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How Emiliano Martinez became Arsenal's number one

Arsenal fans feared the worst as Bernd Leno was carried off at Brighton.
Arsenal fans feared the worst as Bernd Leno was carried off at Brighton.
Shivaan Shah
TOP CONTRIBUTOR
Modified 05 Aug 2020, 17:52 IST
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As Bernd Leno screamed in anguish at the Amex Stadium on the 20th of June, Arsenal fans had their hearts in their mouths. After receiving a blow from Neal Maupay while he was mid-air, Leno landed awkwardly and significantly damaged his knee ligaments.

As the German was stretchered off the field, he seemed to be taking all of Arsenal’s hopes with him. Leno had established himself as one of the key members of the side and was one of the standout Arsenal players of the campaign.

He has singlehandedly kept Arsenal in many games all season long and has often been the difference between a draw and a heavy defeat. But now without their number one, and a huge run of games to come before the end of the season, Arsenal’s European aspirations were dealt a significant blow.

However, Leno’s replacement and Arsenal number two Emiliano Martinez would quickly allay all fears.

The Argentine has been virtually faultless as his outstanding performances helped Arsenal win the FA Cup and secure their place in Europe next season. But Martinez’s story starts much before that fateful day in Brighton. In this article, we will take an in-depth look at his journey from Argentina to being Arsenal’s number one.

Emiliano Martinez's Childhood

Emiliano Martinez was born in Marta de Plata, a city in the Province of Buenos Aires. He started his youth career with Independiente, which is 400km from his hometown.

Martinez's family struggled financially throughout his childhood, and there were times where his parents could not even put food on the table or pay the bills. This also meant they could not afford the petrol to travel and see Martinez when he was playing with Independiente, and he would only see them twice a month.

At the age of 16, he was noticed by an Arsenal scout while playing for the Argentina Under 17s. After impressing in a trial, he was signed up for £1.1 million in 2010 from Club Atletico Independiente.

It was a tough move for a 16-year-old, and his mother and brother dissuaded him from leaving Argentina. But he decided to go anyway knowing it would be a once in a lifetime opportunity for both him and his family.

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Martinez arrived in London as a scared teenager who did not speak a word of English. He was not even allowed to play any professional games till he was 18 as he did not have a European passport and was forced to play only friendlies instead. 

Emiliano Martinez's ten year Spell on the sidelines with Arsenal

Emiliano Martinez (left) made his Champions League debut aged 22 at Anderlecht.
Emiliano Martinez (left) made his Champions League debut aged 22 at Anderlecht.

After spells in the youth team and a loan spell at Oxford United, Martinez finally made his Arsenal debut in a third round League Cup tie against Coventry City at home in September 2012.

He made his second Arsenal appearance in the next round in an infamous 7-5 game against Reading where Arsenal were 4-0 down after 40 minutes but still managed to claw back after extra time thanks to a Theo Walcott hattrick.

Martinez then spent the 2013/14 season on loan at Championship side Sheffield Wednesday. He returned to Arsenal in 2014/15 and was the third choice goalkeeper behind David Ospina and Wojciech Szczesny.

However, due to an injury to the Colombian and a suspension for Szczesny, Martinez was handed his debut in a Champions League away game at Anderlecht, which Arsenal won 2-1. A month later, he came on for his Premier League debut against Manchester United at home after an injury to Szczesny.

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Emiliano Martinez has kept the likes of Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang at bay.
Emiliano Martinez has kept the likes of Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang at bay.

Martinez went on to play the next four games for Arsenal while the two other keepers were sidelined. He did an excellent job considering he was only 22 at that time.

He managed to keep a clean sheet in three of the four games and was even named in UEFA’s team of the week for his performance in a 2-0 victory at home to Borussia Dortmund.

After those fringe appearances, more loan spells followed for the Argentine. The first of them was an emergency stint at Rotherham United in the second half of the 2014-15 season. That was followed by a season-long loan at Wolves in 2015-16 season where he struggled with injuries.

Martinez then went into the 2016-17 season as the Arsenal's third choice keeper, starting all the League Cup games as well as making two Premier League appearances when Petr Cech was injured in April.

However, with Petr Cech, David Ospina and later Bernd Leno at the club, Martinez failed to make a breakthrough and was consigned to two more loan spells. He spent the 2017-18 season at Spanish first division side Getafe where unfortunately he only made five league starts and was the number two behind the current Crystal Palace keeper Vincente Guaita.

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In January 2019, he signed for Reading on loan, which would go on to be the most important and impressive loan spell of his career. He made some stunning saves to help Reading pull off a great escape and avoid relegation from the Championship.

These performances caught the eye of Arsenal and Unai Emery. Ahead of the 2019-20 season, Emery assured him that he could stay at North London and fight for the number one spot as well as play in all the Cup games.

Emiliano Martinez was outstanding on loan at Reading.
Emiliano Martinez was outstanding on loan at Reading.

Emiliano Martinez's performances in the 2019-20 season

Emiliano Martinez started all of Arsenal’s Europa League games last season and performed admirably whenever called upon.

However, people only started to take notice of him after the game at Brighton. Following Bernd Leno’s injury, Martinez was nearly faultless throughout the restart.

He made some crucial saves for the Gunners, that included an acrobatic save from a deflected Trent Alexander Arnold shot in the dying seconds of the game against Liverpool, which helped Arsenal hold on to their victory.

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Martinez was also superb in Arsenal’s run in the FA Cup, making crucial saves from Riyad Mahrez in the semifinal and Christian Pulisic in the final.

Emiliano Martinez’s goalkeeping strengths

Emiliano Martinez made a stunning late save to deny Trent Alexander-Arnold.
Emiliano Martinez made a stunning late save to deny Trent Alexander-Arnold.

Emiliano Martinez has a huge frame and an incredible 6’4" height, which makes him nearly impossible to beat.

Also, apart from his size, what stands out is his amazing handling of the ball. Many keepers including Bernd Leno like to punch the ball when crosses come in or parry shots aimed at them, but Martinez does not employ those techniques.

He tends to hang on to crosses coming into the box and catch shots aimed at him, and that helps alleviate the pressure on the defence. Martinez has one of the safest hands in the Premier League, and his ability to deal with high balls can be a massive help for an Arsenal defence that tends to concede goal from set pieces.

Martinez’s other strength is his ability on the ball, which is an integral part of Arteta’s set up as he likes to play from the back.

Martinez started his career as a striker and has always had that technical ability with the ball at his feet that a modern goalkeeper needs. Despite Arsenal’s buildup play giving most fans heart attacks, it is visible how comfortable Martinez has been on the ball even against the high presses of Manchester City and Chelsea.

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As for Martinez’s shot stopping, you only have to see the statistics to see how impressive he has been. He has the highest save percentage for any goalkeeper in the Premier League at an astonishing 81%.

He ended the 2019-20 season with the highest per 90 differential between Post Shot xG and actual goals conceded. His post-shot XG minus goals allowed per 90 was 0.49, which in layman’s terms means Arsenal conceded one goal less every two games when Martinez was on the pitch.

Leno in comparison had an equally impressive save percentage of 77.6%, which was the third highest in the league in 2019-20. Together, Martinez and Leno made 143 saves in the season for Arsenal, which is the most for any club in the league as the duo are all set to tussle for that number 1 spot next season.

But for now, it is time to celebrate the rise of Arsenal's current longest serving player. After years of being the third and fourth choice keeper at the club, Martinez’s spirit never wavered.

A decade and six loan spells later, Martinez finally had his moment of glory when he helped Arsenal lift the FA Cup at Wembley for a record 14th time. And perhaps the most poignant moment of that final was when he leaned against the advertising boards, earphones on and phone in hand as he video called his family back in Argentina.

As the tears rolled down his cheeks and the emotions bubbled over, it was a moment that transcended sport and reminded us how football can change lives for the better.

Published 05 Aug 2020, 17:52 IST
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