Thursday 26 April 2018

Petr Cech joins Arsenal: Five key factors behind the most unlikely deal of the summer

Petr Cech in his new Arsenal kit. Credit: Arsenal FC
Petr Cech in his new Arsenal kit. Credit: Arsenal FC

Jeremy Wilson

The lure of Arsene Wenger, the influence of Roman Abramovich at Chelsea and three other reasons behind Petr Cech's move to Arsenal

1)  Jose Mourinho chooses Courtois above Cech

Jose Mourinho has left no-one in any doubt that he opposes the sale of Petr Cech to Arsenal but the bottom line is that he himself sowed the seeds for this most unlikely of transfers last summer.

Did he regard Thibaut Courtois or Petr Cech as his number one? Would Cech’s experience and a decade spent winning every club trophy possible with Chelsea count for more than the raw brilliance of Courtois?

Mourinho clearly agonised over the decision but, with Courtois unwilling to sign a new five-year contract without being confident he would be the new number one, he was backed into a corner. Two goalkeepers with contracts that expired in 2016 and neither willing to extend – and so preserve their value – until the manager himself showed his hand.

Mourinho was effectively being asked to choose not just for last season or even next season but who he regarded as the best bet over the five years from 2014 until 2019.

He chose Courtois and, in that moment, also lost control over Cech’s future. Mourinho might not like the final outcome – he must scarcely be able to believe that Chelsea are providing Arsenal with someone he rates as one of the best three goalkeepers in the world for just £11 million – but it all began with the judgment call that he made a year ago.

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2)  Abramovich gives his word

Roman Abramovich’s influence over English football during these past 12 years has been enormous but the simple truth is that we still know relatively little of how he operates.

We always assumed that he shares the same utter ruthlessness in pursuit of winning as Jose Mourinho but his treatment of Cech has underlined two other factors. The first is just how much emotional attachment Abramovich feels towards the original ‘pillars’ of his first great Chelsea team.

Men like Cech, Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard and John Terry will always be special cases while he owns the club. It meant that Abramovich was unwilling to break an informal promise to Cech, understood to have been made last summer, that he would let him join the club of his choice provided a sufficient offer was forthcoming.

Abramovich could not have known that events would ultimately place Arsenal at the front of the queue but, even amid considerable pressure from Mourinho and captain Terry, he has never wavered in the commitment he gave to Cech.

The second lesson of this extraordinary transfer is the control that Abramovich exerts at Chelsea. That might seem obvious given his status as owner but, were the situation reversed, it is unconceivable that Arsenal owner Stan Kroenke would so involve himself in a sporting decision.

Arsene Wenger would have been permitted his veto, just as Sir Alex Ferguson would have previously at Manchester United. Had their judgments ever been ignored on such a matter, it may very well have been a resigning issue. Mourinho is quite probably the best manager in the world but, at Chelsea, there is still only one boss.

Roman Abramovich.jpg
Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich celebrates in the stands with his son Aaron after they secure the title after the Barclays Premier League match at Stamford Bridge

3)  Arsenal move into delivery phase

Buying a 33-year-old goalkeeper in Petr Cech to come in ahead of a home-grown 25-year-old in Wojciech Szczesny would have been an almost unthinkable development at Arsenal during most of the past decade.

Wenger, remember, famously passed up on the chance to sign Xabi Alonso for fear of the impact it would have on Denilson. He was similarly loyal to the likes of Manuel Almunia, Philippe Senderos and Nicklas Bendtner when the team was crying out for higher quality replacements.

The wider picture at Arsenal back then, however, was of a club trying to pay for a new stadium and Wenger sticking rigidly to a philosophy of buying young and nurturing a group that can blossom together.

He truly believed that it would be possible to win that way but two factors have prompted an adjustment in that thinking. The first was known and anticipated all along. Once we reached 2014, Arsenal’s old commercial deals - that were unusually long-term to help secure the funding for the Emirates – would expire and far more lucrative contracts could be secured.

That, as well as even the diluted impact of Financial Fair-Play, has transformed Arsenal’s spending potential in comparison to clubs like Chelsea. We have seen that with the arrivals of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez in consecutive summers. We have also seen that with a renewed contract last year for Aaron Ramsey and the expectation of a new deal for Theo Walcott.

Arsenal’s long-term vision means they have left the likes of Tottenham and even Liverpool behind financially and are in the same spending stratosphere as Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United.

They can comfortably stretch to wages in excess of £100,000 for several players, including Cech. Beyond that and there has been a tacit admission from Wenger that his desire for loyalty from young players would not necessarily be reciprocated.

The experience of Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie has also made him more willing to invest in proven experience. There is two years left on his contract and he knows that the opportunity for regular silverware has arrived. Wenger is managing again in the here and now rather than the future.

4)  Szczensy's crafty cigarette and Ospina’s Swansea blunder

The promises that were made to Cech and Arsenal’s growing largesse might form a large part of this particular story but the bottom line is that Wenger would not have made his move if he felt certain about either of his two main goalkeepers.

The fee and wages for Cech still represent a major proportion of his £50 million summer budget. Having started last season with Szczesny as his goalkeeper for the Premier League and Champions League, a major moment in last season was the 2-0 defeat against Southampton at St Mary’s on New Year’s Day.

Szczesny was at fault for both goals and was then caught lighting a cigarette in the showers. He did not play in the Premier League again and, while his season did end on a high in the FA Cup, his semi-final performance in particular would have done little to convince Wenger.

Szczesny’s advantage is that he is still only 25 and the chance to learn from Cech might actually become a major positive in his career. David Ospina’s nine subsequent clean sheets in the 21 games he played after replacing Szczesny might make him feel rather aggrieved but the bottom line is that, at 6ft, he lacks the commanding physical presence of a Cech or Courtois.

There were also mistakes, most notably in the 1-0 defeat against Swansea, that contributed to doubts over whether Arsenal really could win the biggest prizes with Ospina in goal. The great Premier League teams have invariably had a genuinely word-class keeper and neither Szczesny nor Ospina quite fall into that category.

Wojciech Szczesny says there is a growing understanding in the Arsenal defence

5) The lure of London and Arsene Wenger

It is easy sometimes to forget that even superstar millionaire footballers have the same very simple priorities as anyone else. Cech has lived in London for the last 11 years. He is settled and happy. So are his family and children.

He also feels professionally stretched by the challenge of playing in the Premier League. If Chelsea did not want him to be their number one any longer, why should he uproot his entire personal and professional life when there is a club of similar ambition on the doorstep? Faced with a comparable situation in any other walk of life, the vast majority of people would come to the very same decision.

Wenger’s influence should also not be easily dismissed. Beyond being multilingual and having made their careers in England, there are similarities between Wenger and Cech.

They are both strong-minded and intelligent people who think deeply about the game. Cech will have confided in Tomas Rosicky, his friend from the Czech Republic national team, and will no doubt have been encouraged to join Arsenal. Beyond the inevitable grievances about selection, you almost never hear a player talk about the experience of playing under Wenger with anything other than fondness.

Wenger’s methods might contrast sharply with those of Mourinho but, just as was the case with Ozil and Sanchez, Wenger’s wider status as one of Europe’s great heavyweight and longstanding managers will have appealed to Cech.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is the longest serving boss in English football, where the average tenure is 1.23 years

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