That’s the situation Arsenal keeper Petr Cech finds himself in in the wake of the Gunner’s 2-0 loss to Manchester City on the opening weekend of the English Premier League. The 36-year-old had a fine game in some respects, making a few crucial saves to keep the score from getting out of hand, but he also allowed two goals, one of which was clearly saveable. But what everyone now remembers about Cech’s showing against City was a small mistake that could have much, much bigger.
Under new manager Unai Emery, Arsenal has adopted a new, more modern style than the club used under Arsene Wenger. Part of that style requires the keeper to be deployed as what has become popularly known as the “sweeper keeper,” a goaltender who is just as capable of dribbling and passing it out of the back as he is with a long throw or big boot downfield. (Think Manuel Neuer of Bayern Munich.) The sweeper keeper is a wholly modern interpretation of the position, but Cech, a 14-year veteran of the Premier League, has never been accused of being a modern keeper.
Case in point, the aforementioned small mistake. In the 22nd minute with City leading 1-0, Arsenal was attempting to work the ball out of the back and break the City press, and new boy Matteo Guendouzi played a pass back to Cech. In a moment that drew nervous gasps from Arsenal fans at the Emirates and worldwide, Cech attempted to play the ball wide to the right flank but misplaced his pass. The ball glided along the mouth of goal before going out right past the post for an unforced corner. It was bad but could have been much worse.
— The PL Zone (@TPLZNE) August 12, 2018
It was a terrible mistake to be sure, and the fans let him know it with mocking cheers the next he completed a pass out of the back. Cech gave a wave of acknowledgment afterward as if to say, I know I screwed up, now let’s all move on. That normally would be that, but this saga took a strange turn when the Twitter account from Bundesliga club Bayer Leverkusen — the former club of new Arsenal signing and current backup keeper Bernd Leno — mocking Cech’s ability to pass out of the back and highlighting Leno’s. Cech didn’t take kindly to the criticism and confronted Leverkusen with a few tweets of his own. Leverkusen later apologized, chalking it all up to “banter” gone wrong. It was a whole thing.
Cech’s career will hardly be defined by that mistake and his row with Leverkusen on Twitter. He’s one of the great keepers of his era and one of the best Premier League keepers of all-time. When he retires and it comes time to look back on his career, this moment likely won’t even register. But that poor pass could serve to define the narrative around Arsenal early in the season because it highlights the fraught situation Arsenal finds itself in between the posts.
Arsenal splashed nearly £20 million to sign Leno over the summer, an exorbitant amount to spend on a keeper. (Or at least it was until Liverpool paid £67 million for Alisson and Chelsea spent £72 million on Kepa Arrizabalga in the last month.) With so much invested in Leno, who is considerably more modern in his style of play and thus likely more suited for Emery’s system, it’s strange that Cech is holding on to that No. 1 spot.
Even in the wake of that mistake, Emery indicated that Cech will start against Chelsea on Saturday. However, he also downplayed an over-reliance on his keeper’s playing short out of the back.
“Goalkeepers can play like a player, to start short with the center-back or the full-back. It is not compulsory to start each action that way,” Emery said, according to the Guardian. “Maybe if the opposition is doing high pressing against us, then we need also to find another option and to play the ball long. We are training for each situation. I want in each moment to know what is our best action to do in the match. This is our creative style and idea.”
From those words, it seems Emery may have realized he put an overemphasis on playing short in the opener against City — one of the best pressing sides in the league, if not the world — putting Cech into a precarious position. Any keeper who hasn’t played as a sweeper keeper before would struggle against City’s pace and verve. Despite his legendary status, Cech is no exception.
Because of this, fans shouldn’t write Cech off as a player incapable of playing short from the back. Arsenal will not be facing Manchester City every week. The Gunners were just in the unenviable position of playing City in the first week when the whole squad is still working out the kinks of the new system. With some more minutes in this new role under his belt against weaker competition, Cech has the ability to transform himself into a serviceable sweeper keeper. I’m not going to guarantee he will, but it’s foolish to think he can’t. Despite what you may have heard, old dogs can learn new tricks.
What’s more worrying for Arsenal is what this situation says about Leno. At 26, the German is young in keeper’s years and obviously the Gunner’s keeper of the future, otherwise, they wouldn’t have paid what they did for him. But it is concerning that so much of the transfer budget was spent on a fairly young keeper with more than 200 Bundesliga appearances and a handful of German international caps under his belt and he couldn’t win the job against a past-his-prime Cech adjusting to a new role.
With a poor pass and a Twitter beef, Cech put the spotlight directly on himself, leaving himself little room for error. Every poor pass he makes and every goal he allows will lead to Arsenal fans clamoring harder for Leno. And every game Leno doesn’t start over a struggling Cech will lead to fans wondering what’s so wrong with him that he can’t break into this side. Any way you shake it, Arsenal’s situation at keeper is far from ideal.