Cech's solidity makes Gunners feel relaxed at the back again
When Arsene Wenger met with Petr Cech last summer, before a deal that would have ramifications both Arsenal and Chelsea were only too aware of, first impressions left the manager profoundly struck by the human qualities the man would bring to his set-up. Clearly, Cech was not a complete stranger, and Wenger was well versed in his playing pedigree, but it was that first in-depth conversation that helped everything to fall into place.
"I met him before I signed him and we had a long discussion about the game and the job and his position, and I was deeply impressed by his knowledge, by his professionalism, by the details he considers," recalls Wenger. He breaks into a smile before summing up: "I got the whole package in one go."
Once the shell shock of an imperfect start in the Premier League subsided, the oddity of that error-strewn performance in the opening day of the season defeat against West Ham has been replaced by the more familiar sense of calming presence, clear organisation and cracking saves. Cech has become everything Arsenal hoped he would be, a combination of excellence and influence. His team-mates admire him, trust him, listen to him and play with more confidence just because he is there.
The back four, in particular, are tangibly more relaxed and there is less of that feeling of an accident waiting to be exploited somewhere. Arsenal's outfield players have not shown such palpable faith in the man behind them since the days of David Seaman in his pomp.
Wenger rates the impact of that highly. "Petr Cech, he has done it all. So he is someone who gives you an aura, a charisma, that is always important in the big games for the players. You always look around you in the dressing room before a big game and think, 'Are we strong enough'? And these kind of aces help you to believe it.
"There is no history of teams winning things without having a great goalkeeper. I'm now 30 years in the job and you learn over the years that the goalkeeper is the most underrated position in football - and maybe the most vital one for winning things. You will always have the striker better paid than the goalkeeper, but you don't know are they more important than the goalkeeper?"
So might it be even more imperative for a team with a big emphasis on attacking to have a strong keeper? "Exactly," replies Wenger. "Every World Cup I have been to, you come always out thinking of that." Given that belief, it is interesting that Wenger has not always appeared to give the position his most intense scrutiny. Consider the Manuel Almunia years. Granting first-choice status to a player with fragility in that most critical of departments for three seasons does not add up. For all the raw promise of Wojciech Szczesny, for all the respect Wenger carries for David Ospina, Cech makes Arsenal's position as a title challenger more credible. He looks to be the final piece in the defensive jigsaw Wenger has been working on since the nightmares of a series of humiliations inflicted by Premier League rivals. Two seasons ago they were pummelled 6-3 at the Etihad, 5-1 at Anfield, 6-0 at Stamford Bridge.
The remodelling of their defending since began with a 2-0 win at Manchester City last January which, to Wenger's mind, made Arsenal believe in themselves again. The differences? Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal found the confidence to show their class at full-back. Francis Coquelin came in to do the dirty work with relish and discipline as a protective shield in midfield. Ospina played with an even temperament behind everyone. The template was there.
Wenger is not renowned for his work in defensive areas. In his early successful seasons, he was fortunate to inherit George Graham's famous back four. The Frenchman then successfully rebuilt his entire defence for the 2003-'04 undefeated Premier League season. This 2015-'16 prototype, with Cech holding the fort behind a quartet of Bellerin-Mertesacker-Koscielny-Monreal and Coquelin intercepting in front of them, is his best defensive construction since then.
Of course, the absence of Coquelin remains a worry for Arsenal, particularly in the most challenging games, such as tomorrow night's showdown against Manchester City. Bellerin also looks like he needs some fine-tuning since his return from injury, and there are some critics who will never quite see past Mertesacker's lack of recovery pace. But City themselves come to the Emirates with justifiable doubts about their own defensive foibles of late. It is at contests like this that Wenger is relieved to be able to depend on the enhanced reliability of Cech. "In the big games, the number of shots on target shrinks. But then the one save can be the difference in the end result," he notes.
Handily positioned just behind pacesetters Leicester City, Wenger harbours a lot of hope that this Arsenal team has the substance, and the special mentality required, to push on in this title race. "If we have no belief now, being two points off the top, we will never have it," he says. "We have an opportunity to show we can do it. I think we can." Cech's experience of winning titles at Chelsea is helpful, because his voice has become a dominant one within the squad's daily life. As Theo Walcott pointed out: "He's very commanding. He's a leader in the dressing room as well."
Despite equalling the Premier League's clean sheet record last weekend (celebrated by his wife baking a biscuit version of her husband with icing detailing everything from his protective headgear, goalie gloves and club badge), Cech's absolute priority is toward team aspirations rather than personal ones. John Terry's prediction that Cech would deliver 12 to 15 points to Arsenal this season is well on the way.
Sunday Indo Sport