Since the departure of Jens Lehman, some would even argue David Seaman, many have claimed Arsenal have never found a world-class goalkeeper to fill the void. That’s not to say we haven’t given it a go. Being a net minder at Arsenal at one time seemed to come with a rotating door policy, we’ve seen the lesser talented likes of Manuel Almunia, all the way through to seasoned veterans like the once world class Petr Cech.
Sure, we’ve seen some who had a short stint in between the sticks at the Emirates go on to do quite well in pastures new. Lukas Fabianski is finally gaining some plaudits over in the East End of London with West Ham, and cult hero (sort of) Wojciech Szczesny taking over the baton from Gianluigi Buffon is nothing to be scoffed at, but for the first time in a long time – it seems like Arsenal might be okay in their pursuit for a reliable number 1.
PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE
Bernd Leno signed for Arsenal on the 19th of June 2018, yet didn’t make his first appearance in the Premier League until the 29th of September, where a Petr Cech injury forced him into a second-half cameo against Watford. The fact Leno didn’t appear until almost 2 months into the Premier League season certainly didn’t go unnoticed. Every dodgy pass from Cech was met with cries for the new German to take the reigns.
It was clear from the outset that however experienced the Czech international was, we were struggling to teach an old dog new tricks – his horror moment on the opening day, narrowly avoiding a comical own goal after attempting a first-time pass was a sign of the kind of things to come, his distribution never drastically improving. However, Unai Emery was unwavering in his attitude that Leno had to come in and earn his place in the starting line-up.
The 27-year old German international did enough in his half hour against Watford to prove he was ready to become Arsenal’s number 1 every week, making a lovely stop almost immediately after coming on to deny Troy Deeney of all people. His first official Premier League start came in the 5-1 demolition of Fulham at Craven Cottage – a hard fixture to judge his abilities as he had the square root of nothing to do all afternoon.
IT IS NOT THE CRITIC WHO COUNTS
Weeks went by and Leno continued his dominance over Cech in the battle to start between the pair without making any real notable error. In fact, it wasn’t until the 2ndof December we saw the first real mistake from him, failing to deal with a fairly routine near-post header against Tottenham at home. This kicked off what would go on to be a miserable month for the shot-stopper. Pundits and fans mulled over whether he was to blame for United’s second just 3 days later during the 2-2 draw at Old Trafford. He went on to be widely criticised for being caught in no man’s land for Charlie Austin’s late winner at Southampton. For the first time, questions were now being asked of the new keeper, some claiming he offers no distinct advantage over Cech and has sufficiently less experience.
LENO’S MOMENT OF MAGIC
The German managed to see out the first 2 months of the new calendar year quietly going about his business before his ‘defining moment’ came. Many have said each player who goes on to be successful at any club has that one moment of jaw-dropping skill, whether it be a goal, an assist or in Leno’s case a double save, that endears them to the club faithful. The moment that makes them feel like they have arrived, like they belong there.
For Arsenal’s keeper, it arguably couldn’t have come at a better time. 1-0 up at the home of your side’s most fierce rivals. Harry Kane plays in a decent ball to Christian Eriksen who catches the Arsenal defence napping, his right-footed effort can’t be more than eight yards out, yet Leno comes out and makes himself big enough to stop the effort with his right foot. The danger not yet averted, Moussa Sissoko lashing his rebounded effort back across goal from just inside the area. I’m fairly sure everyone inside Wembley that afternoon thought that was goal-bound, Arsenal’s new big German had other ideas – getting himself back in position from Eriksen’s effort and producing a world-class left-handed stop, flinging himself back across his goal and palming it out for a corner. Koscielny and Mustafi’s immediate reactions to go and applaud the keeper said it all. In his first season, Leno already had an iconic North London derby moment to his name.
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS
The capitulation from April onwards will, unfortunately, live long in the memory, as hard as we try to repress it. But it is a huge testament to Bernd Leno’s ability that he was widely renowned as one of the few shining lights from the latter stages of Arsenal’s ill-fated 2018/19 campaign. He was the only positive in the defeats to Everton and Leicester in particular. He did also have one horror show away to Wolves – The life of a goalkeeper. His season is one that will provide every Gooner with optimism and hope that the club’s woes in the sticks may finally be over.