
For example, David de Gea has been Premier League’s top goalkeeper for years but has conceded 12 goals from 21 shots for both Manchester United and Spain since the start of the World Cup.
Even though Cech's form has declined in the last couple seasons, it might still be too early to write him off completely.
Considering how the Czech fared in Arsenal’s two first Premier League games this season, Bernd Leno shouldn’t automatically be granted a place in the starting line-up as some fans blindly demand.
Without having any chance to see Bernd Leno in action, there is no way to assess whether he is an improvement to Petr Cech.
The ball is now in the German’s court to prove Emery and the fans he's suited better for the job whenever the opportunity arises.
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