Game after game, week after week, Emiliano Martínez continues to prove he’s no one-season wonder.
On Feb. 27, the Aston Villa goalkeeper picked up his third clean sheet in his last four Premier League games as his club defeated Leeds United by a 1-0 score.
Though it was one of the Argentine’s more relaxing performances, he still made three saves and successfully claimed two crosses. This includes a significant claim towards the end of the game that prevented opposing goalkeeper Illan Meslier from potentially heading home the equalizer.
Martínez has now kept 13 clean sheets this season, which puts him second among Premier League goalkeepers and just two behind Manchester City’s Ederson Moraes for the league lead.
To say that Martínez has been among the best goalkeepers in the Premier League this season would be an understatement. Despite facing more than 110 shots, the Aston Villa goalkeeper has kept a save percentage of nearly 80.0% and a goals-against-average of just over one goal conceded per game.
According to fbref.com, he’s also saved more than seven goals than expected, making him the Premier League’s leader in that category.
His top-class performances, coupled with the £17 million Arsenal let him go for in September 2020, has left most of his doubters from last season feeling a little hot under the collar.
One of those doubters feeling the heat is me. As long-time followers know, I wrote about Martínez back in early September, and in that piece, I argued that then-Arsenal teammate Bernd Leno was an undeniably-better option than Martínez.
Though I still stand by my conclusion — I still believe Arsenal were correct to keep Leno and sell Martínez — I will admit that I did not expect Martínez to play as well as he’s been playing so far. He’s greatly exceeded all of my tame expectations, and he’s made me look like a fool for referring to his quality as good form rather than something inherent.
So to apologize to Martínez for doubting him, I’m dedicating my first goalkeeper analysis piece of 2021 to him. More specifically, I’m going to break down parts of his shot-stopping game and identify some of the technical aspects of his saves that I’ve been most impressed by.
Martínez has had many doubters over the years, but it’s time we wake up and realize just how special of a goalkeeper he is.
a Very handy goalkeeper
Like any other top-quality goalkeeper, Emiliano Martínez is an exceptional and well-rounded saver of the ball, and it’s difficult to call rank any aspect of his shot-stopping game over another.
If I had to highlight one thing that I find most impressive about Martínez’s shot-stopping ability though, it would be how comfortable he is using either of his bottom and top hands when making a high diving save.
To be fair to other goalkeepers, using either hand isn’t something unique to Martínez. Every goalkeeper will use a variety of hand techniques to make diving saves throughout their career. No top-flight goalkeeper will only ever, say, make top-hand saves, or only ever use their left hand to parry high shots away.
But for some goalkeepers that I’ve seen, there tends to be a preference as to which hand they like making high diving saves with, and whether they prefer using their top hand or their bottom hand to make a high diving stop.
To drive this point home, let’s diverge away from Martínez for a bit. Firstly, let’s take a look at Oliver Kahn.
Kahn is one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time, and he was my favourite goalkeeper growing up. But while he excelled at using a variety of diving techniques — he used power steps and negative steps efficiently, and his explosiveness helped him cover every inch of his goal — when it came to high shots, the German seemed to prefer using what could be described as his top hand to make the save.
I won’t spend too much time on this for length reasons, but here are a few of examples.
In this play during the 2002 World Cup, Kahn uses his top hand to turn aside this shot from Paraguay’s Jorge Luis Campos. He dives at a sideways angle — his body is almost parallel to the ground — and he pushes his left hand upwards in order to palm the ball away.
Here’s another save Kahn made using his top hand. Despite the shot’s pace and rising trajectory, Kahn preferred to punch the ball away using his right hand (which served the role of the top hand here) as opposed to his left hand.
And in this example vs. Rangers, Kahn uses his top, left hand to parry Jonatan Johansson’s attempt.
What I find most intriguing about this save is how close the shot was to ground. The ball could not have been higher than four feet off of the ground when Kahn made contact with it, and yet, he still parried the ball away using his top hand (which is normally reserved for high shots).
In my opinion, this save proves Kahn had a preference for making top-handed saves.
Another great goalkeeper who seemed to have a specific hand preference is Edwin van der Sar — his preference was using his right hand to turn away most high shots.
Take how he reacted to most high shots to his right side. Unlike Kahn, who often used his top, left hand to parry these attempts away, Van der Sar normally reached out to these shots with his right hand, which could be described as his bottom hand in these situations.
In this example, Van der Sar attacks a top-corner shot at an almost upright angle. He reaches out with his right hand — his bottom hand — and just gets enough of the shot to deflect it over the crossbar.
Here’s another example where Van der Sar uses his bottom hand to parry a right-sided shot away.
Similar to the last play, the shot is heading towards his top-right corner, but Van der Sar is able to just get enough of the ball with his outstretched right hand to prevent it from finding the back of his goal.
The above examples highlight Van der Sar’s top-hand preference for right-sided shots. But what about shots aimed for the top-left corner of his goal?
Though he’ll sometimes use his left hand to turn these attempts away, I’ve noticed in my research that the Dutchman usually reserved his two-handed and top-handed saves for left-sided shots.
At this point, it’s important for me to clarify that I’m not saying Kahn and Van der Sar’s hand preferences were bad. Clearly, these were techniques that worked for them, and that they were comfortable using — and it makes sense when you think about it.
Kahn was 6 ft 2 tall, slightly shorter than the average goalkeeper, and weighed around 90 kg, heavier than the average goalkeeper. This combination meant that he was unlikely able to reach the top corners of his goal with his bottom hand, as he would’ve had to contort the bottom part of his upper body upward in order to reach high shots. But by using his top hand more often than not, Kahn gained the necessary inches needed to effectively turn aside any potential high shot.
On the other hand, because Van der Sar was 6 ft 6 tall, he didn’t need an extra inch to be able to protect the top corners of his goal, so he could afford to use his bottom hand most of the time. Furthermore, because he was right-handed, it makes sense that he preferred using his right hand (a.k.a. his strong hand) in difficult situations.
That said, there are drawbacks to each preference. In Kahn’s case, it could sometimes take more time to bring his top hand over to his opposite side, and those extra few milliseconds could be the difference between a save made and a goal conceded. And in Van der Sar’s case, I think his preference for using his right hand contributed to a potential weakness saving left-sided shots. (Though I couldn’t find career statistics reflecting this, I did find that of the 15 goals Van der Sar conceded across 12 appearances in European cup finals, at least 10 of them were shot to his left side.)
This is why I’m so impressed by Martínez. He’s equally comfortable making top-handed and bottom-handed saves with either of his hands. He doesn’t seem to have a specific preference or go-to move — he’ll use his bottom hand, his top hand or both hands to turn high shots away, and always in an effective manner.
For reference, here are a few examples of the different ways Martínez has saved high shots to his left side this season.
In this example, Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka strikes a free kick from just under 30 yards out. The ball rises over the wall and spins away from Martínez to his left side. At first glance, this looks like a certain top-corner goal.
The average goalkeeper in this scenario might use their right hand — their top hand — to parry the ball away. That’s because, as I mentioned earlier, the top hand provides the goalkeeper with the extra extension needed to get to a top-corner shot — an extension that the bottom hand might not be able to provide.
But Martínez uses his left hand, which could be classified as his bottom hand, to reach for this shot — and it works. The Argentine gets his palm in front of the shot — nearly eight feet above the ground — and parries the ball away from his goal.
In this example though, Martínez uses his right hand to turn aside a shot aimed high to his left side.
Here, Fulham’s Joe Bryan strikes a high shot from a few yards within Aston Villa’s box. Though the shot is coming from Martínez’s right side, it’s aimed for the left side of the goal, and like Xhaka’s shot, it’s curving away from Martínez.
After quickly processing the shot’s flight, Martínez pushes off with his left foot and attacks the ball. He aggressively swings his right hand (his top hand) upwards and just gets enough of Bryan’s shot to tip it onto the crossbar.
Martínez makes this save look routine, and it’s all thanks to an excellent decision to use his top hand.
Finally, here’s an example of Martínez using both hands to save a high shot.
In this play, Manchester United’s Anthony Martial strikes a sizzling, rising shot from the edge of Aston Villa’s 18-yard box. And like the previous two examples, this shot is heading for the left side of Martínez’s goal.
But the Argentine goalkeeper doesn’t panic. He attacks the ball at a diagonal angle and raises both of his arms above his head. This two-handed barrier provides him with the necessary security and strength needed to palm this powerful shot above the crossbar.
Had Martínez only used one of his hands, it’s possible the shot would’ve overpowered him and found a way into his goal.
These three situations are good examples of Martínez’s comfort using various hand techniques. But if you ask me, the best examples of Martínez’s versatility were seen in Aston Villa’s Feb. 13 date with Brighton & Hove Albion.
In the 37th minute of their weekend match, Brighton’s Leandro Trossard collects the ball just inside the edge of Aston Villa’s box. He takes a touch to settle the ball down, and though he’s positioned to Martínez’s right, he eyes the opposite side of the goal with a fierce left-footed drive.
But like he did against Fulham’s Bryan, Martínez uses his top, right hand to save the day. He rockets upwards and bends his upper body to his left in order to put his right hand in an optimal position to reach the ball. As he does so, he shoots his right hand at the ball and redirects it up and away from danger.
Roughly half an hour later, Martínez makes a near-mirror image of this save, but on a shot aimed for his right side. This time, Joël Veltman collects the ball from near the top-left corner of Martínez’s box. Like Trossard did in the first half, Veltman takes a touch and strikes a shot to the opposite side of Martínez’s goal.
Though the shot takes a slight deflection off of a defender’s ankle, Martínez remains focused on the shot and shoots his top hand at the ball again — this time, it’s his left hand reaching for the ball.
Nonetheless, the result is the same. A strong top-handed parry sends the ball around his goal and keeps Brighton off of the scoreboard.
But Martínez’s crème de la crème was his bottom-handed save on a Dan Burn header from earlier in the half.
Here, Pascal Groß delivers a corner kick into Aston Villa’s box from Martínez’s left side. Burn, who’s about 6 ft 7 tall, overpowers Martínez’s teammate and nods the ball towards the right side of Martínez’s goal.
With no one at the post to help him out, Martínez again has to come to his team’s rescue. He pushes off with his right leg and extends his body to his right post. But instead of leading with his top, left hand, Martínez uses his bottom, right hand to tip the header around the post.
This was an excellent decision by Martínez, as there likely wasn’t enough time for him to pull his left hand across his body and in front of this shot. By attacking the ball with his bottom hand, Martínez was able to get a barrier in front of the shot in time to make the save.
These saves showcase Martínez’s versatility when it comes to using a variety of hand techniques. He’s equally comfortable using his right and left hands to make diving saves, and he has no problem making top-handed, bottom-handed and two-handed diving saves.
This versatility sets him apart from most other goalkeepers who might have a strong preference for one or two techniques. Due to their preferences, those goalkeepers might’ve struggled to keep out some of the aforementioned shots. But thanks to his comfortableness with both hands, Martínez had no problem making these spectacular stops.
As if Emiliano Martínez’s high diving saves couldn’t be more impressive, there’s actually another aspect of that part of his game that really excites me: his catching ability.
Along with his comfortableness using his left and right hands to make top-handed and bottom-handed saves, Martínez is also able to pluck high shots out of the air and maintain control of them as he lands on the ground. Instead of giving up a corner kick or parrying the ball back into play, Martínez is comfortable catching very high shots when the opportunity arises.
This is so important not just for Martínez, but also for his teammates. In these situations, Martínez’s teammates don’t have to scramble back to clear loose balls away, nor do they have to worry about setting up for a corner kick. With the ball safely in their goalkeeper’s hands, they can switch from defence to offence instantly and maybe strike on the counter-attack (which they’re very successful at doing).
But how does Martínez make catching shots six to eight feet above the ground look so easy?
Part of that has to do with his height. Martínez is 6 ft 4 tall, so he’s slightly taller than the average goalkeeper. This extra inch or two in height makea it easier for him to reach higher areas of his eight-foot-tall goal with both hands than goalkeepers who are shorter than him.
Take me, the writer, as an example. I am 5 ft 8 tall, well below the average height of a professional goalkeeper. As explosive as I think I am, it’s still going to take me a lot more effort to reach top-corner shots with one hand (let alone two) than someone a few inches taller me. Ask me to cleanly catch any shot travelling seven or eight feet above the ground and I highly doubt I can do it due to my lack of height.
But for Martínez, who’s eight inches taller than me, reaching those shots with two hands is not an issue, especially when you factor in his explosiveness.
It’s not just a height thing, though. There’s also the technique that goes into making high diving catches — a technique that Martínez has mastered.
To prove that, let’s break down this save Martínez made against Leicester City last week.
Firstly, it’s important to note Martínez’s shape just before the attempt is taken. As Leicester’s Ricardo Pereira winds up to shoot the shot, Martínez takes up a position about three yards away from his goal line. He stays on his toes, keeps his body weight leaning forward and evenly distributed to his left and right sides, and he positions his shoulders so that the front of his body is directly facing Pereira.
This is the first big step to Martínez’s save. His deep position gives him ample time to process and react to the shot, his body weight allows him to react to a shot aimed at either side of his goal (while also being able to attack the ball at a forward angle), and his shoulder positioning means his body and his head are directly facing the shooter, so he has a clear view of the shooter and the shot.
Next, when Pereira makes contact with the ball, Martínez processes the shot, takes a power step with his left foot, and pushes off into the air. He attacks the ball directly, and he gets both his right and left hands firmly on the ball.
What Martínez does here helps him catch the ball. By taking a power step with his left foot, Martínez is able to explode to his left side and get the necessary height and airtime needed to reach this high shot.
Then, by attacking the ball directly, Martínez is able to build up enough power in both of his hands to counter the force of the shot and calm the ball down. It also allows him to get both of his hands in front of the shot, which makes it easier for him to secure the ball (as opposed to Oliver Kahn’s sideways dive from earlier, which only allowed him to get his top hand in front of the shot).
Finally, as gravity pulls Martínez back down, the Argentine keeps his focus on the ball, makes sure that the ball is the first thing that hits the ground, and then pulls the ball into his midsection.
For a goalkeeper who doesn’t have a firm grasp of the ball, getting the ball to hit the ground first could spell trouble; the ball’s impact on the ground could cause it to squirt loose and back into play. But for a goalkeeper with Martínez’s strength and intelligence, this isn’t an issue.
As Martínez falls to the ground, notice how he positions his hands on the ball. His right hand is on top of the ball, and his left hand is in front of it. This hand positioning secures the ball from escaping. The right hand prevents the ball from bouncing upwards after impact, and the left hand serves as a barrier between the goal and the ball. And when the ball makes contact with the ground, the pitch itself acts as a third barrier at the bottom of the ball and absorbs the impact of the fall.
All of this combined results in an excellent, problem-free diving catch, and it’s exactly why Martínez can make handling these high-flying shots look like a piece of cake.
This is a technique that we’ve seen Martínez use to catch aerial shots travelling around chest-high too, such as in this situation against Liverpool back in October 2020.
In this example, Martínez is initially positioned around the edge of his six-yard box. This is due to the position of Liverpool’s James Milner, who has possession of the ball roughly 36 yards away from Martínez’s goal line.
But as Milner delivers the cross to his teammate, Martínez backtracks about three yards. As he does so, he adjusts his shoulders so that he’s now directly facing the shooter, not Milner. He also keeps his body weight evenly distributed to his left and right sides.
These adjustments put him in a good position to handle a potential shot.
After the Liverpool shooter makes contact with the ball, Martínez does most of the same things he did in the previous example. He takes a step towards the ball to push himself into the air, he attacks the ball directly (only this time at a sideways angle due to the ball’s low height), he gets a hand on top of the ball and one in front of it to secure it, and he uses the ground to absorb the ball’s impact.
Though some goalkeepers might’ve parried this ball back into play or away for a corner (I know I would’ve), Martínez is confident enough in his abilities to pluck this shot out of the air and maintain possession of the ball, which allows his teammates to transition from the back to attack.
Just to drive the point home, here’s one more example of Martínez catching a high shot. This is almost a carbon copy of the save he made against Pereira, only this time he also had to deal with some extra spin on the ball due to a deflection, so his unwavering focus on the shot was even more important.
I won’t break this save down into too much detail, but I want you to note Martínez’s body positioning, shape, launch, catch and hand positioning. He does all of the things he did on the previous two attempts, and that helps him catch this deflected shot without trouble.
His mastering of this diving technique and his taller-than-average height allow Martínez to make these high diving catches time and time again without fail, and it’s a significant separator for him from other goalkeepers.
Emiliano Martinez’s diving catches are a great segway to the third thing that’s impressed me the most about his shot-stopping ability, which is his rebound control in general.
Rebound control is a term that’s thrown around a lot to describe goalkeepers; how many shots can they catch, where do they parry rebounds to, etc. And while I think most top-level goalkeepers have a good understanding of how to prevent unnecessary rebounds, some goalkeepers do such a good job handling difficult shots that it makes me wonder if their bodies are just black holes in disguise.
Martínez is one of those latter goalkeepers.
Obviously, his diving catches are an example of how he tames difficult shots. But in this section, I want to focus on some of the other interesting aspects of his rebound control.
Firstly, because Martínez is a goalkeeper, he’s one of the only players on the pitch who can touch the ball with his hands. That means that, like any other goalkeeper, Martínez can use his hands to control rebounds. (I’ll give you a moment for your Captain Obvious jokes).
But what impresses me about Martínez’s rebound control isn’t that he uses his hands; it’s how he uses them alongside the rest of his body.
Let’s take a look at this save he made against Wolverhampton Wanderers to get a sense of what I’m talking about.
In this scenario, Wolves’ Adama Traoré approaches Martínez’s box from the centre-left side. From about 20 yards out, Traoré decides to strike a low shot to Martínez’s bottom-right corner.
As the ball rolls towards his goal, Martínez dives onto the ball. He leads with both of his hands, and he uses his hands to stop the ball from going forward.
But unlike some goalkeepers who might’ve just let their hands handle the rest, Martínez pulls the ball into his midsection on the follow-through. He then brings his left thigh over the back part of the ball.
By doing this, Martínez is securing the ball from squirting loose. Though his hands are strong, given the momentum of his dive and the friction caused by his slide against the turf, it’s possible the ball would’ve been knocked out of his grasp by natural forces.
That’s why he takes the extra step of pulling the ball into his midsection and wrapping his thigh around it. His midsection absorbs the ball from one side, his left thigh cushions it from the other, and his left hand pushes the ball into his gut and prevents it from rebounding off of his body.
Here’s another example from a game against Manchester United.
In this play, United’s Marcus Rashford breaks into Aston Villa’s box from the left side. Rashford doesn’t have any teammates in the box, but he decides to have a go at the goal because he notices Martínez is positioned a step or two away from his post.
Again, Martínez leads with his hands, but knowing he can’t direct this shot to his right (or else it might go in or rebound off of the post), Martínez positions his hands so that the ball is deflected to his left side and into his body. As he does this, he also uses his left hand to push the ball into his gut and wraps his thighs around the ball to cushion the impact.
It’s fantastic awareness by the Argentine goalkeeper, and it turned a tricky play into a situation where he had complete control of the ball.
Sometimes, it’s not enough for Martínez to simply push the ball into his gut; he also has to wrap his body over the ball. To do that, he uses the momentum he builds up in a dive to roll his body on top of the ball.
Here’s an example of that from a game against Leeds United. In this play, the Leeds attacker half-volleys a shot from the centre-right side of the pitch, about 26 yards away from Aston Villa’s goal. The shot is manageable, but it takes a bounce just before it reaches Martínez. This bounce could’ve easily thrown off the goalkeeper.
Like previous examples, Martínez dives towards his right side and leads with his two hands. He uses his two hands to stop the shot, then pulls the ball into his midsection.
This time though, he uses the momentum he built up in his dive to roll his body on top of the ball. This way, he’s protecting the ball from all sides; his chest is in front of the ball, his midsection is on top of it, his legs are behind it, his arms are on either side of it, and the ground is beneath it.
By doing this, Martínez counters the ball’s bounce and traps it from all sides. This prevents it from squeezing out in any direction.
Here’s another, clearer example. This was from a game against Wolves.
Again, Martínez has to deal with a shot that takes a bounce not too far away from him. But he reads it well, catches it using a combination of his hands and his body (in this case, his body acts as an extra barrier in case the initial shot slips through his hands), and then uses his momentum to roll onto the ball.
Had he not used this technique, the ball’s bounce might’ve caused it to slip out of Martínez’s grasp before he could push it into his body, and that could’ve led to a bad rebound or a soft goal.
As good as Martínez is at rebound control though, there are times where the ball rebounds off of his hands and back into play.
In these scenarios, Martínez has another trick up his sleeve: his legs.
When the ball slips through his hands and away from his body, Martínez will sometimes use his legs to trap the ball and prevent it from moving too far away from him. He’ll wrap his thighs or his legs on either side of the ball, which allows him to maintain possession of the ball while also preventing lurking attackers from getting a free, clean shot at his goal.
As an example, let’s take a look at this play against Manchester City
In this scenario, City’s İlkay Gündoğan heads a shot at Martínez’s near post. Martínez gets his body in front of the shot, but it slips away from him as they both hit the ground.
With City’s Rúben Dias poking at the rebound, Martínez immediately wraps his legs on either side of the ball. By doing this, he prevents Dias from getting a clean strike off, and it effectively prevents a goal while Martínez was down in a vulnerable position.
Although the ball was eventually poked loose, Martínez’s use of the legs to trap the ball for a couple of seconds gave him and his teammates a chance to recover and react to the rebound.
Here’s another example of Martínez expertly using his legs to trap the ball and prevent it from squirting loose.
After the ball is crossed into Aston Villa’s box, Wolves defender Romain Saïss leaps and heads a shot to Martínez’s right side. The ball is spinning away from Martínez, but he seemingly has it under control as he follows-through on the dive.
But the spin proves too much to handle. The ball escapes Martínez’s grasp as they make contact with the ground, and as momentum rolls Martínez’s body to his right, the ball begins to creep back into play.
Martínez acts fast; he uses his sliding right leg to prevent the ball from rolling too far away from him, and he brings his left leg over to the other side of the ball to completely stifle its movement.
By using his legs to trap the ball, Martínez was able to prevent the rebound from escaping him while he was in a vulnerable position, and that allowed him to maintain possession of the ball.
Martínez’s rebound control isn’t just a case of sticky hands — he expertly uses the rest of his body, from his midsection to his legs, to control tricky shots and prevent rebounds from evading his grasp.
It’s for these reasons that Martínez is one of the best goalkeepers in the world when it comes to controlling rebounds.
Emiliano Martínez’s story of patience and perseverance can be turned into a Disney film.
He was born into a poverty-stricken family in Argentina, left the country against the will of his mother and brother as a teenager, and was forced to endure years of loan spells and warm benches as Arsenal’s goalkeeping department shuffled from Manuel Almunia to Łukasz Fabiański to Wojciech Szczęsny to Petr Čech to Bernd Leno — he was always the bridesmaid in Arsenal’s goalkeeping carousel, but rarely the bride.
But when Leno went down with a season-ending injury in June 2020, Martínez was gifted a career-changing opportunity, and he took it. He steadied Arsenal’s ship just enough to earn the club an eighth-placed finish in the Premier League, and then navigated the Gunners through uncertain waters to FA Cup glory.
Now, Martínez is one of the Premier League’s top goalkeepers of the current season, and while it might be too early to start ranking him alongside the likes of Jan Oblak and Manuel Neuer, who’s going to bet against him from reaching those heights in the future?
Not me. I’ve learned my lesson.
Mouhamad Rachini is a journalist and goalkeeper enthusiast. You can find him on Twitter via @BlameTheKeeper.