The passing of some records causes great surprise; others seem as inevitable as night following day. When Petr Cech equalled David James’ Premier League clean sheet record on Sunday, the overwhelming reaction was “he was still behind David James?”.
Only context can reveal the truly impressive nature of the achievement. When Cristiano Ronaldo broke Raul’s Real Madrid scoring record in October, the astonishing fact was not the total per se, but that he managed the feat in 431 fewer matches. So too with Cech; he reached James’ 169 clean sheets in 163 fewer games.
Following Arsenal’s 2-0 win over Aston Villa, no goalkeeper has kept more clean sheets in the Premier League this season. Following Cech’s almost total absence in 2014/15, that’s wonderfully reassuring. Jose Mourinho’s decision to make Thibaut Courtois his first choice was entirely vindicated, but Cech being a No. 2 goalkeeper felt as natural as people on hoverboards and slices of plastic chocolate.
Cech’s ranking in terms of clean sheets from 2013/14 backwards reads as follows: =1st, =3rd, 9th, 2nd, 1st, 2nd, 2nd, 7th (missed 18 games due to head injury), 2nd, 1st. He was a model of consistency for Chelsea, and now too Arsenal. As if there ever were any doubts.
It is difficult to imagine a player more popular with his team-mates than Cech. “You know that if they get a really clear chance Petr can do something about it,” Per Mertesacker says. “He’s always someone who can save your day. That gives everyone a big lift, not only the back four.”
“Cech is a great keeper – he talks to me a lot, I have learnt a few phrases that I know he will say and he is a leader,” says Gabriel, with Laurent Koscielny completing the central defensive set: “He talks a lot, and his position is very important. He will do well with us and when you have a good keeper like this behind you, you are more serene.” Somewhere in Rome, Wojciech Szczesny lights another cigarette and curses under his breath.
The consistent message about Cech’s communication was the crucial factor in Arsene Wenger’s determination to sign the goalkeeper. “He’s top-level on the experience front but as well he is a good communicator,” Wenger said in July.
When John Terry remarked that Cech would gain Arsenal 12 points per season, he was not referring to the goalkeeper’s saves, but his influence. That claim remains both entirely unquantifiable and optimistic, but you can see Terry’s point. Cech is not a flamboyant goalkeeper, but a reliable one. Defenders emphatically prefer the latter.
Paolo Maldini’s famous quote on tackling – “If I have to make a tackle then I have already made a mistake” – does not quite stretch to goalkeepers and saves, but the gist is the same. Cech’s aim is not to make saves for the camera, but ensure that clear-cut chances are not permitted. Cech is a proactive goalkeeper. For too long Arsenal relied on reaction, and even then they were often found wanting.
Goalkeepers should be judged not by the saves they make, but by the improvement they create. Marshalling, conducting and commanding are where Cech’s great traits lie. Again, all are unmeasurable. The proof is found in the result, not the numbers.
Of course Cech will make – and has made – mistakes, for no goalkeeper in the world doesn’t. As a goalkeeper those errors are amplified, deemed high-profile because of the difference they make to the outcome. Being in the age of the middle ground vacuum doesn’t help, where controversial opinions are heard louder than considered thoughts. One extreme hails Manuel Neuer as ‘revolutionising goalkeeping’ while the other mocks his every displayed flaw. Cech too suffers from this concept.
Cech’s most meaningful reference comes not from a defender, but Theo Walcott. “He’s a talker, he believes in us all,” Walcott said. “Having that presence behind you is always nice to have. He’s very commanding, he’s a leader in the dressing room as well, he always likes to talk.”
The cliché about attacking being the first form of defence rings true. A dependable goalkeeper can affect even a striker’s frame of mind, and confidence is impossible to fabricate. Cech’s arrival has breathed belief into all at the Emirates.
When Wenger signed Cech, he effectively made two signings at once. The first was a fine goalkeeper, the club’s greatest since David Seaman. But Wenger also signed a winner, an ingredient noticeably lacking in Arsenal’s squad. His arrival took the number of Premier League trophies within Arsenal’s playing staff from one (Danny Welbeck, 2012/13) to five.
In a tight Premier League title race, that could prove vital. This is not experience for its own sake, as so often preached by Harry Redknapp et al, but experience of winning; there is an important difference. Cech has been there, done it, taken part in the open-top bus parade. Crucially, he has the drive to do it all over again.
Over the last six seasons, the average number of goals conceded by Arsenal in their first 16 league games is 19. This season, they have allowed 13. The last time Arsenal had a more watertight defence at this stage of a league season was 2003/04, when the Invincibles won the title. That remains the club’s last league triumph.
Such omens are ultimately meaningless, but Arsenal supporters will have faith that their defensive resilience is built on something far more tangible. A 6ft 5in record-equalling goalkeeper, to be specific.