A hard fought 1-0 win over Newcastle United at home is perhaps not the most impressive of results, especially for a team at the summit of the Premier League. It perhaps becomes more impressive citing Newcastle’s form in recent weeks and it becomes more impressive still when taking into account that it was Arsenal that scrapped to victory. In recent times they have been far too prone to letting a good start slip away or allowing one defeat to spiral into three, four or five loses.
So what has changed for Arsenal? Mesut Ozil is beginning to dictate play and is justifying his £42.5 million price tag while the Arsene Wenger seems to have found a deeper midfielder partnership that he trusts in Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin who, before their injuries, seemed to have found a balance between creativity and defensive intelligence. In conjunction with this has been the scoring form of Olivier Giroud and the central defensive partnership between Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny which has flourished in recent months. However there is only one real difference in the team from this year and last year and that is the goalkeeper.
Arsenal have dreamt of a truly World class goalkeeper for many years. The likes of Wojciech Szczęsny and David Ospina have adorned the jersey for Arsenal most recently and while both goalkeepers are talented and capable of good performances they are in no way World class. Many fans wondered whether Wenger’s judgement had deserted him when he chose to only bring in one high profile summer singing in the form of a 33 year old goalkeeper. 20 games into the season though and it is a move which has paid dividends.
£10 million for former Chelsea man Petr Cech must be up there with one of the best bargains in recent years. Touted as a potential target for all of Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United while Chelsea and then manager Jose Mourinho were adamant they did not want Cech to leave, it was a summer filled with speculation for the veteran goalkeeper. However on June 29th he made the move across London changing from blue to red.
What was most surprising for Cech was the ease at which he settled into the Arsenal team. His first game of the season was the 1-0 Community Shield victory over former employers Chelsea in which he made several saves to help Arsenal pick up the first silverware of the season. With the exception of the opening day 2-0 defeat against West Ham for which Cech was at fault for both goals, the goalkeeper has been in fine form for his new employers.
In particular, Cech played a pivotal role in securing a point for Arsenal in the goalless draw against Liverpool where he made several superb saves including pushing Philippe Coutinho’s drive onto the post and to somehow keep out Christian Benteke from point blank range. He was also exceptional in the 2-0 Champions League triumph over Bayern Munich where he both maintained parity between the two sides before he made several crucial saves to keep Arsenal ahead in the game.
However where Cech has brought the ability to win matches for the Gunners he has also introduced consistency. The fact Cech is a reliable last line of defence for Arsenal will have taken a huge weight off the minds of his defence. In recent seasons the back four would have been reluctant to pass the ball back to their goalkeeper while they may have been tentative in leaving their goalkeeper to come and claim a cross. It is likely they would also have to assume that tame shots had the possibility of being spilled back into the danger zone or saves being parried towards an attacking player.
Things are different at Arsenal now though. Crosses are expected to be collected, tame shots held and fierce drives pushed around the post to safety. Petr Cech has added a dependability to an Arsenal side which has craved it for so long. While Szczęsny and Ospina had the ability to make superb saves, they were unable to do it consistently and the only consistency they were prone to was errors not akin to a top quality goalkeeper. In conjunction with their mistakes comes a lack of leadership or a commanding presence. Ospina is only six feet tall while Szczęsny is a much slimmer goalkeeper reminiscent of David de Gea before he began to put on weight. Both goalkeepers seem to have the same problem as de Gea had in which teams would target them due to their lack of a commanding presence.
Cech on the other hand is six feet and five inches while he weights over 90 kilos which of course brings a presence with it. For a goalkeeper to have a commanding presence though it is not just a physical presence though. Having a physical presence is also an assumption that is instilled into both teams that if the goalkeeper is coming for the ball then he will claim it almost every time. While Cech is not quiet as prolific aerial as the likes of Thibaut Courtois or Manuel Neuer, he is still far superior to the likes of Ospina and Szczęsny.
Cech is also able to bring a quality that has been missing from this current Arsenal team. Petr Cech is a Premier League title winner on four separate occasions. Along with his four Premier League medals he has won every single possible trophy for an English club leaving Chelsea after helping them win no fewer than 15 trophies. Cech has been a part of the title winning saunters where all the work is done come the final weeks of the season, he has been part of the title races which have been hard fought and he has also been part of a team which has recovered from difficult situations and defeats quickly where, in comparison, Arsenal have let their defeats snowball in recent seasons.
Cech is able to bring this experience to an Arsenal side which sorely needs it. His presence on the field is exemplified further by his booming voice. The goalkeeper is an integral part of any defensive dynamic as he possesses the ability to see the whole pitch and asses the whole situation. It is a hugely important position on the pitch and Cech seems like the perfect person to fill this role with his leadership qualities and understanding of the game through his vast experience.
All of these qualities have aided Cech in becoming one of the best goalkeepers of the Premier League era. He is also now aiding an Arsenal title challenge which has lacked longevity for too long. Cech recently surpassed David James’ long standing record of the most Premier League clean sheets. Cech achieved the feat in the 2-0 victory over Bournemouth taking 352 games to get 170 clean sheets. This record is made even more impressive when taking into account the David James took 572 games to reach 169 clean sheets. Cech went on to keep his 171st clean sheet in the 1-0 win over Newcastle but it was not a vintage display by the Gunners to mark another clean sheet for the Czech Republic stopper.
The victory over Newcastle did bring into focus a different side to Arsenal though. The Gunners struggled against a resolute Newcastle team that is fighting for it’s Premier League life. Arsenal were forced to defend for long periods of time as they were carved open by Newcastle. In seasons gone by Arsenal would have toiled to a draw or even a loss which would then quite likely spiral into multiple defeats. However Cech was in fine form to keep Arsenal level throughout the game. While he did not make any show stopping saves to deny the Magpies, he was solid throughout the entire game which has been a constant of his Arsenal career. He was quick off his line on two separate occasions in the game enabling him to keep his clean sheet in-tact.
The fact he did not make any particularly outrageous saves in the game but was still lauded as the reason Arsenal won the match speaks volumes for what he has brought to the team. Where Arsenal goalkeepers of the past may have flapped at crosses in the game thus bringing unnecessary panic to the Arsenal defence or they may have let the two one-on-ones which Cech kept out creep under them, their current goalkeeper was in the business of doing the simple things well in a game which required just that.
Cech’s influence at Arsenal cannot be underestimated. £10 million for a player of his calibre is a huge coup with Arsenal reaping the rewards of a truly great goalkeeper. With the likes of Mesut Ozil seemingly assisting at will, Olivier Giroud justifying his starting berth and the electric Alexis Sanchez still to return it could truly be Arsenal’s year to win the title. It is still a long way to go of course with the teams just passing the halfway point of the season. However Arsenal’s problems have been at the beginning of their campaigns where they have needlessly dropped points in their opening fixtures. They have then been guilty of leaving themselves too much to do in the latter stages of the season where they invariably mount a winning run which, had they been near the summit at Christmas, would surely have culminated in them being crowned champions at the end of the season.
If Arsenal can banish the demons that have blighted their campaigns in recent seasons then there is no reason why they cannot win the title this season. All the talk right now is of the mercurial talent of Mesut Ozil and his assisting exploits but the talk should instead be about Petr Cech. The Czech has helped to transform a team which has threatened to win a title into one which now has very real aspirations of becoming the latest winners.
Cech will want to continue to build upon his clean sheets record and if he is able to do so this season then it will take a brave man to bet against Arsenal and who knows, Cech could win the title with two different teams in consecutive seasons. If they were to win it would go down as, alongside winning the Champions League trophy in 2012, his biggest achievement as, personnel wise, nothing has changed between this season and last season except for the goalkeeper. That means he would have been able to transform Arsenal from a team consigned to a third or fourth finish into winners. If he is able to do that then he would surely be regarded as one of the greatest goalkeepers of not just the Premier League era, but of all time.