Petr Cech edges Bernd Leno at Arsenal - so what's Unai Emery's plan?
Arguably the most appealing thing for Arsenal fans this season is the sense of the unknown. Most supporters don't have any realistic aspirations to win the Premier League title -- and even the wildest dreamers at the Emirates would have had their ambition quelled by Manchester City's comprehensive 2-0 victory last Sunday.
Instead, Arsenal are engaged in a recognisable fight for the top four. Familiar though that particular fight is, there are many new elements this time round to stave off the ennui: a new head coach, a new style of play and a renewed enthusiasm in the stands. However, as of yet, Arsenal don't have a new first-choice goalkeeper. Despite the summer acquisition of Bernd Leno, Petr Cech is still in possession of the gloves and many Arsenal fans find themselves wondering why.
It was clear to most observers last season that Arsenal needed to make identifying a new keeper a priority in the transfer window. Cech made a number of individual errors which suggested that time was finally catching up with the former Chelsea man. Behind him, David Ospina had neither the height nor the temperament to offer a convincing alternative.
A number of names were linked with the position, but Arsenal plumped for Leno. Perhaps we should have seen that coming: after all, the club's new head of recruitmen, former Borussia Dortmund scout Sven Mislintat, has not been shy about returning to the Bundesliga on his shopping trips. It's safe to assume that Leno was his pick.
However, he does not yet appear to be Unai Emery's. The Spaniard alternated between his goalkeepers during preseason, but when it came to the opening Premier League match he stuck with Cech. Perhaps his experience played a part -- Cech has been named as one of Emery's five captains, and after a summer of upheaval perhaps he favoured steadying the ship with continuity in a goal. A new centre-half partnership in front of a new goalkeeper might simply have been too big a risk against a side as good as Manchester City.
Nevertheless, Arsenal fans will be a little concerned. After all, Leno was hardly a bargain purchase at £22.5 million. The subsequent fees Liverpool paid for Alisson and Chelsea for Kepa Arrizabalaga may have dramatically changed what goalkeepers cost moving forward, but it shouldn't be forgotten that when Arsenal signed Leno he instantly became the sixth most expensive keeper of all time. Given their comparably limited resources, a player with that kind of cost really ought to be good enough to be an automatic starter.
It's particularly concerning given the style of play Emery wants to adopt. It was clear from the City match that Arsenal will be attempting a short-passing approach, splitting the centre-backs and requiring the goalkeeper to be accurate and confident with his distribution. As Sunday proved, that is far from Cech's strong point.
Leno's preseason performances demonstrated that he is comfortable with the ball at his feet -- certainly more so than Cech. However, he did look positionally questionable and unable to dominate his penalty box. Ultimately, Emery had had a good look at both his goalkeepers and decided that he's going to stick with Cech, despite him being fundamentally ill-suited to the way he wants to play. To put it bluntly: Cech is so bad with his feet that it makes you wonder how bad Leno must be with his hands.
Perhaps an alternative logic behind Emery's decision. Leno, 26, is a decade younger than Cech, and it's possible that Emery simply wants to give him time to acclimatise to English football rather than throw him straight in at the deep end. However, his decision to start a midfielder in Matteo Guendouzi who is more accustomed to playing in Ligue 2 against City does seem to suggest that Emery is not inclined to that manner of conservative thinking.
Whatever happens, Leno will eventually get his chance to impress. Arsenal's participation in the Europa League means he's likely to pick up plenty of game time even as second choice. When he does eventually take the field in a competitive game, the scrutiny will be considerable. Emery's selection of Cech is the first indicator of a bit of dissonance between the head coach and the recruitment team. If Arsenal have really spent more than £20m on a goalkeeper Emery does not consider good enough to start, it does not reflect well on Mislintat.