By Matthew Wade
Does Petr Cech’s signing and the subsequent likely departure of Ospina demonstrate a new ambition and ruthlessness from Arsenal?
So Arsenal have finally got their man. 12 years after a work permit prevented Arsene Wenger signing the talented young Rennes goalkeeper, and 11 years after he joined the Roman revolution by the river, Petr Cech is now a Gooner. It’s hard on the current goalkeeping contingent of the still comparatively young and hugely promising Szcszesny and the very competent and stabilising influence that is David Ospina, but it is potentially a massive signing for the club.
In addition to showing that like a Mountie, Wenger is often patient till he can get his man, it also illustrates a seismic shift…
Arsenal today became more ruthless than Chelsea.
Quite apart from the extraordinary gesture from Abramovic, overriding his club’s superstar manager in allowing the Czech to join direct rivals, it is also unusual for Arsenal to move so decisively in upgrading from someone who had already exceeded expectations.
However, it isn’t without precedent, especially in the goalkeeping department.
Readers of a similar vintage to myself will remember the surprise and partial consternation among the North Bank regulars when David Seaman signed in 1990, forcing the previously title winning first choice keeper John Lukic into a move back to his starting club Leeds United. As a fan favourite and with over 250 games in a Arsenal shirt, it was a shock to see Lukic go, and many fans weren’t happy. George Graham’s response was simple:
“I still think John Lukic is one of the best keepers in the country; I just think David Seaman is the best”
And so it proved. Within a season the younger Seaman had earned the moniker ‘Safe Hands’, had won a league championship and had entirely convinced the entire fanbase. I remember marvelling at his authority and agility from both Clock End and North Bank that year, and asking the big Yorkshireman “what’s the score?” on a regular basis. With another decade at the very highest level, and a double win even when in slight decline, Gorgeous George’s initial statement was vindicated in the best possible way.
In terms of reputation, authority and levels of performance, Seaman adopted the mantle of another similar signing (and even more like Petr Cech), that of Newry’s favourite son, Patrick Anthony Jennings.
When signed in the summer of 1977, Jennings was 32 and suddenly found himself unwanted by the recently relegated lot down the Lane. For the princely sum of £45,000 the best keeper Spurs ever had joined Arsenal, leading to the immediate departure of the popular and very competent Jimmy Rimmer. This effective exchange didn’t lead to unrest at Highbury, but there were questions why the manager was bringing in a older keeper that ‘that lot’ didn’t want to keep any more.
Three successive cup final appearances, with one success over Manchester United, immediately followed, topped off by playing in the final of the European Cup Winners Cup (unluckily losing in a penalty shootout). Far from being past it, as he was thought at Spurs, Jennings played 327 times for Arsenal, and still features in the top 3 or 4 in Any discussion about Arsenal’s best ever goalkeepers. Possibly even calmer than Dave Seaman, and just at good at claiming crosses, his presence was vital at a time when the Arsenal defence around David O’Leary resembled a revolving door at times. He went on to break the world international caps record, and was a comfortable upgrade from the likeable Rimmer, despite the ousted man winning the League and European Cup with Aston Villa. He is one of the only players in history to still be welcomed with open arms by Arsenal and Spurs fans alike when he goes to matches.
Although not quite a case of an immediate and ruthless casting aside of a slightly inferior predecessor, when Jens Lehmann arrived in the summer of 2003, it was after Dave Seaman’s contract was allowed to expire as his age was starting to show more regularly. As far as the Wenger era goes, Lehmann’s arrival is the closest we have seen to Petr Cech.
Also aged 33, and in danger of permanently losing his place to a younger rival, Lehmann arrived with much to prove and a slight chip on his shoulder. The former helped propel an extraordinary first three seasons, despite the occasional unfortunate intervention of the latter. He also had an extraordinary will to win regardless of adversity that many of the Invincible’s squad cited as being invaluable in the recent documentary.
Thought by many in Germany to be past his peak, Lehmann was an ever present influence in the unbeaten season of 2003/04. After a dip in 2004/05 he returned to form to put in a match-winning performance in the cup final victory over Man Utd that summer, and in 2005/06 broke the records for clean sheets and longest time without conceding in the Champion’s League, in which the team massively over-achieved to make the final against Barcelona. Though a slight misjudgement led to him being red-carded in the final (thanks to a trigger happy ref), his performance in the semi-final was the primary reason the team was there at all. After that things slowly wound down with errors creeping in and the ignominy of losing his place to Manuel Almunia, but he had assured himself a place in the history of both the club and the record books of modern football. Like both Seaman and Jennings, he still has strong ties to the club, and uses the word ‘we’ whenever asked about Arsenal.
So, a collection of large shoes (or maybe gloves) for Cech to try to fill. But as both an upgrade to the present options and a senior experienced pro to calm, motivate and guide younger team-mates, he ticks all the boxes. And he is a winner. He has won 13 trophies at Chelsea, including all the big ones, and is not a million miles away from setting the clean sheets record for the Premier League. Sure, there are question marks as to whether he is still at his absolute peak, but he’s easily in the top 10 in the world when on form, and after being marginalised at Chelsea, has lots to prove. As Le Boss said when the deal was announced:
“Petr Cech is a player that I have admired for a long time and I am very pleased that he has decided to join us. He has proven over many seasons that he is one of the outstanding keepers in the world and he will add great strength to our squad.”
The player himself has said all the right things:
“I’m really excited about joining Arsenal Football Club and can’t wait to join up for pre-season. I have the same commitment to football, the same motivation and the same hunger for success as I had at the beginning of my career, and I love the challenges brought by the top quality players you face while playing in the Premier League. When Arsène Wenger spoke to me about his ambitions for this club, and how he saw me as part of this team, the decision was clear.”
This makes things pretty clear. Cech is coming here to be first choice, and any mentoring element is very much secondary. And he has something to prove and personal targets to achieve. No one is under any illusions that this is an older player going to seed, not even the most rabid Chelsea fan. His stature, ability and achievements make it hard with anyone with Arsenal’s best interests at heart to question the signing. And happily this even seems to apply to our gobby young Pole in the goal. Almost as soon as the transfer was officially confirmed Wojciech Szczesny posted the following on Facebook:
“Petr Cech, welcome to Arsenal FC!”
“Delighted to have a chance to learn from one of the best goalkeepers in the world!
With our homegrown Pole happy to stay, it does look like David Ospina will be the man to leave, a harsh reality after an excellent first season at the club. But the reality is, that with Jennings, Seaman and Lehmann, a better man for the job has just arrived. It’s not all gloom for him of course: His stock has risen, as will his next pay cheque, and he can take comfort from the fact that things worked out well for the ousted men in each case. Rimmer and Lukic both won major trophies fairly swiftly at their next clubs, and Seaman seems to be thoroughly enjoying retirement if his twitter feed is anything to go by (not to mention falling in love with and marrying his dancing partner on reality TV programme).
For Arsenal, it shows a continued willingness on the part of the management to use their new-found financial strength to keep strengthening, despite a lack of desperation to do so. It also shows a continuation of the recent ambition to sign the very best players available at realistic prices. And of course this ambition, helps galvanise the existing playing staff…
— Aaron Ramsey (@aaronramsey) June 29, 2015
For the fanbase, it’s another genuinely exciting signing that proves the club is moving in the right direction. If two years ago the disgruntled members of the fan base had been offered Cech, Ozil, Sanchez and back to back FA Cup wins, they’d have bitten your hand off. With the (albeit belated) signing of Gabriel, the improvement of Monreal and the accelerated development of Bellerin and Coquelin, the squad is suddenly in incredibly good shape. For the first time since the halcyon days of the mid 2000s, we can all actually agree with the manager when he says that the club only needs to buy ‘top top’ players, and can afford to be patient among the swirling rumours of the newsnow generation.
The most pressing bit of business has happened already. The club is already stronger. The manager can now take the time to wait to see who becomes available at a fair price in the annual parlour games of the addicted big spenders, or play hardball on the up and coming stars.
The days of Almunia, Denilson, Chamakh and Andre Santos already seem a long time ago.