Petr’s passing problem

No goalkeeper in Premier League history has kept more clean sheets.

No goalkeeper in Premier League history has won more Golden Gloves and achieved that feat with two separate clubs. No goalkeeper in Premier League history has a completed trophy cabinet of major domestic and European trophies.

Yet, at the age of 36, Petr Cech is in a pickle.

With £19m ball-playing goalkeeper Bernd Leno waiting in the wings for an inevitable handover, Arsenal’s No1 has been forced to adapt his game in the twilight of his career. Ironically, he needs to learn how to play football. And, regardless of his legacy, he needs to get a wriggle on.

Old school

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It took seconds for the customary wave of social media hysteria to commence after Cech, seemingly not under any real pressure from Manchester City’s attack, almost miscued a pass into his own net during last Sunday’s Emirates opener. His cause wasn’t helped in City’s Ederson being the first of opposite numbers he’d face this season. The Brazilian likes to play football. He wants to play football. He’ll make an error (a 64.9% pass success rate compared to Cech’s 73.8% is testament to that), but he’ll gladly rectify it moments later.

Cech isn’t wired that way. He’s never really needed to be. For a large chunk of his footballing education, goalkeepers weren’t generally required to make a pass less than 20 yards. When the back pass rule was introduced in 1992 (Cech was 10 at the time) the immediate consideration wasn’t that goalkeepers would suddenly possess an overnight ability to be good with their feet. The solution to not being able to pick the ball up was to simply ensure you could punt it away from danger when called upon. You hit the big men. You found the wingers. You stopped shots, gathered crosses, commanded your area and made yourself big. Safety, safety, safety. You just worry about saving footballs, son. Let the outfield lot take care of the rest.

Through no fault of his own, Cech grew up on a now outmoded philosophy by which goalkeeping essentials were more Neville Southall than Manuel Neuer.

It would have taken remarkable foresight to think about tiki taka at a time when deadly distribution wasn’t deemed worthy of three record-breaking transfer fees within 12 months. Conversely, when Ederson, Alisson Becker and Kepa Arrizabalaga were approaching adolescence, the goalkeeping landscape was changing. Cech, already two titles down with Chelsea, was regarded as one of the world’s best, but Neuer was steadily establishing himself as modern football’s first sweeper keeper. Little more than ten years on, a new brigade of possession-savvy stoppers taking inspiration from the German now dominate the scene. And Cech, despite his noticeably hard graft on the training ground, has his work cut out to join them.

Managing expectations

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Can this change at 36? Yes, but not to the extent Unai Emery will be content with, which is why he presumably spent the money on Leno in the first place. While Cech has clearly worked on his game (after the City defeat he described his new directive as “a pleasant change”) he will struggle to look natural with the ball at his feet and there will always be an element of fear when coming up against teams who press. Therefore, unless Emery is willing to alter tactics and occasionally bypass his back four, problems will continue to persist.

Cech grew up on a now outmoded philosophy by which goalkeeping essentials were more Neville Southall than Manuel Neuer

Management aren’t exempt from responsibility, either. Upon the realisation that distribution makes up around 80% of a goalkeeper’s game, priorities have been skewed. It’s why Claudio Bravo replaced Joe Hart, why Ederson replaced Claudio Bravo and why a Championship manager recently told me how, if he had his way, he’d stick a midfielder in goal and teach him how to save the ball.

Goalkeeper transfer fees have soared not only since recognition for the final piece in a title-chasing jigsaw has at long last reached the top of the teamsheet, but because there aren’t actually that many all-encompassing contenders about. Take a good look. You can add a post-World Cup Jordan Pickford to the list of recent suspects already mentioned above. David de Gea’s also in there, as is Jack Butland. But for as good as a goalkeeper is with his feet, only a select number can capture the perfect balance of Ederson’s distribution matched with the shot-stopping of De Gea and the dominance of Neuer.

Friendly favours

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Cech doesn’t fall into that category, but he is, as John Terry once said, still “worth 12 to 15 points” in a season. Yes, Arsenal lost last week, but up until the 64th minute they were in a game that would have been over at half-time had it not been for their goalkeeper.

Saturday’s trip to Chelsea, opposite Kepa, is now huge. If his feet play ball, Cech gives Emery a headache. If his first noteworthy pass goes astray, a glittering Premier League career could start to unravel at the very place where it all began.

Images: Screengrab (BBC) unless otherwise stated

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