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Cech’s ball-playing bow out

Having been a pillar of Premier League goalkeeping for 14 years, Petr Cech found himself under a ball-playing microscope this season. For the first time in his career, all eyes were on his feet

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

No goalkeeper in Premier League history has made more saves. 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.

And now, in his 20th season as a professional footballer, Petr Cech has decided to call it a day.

With £19m ball-playing goalkeeper Bernd Leno waiting in the wings for an inevitable handover last summer, Arsenal’s 36-year-old stalwart was forced to adapt his game in the twilight of his career. Ironically, he needed to learn how to play football. And, regardless of his legacy, that was always going to be tough.

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 on the opening day of the season, almost miscued a pass into his own net. His cause wasn’t helped in City’s Ederson being the first of the opposite numbers he’d face this season. The Brazilian likes to play football. He wants to play football. He’ll make an error, 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, at just 10 years old, the back pass rule was introduced in 1992, 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, had his work cut out to join them.

Managing expectations

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Did this change at 36? Yes. Despite playing just seven Premier League games, his 68.3% pass success rate was actually his highest since 2009. Yet it still wasn’t enough to satisfy Arsenal boss Unai Emery, 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 struggled to look natural with the ball at his feet and there always appeared an element of fear when coming up against teams who press. With Emery unwilling to alter tactics and occasionally bypass his back four, problems continued 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 Kepa cost a world record fee when joining Chelsea from Athletic Bilbao.

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 could possibly add a post-World Cup Jordan Pickford to the list of recent suspects already mentioned above. David de Gea’s also in there, while outside of the Premier League you’d plump for Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Jan Oblak and Thibaut Courtois. 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.

Golden goalkeeper

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Cech doesn’t fall into that category, but as his ex-captain John Terry once said, he was – and still is for that matter – “worth 12 to 15 points” a season.

Forget what Petr could or couldn’t do with his feet. The clean sheets, saves and trophies will be what defines those record-breaking Golden Gloves.

Images: Screengrab (YouTube) unless otherwise stated
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