Unai Emery couldn’t have envisaged a more ideal outcome.
Petr Cech out. Bernd Leno in. The timing of this inevitable handover, with Cech injured off the back of his best performance of the season against Everton a few weeks ago, has afforded the Arsenal boss the chance to conveniently introduce his new No1 without courting controversy.
While Emery will never admit it, Cech’s short spell on the sidelines is a blessing for his season’s plans. Foregoing a substantial chunk of his opening warchest on Leno was clear proof he favoured the German from the outset. This way, he seamlessly introduces the more natural ball-playing keeper because there simply was no other option.
And it actually works in Cech’s favour, too. He’s not been dropped due to poor performances. Instead, after early criticism for not appearing to have the entire package suited to Emery’s style, he bows out with his head held high while Leno steps in to a winning team full of confidence. One goal conceded in three straight wins is testament to that.
Emery deserves credit for the way he’s handled the situation. Scrutiny focused on Cech’s ability to play out from the back didn’t prompt a knee-jerk reaction. The Spaniard kept faith in one of the all-time greats while allowing Leno to observe the English game and adjust to English life. Settling in periods are often overlooked when an overseas signing is brought in for mega money, but acclimatising to new territory, new surroundings and a new league can take time.
Leno sailed through pre-season and the beginning six weeks of the campaign without being thrust into the spotlight. Had he come in and made an early mistake (like we saw with David de Gea at Manchester United and Claudio Bravo at Manchester City) questions would have been raised. Instead, Cech bore the brunt of Emery’s new approach. His replacement is now arguably reaping the rewards and holds a position which is undoubtedly his to lose. Opening performances – including a 100% success rate from short passes in his opening one-and-a-half Premier League games – even suggest he’s built enough credit to make more than one clear mistake before calls would be made for Cech to step back in.
And what now for Cech? It all depends on his hunger and how keen he remains to play week in, week out. If he doesn’t return, he’ll be forced to make a decision when his contract expires next summer. On one hand he can drop down a level and be a bigger fish in a smaller pond of Premier League teams. On the other, at 36 years of age, he can make a common choice among more experienced goalkeepers and be content at playing second fiddle.
Late in my career, a series of injuries meant it was impossible for me to rediscover my best form. My mobility was compromised and I struggled to stay fit for a run of games, so stepping in for the odd cup game suited me nicely. I became the perfect No2.
Cech may assess his options and, having achieved everything he has, decide he’s happy to be a back-up. He’ll be a readymade understudy should Leno get injured, he’ll remain popular with fans and he’ll earn decent cash for another few years. More importantly, he’ll play a huge part in Leno’s development.
That, for Emery, is an absolute win-win.