It was the dream start to Arsenal’s 2020-21 season.
On August 29, the Gunners defeated reigning Premier League champions Liverpool in the FA Community Shield Final. Arsenal, who qualified for the match as 2019-20 FA Cup champions, won the game on penalties by a 5-4 score following a 1-1 draw.
All five of Arsenal’s penalty takers converted their spot-kicks, including Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who scored Arsenal’s only goal of the game and the Community Shield-winning penalty.
There was a lot of buzz in Arsenal’s camp going into the match, and for seemingly good reason. The game was to be Arsenal’s 23rd appearance in the Community Shield, which is the joint-second most out of any club in history. And if the Gunners clinched the shield, it would be their 16th victory in the competition. Only Manchester United (21) have won the Community Shield more times.
However, that wasn’t the main talking point going into the match. Actually, Arsenal’s attention seemed to be focused less on the trophy at stake and more on the club’s goalkeepers, Bernd Leno and Emiliano Martínez; specifically, who should start.
Most of the pre-match buildup hinted at Leno getting the nod. The 28-year-old German made 32 appearances for the club last season and is the holder of Arsenal’s no. 1 jersey. He also appeared in the club’s last friendly, a 4-1 win over MK Dons on August 25.
But there were concerns regarding Leno’s fitness going into the match. The German missed Arsenal’s final 11 games of the 2019-20 season due to a ligament injury he suffered in a game against Brighton & Hove Albion, and the friendly against MK Dons was Leno’s first appearance in 66 days.
Leno’s fitness didn’t stop the papers from predicting his return to the line-up, mainly because Martínez had missed Arsenal’s pre-season training due a holiday in Portugal and subsequent quarantine. Most publications — from the Sun to Sports Mole — included Leno in their expected starting XIs.
Yet when matchday arrived, it was Martínez, not Leno, who got the nod in goal.
Arsenal coach Mikel Arteta explained his decision to BT Sports prior to kick-off. Though initial rumours hinted at Leno starting, Arteta said he chose Martínez to start because he won the competition that qualified Arsenal for the Community Shield.
“I think Emi (Martínez) finished the season really strong,” he said. “He was our goalkeeper in the FA Cup and he deserved to play in this final.”
Nonetheless, Arteta stressed the fact that he has “two fantastic goalkeepers.” Indeed, Arsenal are one of only a handful of clubs that can boast having two solid goalkeepers in their system. Few teams out there can brag about having one reliable goalkeeper, let alone too.
Unfortunately, Arsenal might not be able to afford that luxury for much longer.
Since winning the FA Cup on August 1, Martínez has made it clear that he no longer views himself as a back-up goalkeeper. Earlier this month, the 28-year-old Argentine underlined that if Arsenal don’t “assure me 35, 40 matches and I don’t play as a starter, I’ll look for minutes elsewhere.”
A few weeks later, Martínez told AS that “Bernd Leno’s injury has changed my career,” and compared his situation to that of Iker Casillas, who cemented his place as Real Madrid’s starting goalkeeper after replacing César Sánchez in the 2002 Champions League Final.
Though Arsenal haven’t made an official decision yet, Martínez seems to have given the club an ultimatum; stick with me as your number one or let me go somewhere else.
I must admit, Martínez’s demands have left me feeling a bit bemused. While I haven’t been shy in praising Martínez’s play since the COVID-19 restart — at one point, I called him the world’s best goalkeeper since the break — I can’t find much reason to justify handing him the starting spot.
My first concern has to do with Martínez’s lack of playing time. As mentioned earlier, Martínez is a decade-long servant of Arsenal. He joined the club as a teenage youth player in 2010, and he made his first team debut in 2012. Among the current roster of players, he’s been at the club the longest.
Despite that, Martínez was never able to cement himself as a consistent number one goalkeeper. Martínez spent most of the decade splitting time between backing up the club’s goalkeepers and representing another team — usually one from the second division — on loan. Prior to the 2019-20 season, the most single-season appearances he had ever made in an Arsenal shirt was six (2014-15 season), and the most appearances he had made for any club was 18 (with Reading in 2018-19).
The fact that Martínez is yet to play a full season despite being at an age when most other goalkeepers are in their prime — for reference, world-class goalkeepers Jan Oblak, Alisson Becker and Ederson Moraes are all younger than Martínez — is a cause for concern, especially when discussing who deserves Arsenal’s number one goalkeper spot.
It doesn’t help that Martínez’s competition, Bernd Leno, is no pushover. The German — who’s only six months older than Martínez — is already an established goalkeeper across two major European leagues. Leno has made over 370 club appearances at a professional level, including 295 combined appearances in both the German Bundesliga and the English Premier League. He’s never played less than 32 games in a single club season and he’s averaged 30 or more league appearances every season since making his professional debut in 2011.
But it’s not just in appearances made that Leno separates himself from Martínez. Statistically, he’s also an exceptional shot-stopper.
In the 2018-19 season — Leno’s first season with Arsenal — the German goalkeeper was a consistent top five goalkeeper, according to the stats. He faced more shots (139) and made more saves (105) than any other goalkeeper representing a club in the top five, despite only making 31 starts. In spite of the busy workload, Leno still placed in the Premier League’s top five in save percentage (74.8%, 4th) and goals allowed (42, 5th among goalkeepers with 30+ starts).
Furthermore, per StatsBomb’s advanced stats, Leno saved about four more goals than the average goalkeeper in his position would’ve been expected to save. That difference ranked him fifth in the league in that category.
This season, Leno’s only gotten better. In 30 Premier League starts, the German goalkeeper faced 147 shots and made 110 saves. Both totals rank him second among goalkeepers representing a club in the top half of the table. (Burnley’s Nick Pope was the only busier goalkeeper from that pool). And yet, Leno’s goals allowed tally and save percentage improved. Leno conceded just 39 goals (4th among goalkeepers with 30+ starts) and kept a save percentage of 77.6% (2nd league-wide, 1st among goalkeepers with 30+ starts).
Leno’s advanced stats also saw a boost — he saved 6.4 more goals than the average goalkeeper in his position would’ve been expected to save. Only Martin Dúbravka, Vicente Guaita and Hugo Lloris had a higher PSxG +/-.
Unsurprisingly, Leno was recognized as Arsenal’s second-best player of the season, behind only Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Granted, making saves is not the only important thing for a goalkeeper; Arsenal demands its goalkeepers to be active in their box and comfortable when claiming crosses. This is an area that Leno has been criticized in, and many that support Martinez cite this as a reason why they back him.
This opinion is seemingly backed by statistics. Fellow goalkeeper enthusiast John Harrison recently tackled this point on his Twitter page, and while I won’t go into too much detail regarding his findings (I highly encourage you to check out his thread), he did conclude that Martinez is better at claiming a variety of crosses.
That said, Harrison also stressed that while Martinez was statistically better at handling crosses, Leno isn’t actually as bad as some people make him out to be. On the contrary, Leno is actually quite active in his box, and according to Harrison, there actually isn’t a huge gulf between them in that regard.
It’s also important to point out that while Martinez has been out of this world with his claiming of crosses, the data is only based on the nine Premier League games Martinez played this season. That’s just under a quarter of a full Premier League season and a third of Leno’s Premier League appearance total this season.
In my opinion, it’s likely Martinez’s small sample size of appearances contributes to the out-of-this-world nature of his stats. A 100% cross-claim success rate is just not sustainable over a full 38-game Premier League season (plus any other cup games), which is why I’m hesitant to suggest that Martinez is outright a better claimer of crosses than Leno.
Arsenal’s goalkeeper situation actually reminds me a lot of the Ter Stegen-Jasper Cillessen duel FC Barcelona had to deal with between 2016 and 2019. At the time, Cillessen was playing about 11 games per season as a back-up goalkeeper to Ter Stegen, but his excellent play in the Copa del Rey — Barcelona played in the final in all three of Cillessen’s seasons — led some to believe that Cillessen deserved a shot at the club’s no. 1 spot. Despite Ter Stegen generally being accepted as one of the world’s only elite goalkeepers at the time, some Cules argued in favour of Ter Stegen splitting playing minutes with Cillessen.
Anyone who followed me at the time knows I strongly opposed that idea, mainly due to the incomparable nature of Ter Stegen and Cillessen’s workloads.
While Cillessen was only playing about 11 games per season, Ter Stegen was handling a workload over four times that amount. In Cillessen’s three seasons with Barcelona, Ter Stegen made 46, 48 and 49 total appearances, including a minimum of 35 league appearances in La Liga and nine Champions League appearances each season.
For as great as Cillessen was in the sporadic appearances he was making, it just wasn’t comparable to the superior play of Ter Stegen across a far busier and far more consistent set of games.
That is why when Cillessen joined Valencia in 2019 in a starting position, I was not surprised to see him struggle. He failed to translate his excellent form over those 11 games with Barcelona into something that could last a season, and now, Valencia are looking to ship him out after a solitary campaign.
This is what I fear would happen to Martínez and Arsenal if the Gunners decide to go with him as their starting goalkeeper. Although Martínez was excellent in the 10 or so games he played in relief of Leno, Martínez’s play could easily be chalked up to exceptional form as opposed to something that can be sustained over a large workload.
With all due respect to Martínez, he’s yet to show he can perform at a world-class level over a full season, let alone over a multitude of full seasons like his teammate Leno. 10 or so excellent games is not equivalent to a full 30+ game season of equally-exceptional play, nor should it be taken as such.
Martínez is at an age when most goalkeepers are already in their primes, and yet he’s failed to make his mark on first division football. Sure, it’s not impossible he will succeed, but few perennial back-up goalkeepers ever develop into top-class talents following the age of 28. And given the consistent play of the more experienced Leno — who’s the club’s best goalkeeper since Jens Lehmann, in my opinion — I just don’t see a reason for Arsenal to take a chance on Martínez in this scenario.