Bernd Leno: Stopgap or a Keeper?
There have been several issues that have dominated the online discourse during the so called “silly season.” When Arsenal won the FA cup in 2020, after an up and down but encouraging first 8 months for Mikel Arteta, it felt like the goalkeeping question was finally answered. You had Bernd Leno, an incredible shot stopper and probably one of the better players in the squad. While Emiliano Martinez showed during that run and throughout Leno’s absence that he had recovered from early doubts about his ability best showcased in THAT game against Reading in late 2012 and had developed a more well-rounded game through loans and being well coached.
Why am I going over old ground you say? Martinez is at villa you say? It seems that in terms of the goalkeeping landscape, it seems like Arsenal are back to square one with uncertainty over Leno’s long-term future, Deputies at the club either being too young or not good enough, while it is debatable whether the names linked with coming in offer the type of competition that boosts confidence in that area of the pitch. Fast forward to August 2021 and this upcoming season might be the most important one of all, for Bernd leno.
The Former Bayer Leverkusen keeper joined Unai Emery’s Arsenal in June 2018. Originally seen as a long-term replacement for the aging Chelsea man (we can admit it now that he works for them!) Petr Cech, who never quite won the “15-20 points” that he was touted to get Arsenal after he made his move from across the capital, Leno demonstrated himself as more than an able understudy. In the former Valencia coach’s first season there was an emphasis on playing out the back and being “protagonists”. All of this with a mismatch of a squad borne out of a ratchet job of a squad rebuild during and after the latter Arsene Wenger years.
After Cech unfortunately showed himself incapable of adapting to that style of play with two humbling losses to Man city and Chelsea to boot. Leno eventually assumed a starting role with promising performances in the Europa league translating to Premier league starts – a small role in that famous team move against Leicester city at home, Mesut Ozil of course won the plaudits that night, but Arsenal possessed a goalkeeper who at least seemed competent in executing the duties of a modern keeper or did they?
Bernd Leno’s strengths lie in being a traditionally strong shot stopper, a skill which he has had to employ more often than not, while playing for Arsenal. The German’s save Percentage of 74.1% during his three years at Arsenal ranks highly among other exalted company. Brazilian pair, Ederson and Alisson have a save percentage of 74.2% and 74.8% respectively, while legendary sweeper keeper, Manuel Neuer is behind all three on 69.1% all in the same time period. This is impressive when you consider that all the other three goalkeepers have largely had settled defences (as well as a stable style of play) in front of them and do not face the amount of shots that Leno has to contend with.
The question is what does Mikel Arteta want from his goalkeeper? To answer this question, it may be instructive to look at what some of the best goalkeepers in the league are very good at. Manchester city’s Ederson is very good at proactively being out of his goal to solve dangerous situations, as is Alisson.
Both men’s starting positions are aggressive, clocking 16.9 yards and 17.3 yards away from goal when making defensive actions. This can be seen as the product of wanting to play in the opposition’s half, all indicators suggest that is the type of team that Mikel Arteta would like to eventually build at Arsenal and you could argue it is the way to get the best out of the potent offensive talent at the club.
Leno’s defensive actions per 90 (0.61) pale in comparison to his counterparts, Becker (1.21) and trails expectedly behind Manuel Neuer (1.38). Tactically I don’t feel you can judge Leno as he’s not being asked to do sweeper keeper role in its entirety and you get the impression that is to do with the profile of defender he has had in front of him thus far. One wonders whether upgrades in the centre back positions and central midfield positions may make Arteta comfortable enough to allow Leno the chance to fully reprise the sweeper keeper role. An improvement to the engine room would instil confidence that players can get around the pitch quicker and cover more ground.
That was Leno’s response to the Martinez debate in October 2020 after a match-winning performance against Liverpool at Anfield. Leno’s highlight reel of saves will live long in the memory, Spurs away springs to mind, While social media is full of compilations of him sprawling across goal to save Arsenal time and time again. However Arsenal are actively looking for a second choice goalkeeper with room to grow and hopefully move them forward in the position.
Names like Andre Onana, Sam Johnstone and Aaron Ramsdale have been mentioned during the Summer window. Whoever Arsenal target as back up, Leno will now need to prove that he has the minerals to fulfil the role of a front footed goalkeeper in an offence minded team and thrive. which he has not done yet. The barometer will be this season, there may be a natural parting of the ways by the time it has concluded.