Friday, March 1, 2024

Bernd After Reading

Hello everyone. This Interlull is in full effect, and it feels a particularly badly timed one as some Arsenal and football might be the perfect escape to some of the madness that’s going on in the ‘real world’ right now, but hey, we’ll do our best all the same.

Today I wanted to write a bit about Bernd Leno, a player who looks to have really settled in now after a slow enough start to his career in North London. He began the season on the bench in the Premier League, but after a Petr Cech injury in September he’s been the number 1 and has now fully established himself as the first choice. Actually, I do wonder slightly if the fact he’s done that so well played into Cech’s decision to retire at the end of the season.

Maybe it was something he was thinking about already, but if he had the opportunity to play another campaign as the club’s number 1, would he have considered it? I guess we’ll never know, but in a small way it reminded me of when Hector Bellerin broke through to the first team and Mathieu Debuchy’s reaction wasn’t to fight to try and reclaim his place as first-choice right back. Instead he basically – and almost immediately – accepted the fact that the young man was there to stay, and thus agitated for a departure, whether that was on loan or permanently.

The clear difference between Cech and Debuchy is that one was in the peak years of his career while the other is more or less at retirement age anyway, even if 36 is still relatively young when it comes to goalkeepers. I do think for some keepers there’s a danger of going on too long, we’ve seen it in the past at Arsenal and across football in general, so I can understand why Cech has made his decision, but maybe there was a little push in that direction because of the way Leno has come through.

I will admit that I harboured some doubts about the former Bayer Leverkeusen man when I first saw him play for us, and I don’t think that’s unreasonable with any new signing. Anyone who can make their minds up definitively about a player after just a few appearances is kidding themselves, unless we see something out of the ordinary – and that’s very, very rare indeed. Leno came in, did pretty well, made some saves, and you could see straight away that with the ball at his feet he was a better fit for the kind of football we thought Emery wanted to play.

Interestingly, when the German started to play more regularly, we seemed a bit less wedded to the idea of playing it out short from the back every time, and he was more inclined to kick it long than Cech was. I don’t know if this was because the veteran was trying to prove he could play that way, or simply an instruction from Emery to be a bit more pragmatic in certain situations, but it definitely felt like the more Leno played the more we moved away from constantly playing out from the back. Perhaps it’s a case that his ability with the ball at his feet causes a bit less panic and thus we don’t notice, but it’s definitely one of his strengths.

Statistically, Leno’s passing is superior to Cech’s. In the Premier League, he makes an average of 6 accurate long passes and 7.7 inaccurate long passes per game to Cech’s 5.4 and 9.4 respectively, while his accurate short passes come in at 18.3 per game compared with 16.4 for Cech. The German is behind on saves per 90 at 3.2 to 4, but in both cases I guess we have to take into account the sample sizes: he’s played 2113 minutes as opposed to Cech’s 588.

He has made some mistakes along the way, and I think initially there was an obvious difference when it came to dominance in the penalty area. Cech had more presence, looked more comfortable under crosses and set-pieces, but over the course of the season I think this is an area in which Leno has made improvements. Perhaps he punches occasionally when he could catch it, but that’s often a trait that continental keepers possess. The fact that we brought in a serious goalkeeping coach last summer has definitely had an impact here, because that particular aspect of a goalkeeper’s game was an ongoing weakness throughout the Wenger years when the coaching was not at the level it should have been. When a succession of players suffer the same issue it’s not a coincidence and over the course of this campaign I think we’ve definitely seen Leno become more dominant in his own box.

Above all else though, his shot stopping has been both impressive and important – particularly over the last couple of weeks. In big games, he was there when we needed him. Think of that double stop against Sp*rs at Wembley, coming just before half-time when a goal for them might really have altered the momentum of that game. He was fantastic against Manchester United too, not just the saves he made, but the way he read the game and dealt with situations decisively. The way he ‘swept up’ when Lukaku might have been clean through early in the second half was a key moment in that game, and another little string to his bow.

He now looks like a player who is fully settled at his new club, who appears confident and assured, and while it’s still difficult to be completely definitive about him, if he continues on this trajectory then the money we spent on him will look very good value in the current market. When you compare him to the players bought for substantially larger fees this season by some other Premier League clubs, he’s unquestionably performing as well as, if not better, than them. Let’s hope between now and May he can maintain this level of performance, because if he does our chances of achieving what we’d like to achieve will be better.

Till tomorrow.

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