Cech Out

Since Arsenal signed Petr Cech in June 2015, I have written a solitary article about him in this column– the week before the move was made official. In fact, leafing through my archive in my seven and a half years as a columnist on this site, I have written very few articles about Arsenal’s goalkeepers, the odd Szczesny hagiography aside.

Writing about goalkeepers is notoriously difficult because it is such a specialist position. Goalies largely train separately from their teammates in technical coaching clinics. All of which is to say, I am not confident writing about goalkeepers. The football media more widely has not done enough to educate on the position.

Football coverage has become more detailed and forensic over the years- ex-referees are regularly courted for their view on major decisions. But goalkeeping expertise has not been sought nearly enough. David Preece is doing a very good job of filling this hitherto unexplored niche in the punditocracy. (I also think technical sports science / performance management expertise is lacking in football punditry- players are elite level athletes after all).

That I don’t consider myself qualified to pass judgement on goalkeepers due to a deficit in my knowledge is not to say I feel outstandingly qualified to comment on full-backs or centre forwards- which I do more regularly and with greater confidence. But there is an element of relatability to outfield roles that most of us just don’t have when it comes to ‘keepers.

Some of us will have experienced varying levels of football coaching in outfield positions and the coverage of the sport is littered with the insight of ex-professionals who help to illuminate certain concepts. We are more literate in these areas, even if our knowledge is second hand. When it comes to goalkeepers, we are grasping at thin air, a situation most goalies will be well familiar with…

The demands on goalkeepers have evolved enormously in recent years. The back pass law, passed in 1992, was a revolutionary innovation at the time. It was one of the best law changes ever made by football’s governing bodies, it created a higher paced, freer flowing spectacle, furthering the sport’s popularity.

In his book ‘The Mixer’ Michael Cox analyses the impact of the back pass law in depth. Leeds United were the defending champions when the rule was introduced and they slumped to 17th place in the table immediately after its inception. Leeds were a direct team that relied heavily on John Lukic kicking the ball out of his hands towards Lee Chapman, the backpass law interrupted their rhythm and Lukic’s career never really recovered either.

All modern goalkeepers have been reared and educated under the back pass rule, indeed, many weren’t even born when it was passed. They are all literate, but Pep Guardiola has sped up the evolution of what is required from your top level glove butler. Having the ball at feet is no longer a legislative necessity, it’s moved from desirable to essential criteria.

It is no longer enough to be a ‘sweeper keeper’ or to simply not treat the ball like an unexploded bomb in your presence. Comfort in possession has been substituted for quality in possession. Goalkeepers like Cech, whose top level careers started BP (Before Pep) have seen their jobs change again. The likes of de Gea, Neuer, Alisson, Ederson and even Cech’s current understudy Bernd Leno are renowned for their footwork as much as their glovemanship.

At the top level, goalkeepers are basically the 11th outfield player now. The role of the modern full-back has altered greatly in recent years, largely because it is one of the few pockets of space on the pitch where players have time on the ball. It is similar for goalkeepers. Playing out from the back has its advantages in creating space in more attacking areas.

But also, goalkeepers have time and an unrivalled panorama of the pitch. Manchester City goalkeeper Ederson has already taken this vista to another level with his precision long passing. The difference for goalkeepers, of course, is that they receive the ball in a static pose. Outfield players aren’t blessed with the same amount of time, but they receive on the move and usually have an idea where to move the ball onto within a nanosecond.

For goalkeepers, time can be an enemy as much as a friend. Too much time to think can lead one into discombobulation, as Alisson found when he was burgled of possession in his own area by Leicester’s Demari Gray last weekend. Cech’s languid dither in possession inside the first minute at Cardiff on Sunday was also a symptom of his brain being so occupied with thought that his coordination monetarily deserted him.

Picture drawn by the ever excellent David Squires, full cartoon https://www.theguardian.com/football/ng-interactive/2018/sep/04/david-squires-on-what-we-have-learned-from-the-football-season-so-far

The larger the menu, the more likely one is to fall victim to indecision. Technically, it takes some time to acquire the skill of receiving the ball statically whilst frantically scanning the pitch for options. The brain overheats and momentarily breaks communication with the feet, one’s eyes are so busy scanning the pitch that the ball is left to fend for itself.

All of which is to say that an already stressful and lonely position has had another layer of anxiety added to it. This is the first time I have felt comfortable enough to write about Petr Cech for over three years and it’s not because of his more familiar goalkeeping competencies, but because of the more ‘outfield’ requirements of his role.

Cech’s Arsenal tenure has divided opinion, but we all feel as though we are on safer ground judging him as a footballer. Watching him try to play out from the back in the opening weeks of the season has been a bit like watching a loosehead prop retrain as a ballet dancer. Cech spent most of his career kicking the ball long to Didier Drogba and made his name in the pre-Pep era of goalkeeping gentrification.

The most difficult period of his career in West London coincided with Andre Villas Boas’ insistence on playing a high defensive line. It is perhaps unreasonable to suggest that he cannot learn a new style due to his age. Cech taught himself to speak Spanish and Portuguese in his spare time because of the volume of Spanish and Portuguese speaking defenders Chelsea employed.

He also taught himself to play the drums in his late 20s. “It teaches you to use all four limbs in different ways. You need to find a way to co-ordinate things and, once you learn how to programme your brain to do that, it helps you to co-ordinate even for football,” he told the Arsenal Weekly Podcast back in December 2015.

This is an individual with a high capacity and appetite for learning. However, the situation is complicated by the presence of Bernd Leno- an experienced German international renowned for his ability with the ball at his feet. Emery’s ongoing preference for Cech suggests Leno’s other technical competencies must be somewhat lacking.

It’s possible, if premature, to suggest that Arsenal have one technically sound goalkeeper who struggles with the ball at his feet and one goalkeeper for whom that is his most redeeming feature (a la Claudio Bravo). Arsenal are wrestling with the modern goalkeeping conundrum in a nutshell.

Cech is an intelligent, highly capable learner, whether he can become a footballer as well as a goalkeeper- and how long he has to update his software- remains to be seen. With the Europa League and the Carabao Cup on the horizon, Bernd Leno will be given opportunities to impress in the coming weeks. Cech must adapt to his new environment or be threatened with extinction.

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Renowned Arsenal historians Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews and I have written a book about the tumultuous early years of Arsenal Football Club covering the period 1886 – 1893. ‘Royal Arsenal- Champions of the South’ is available to order here.