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Did Arsenal Make A Mistake In Signing Bernd Leno?

In the aftermath of Sunday’s loss to Manchester City beside the over the top reaction of some pundits and a swathe of our fanbase, some were left to wonder did Arsenal make a mistake in bringing in Leverkusen shot stopper Bernd Leno.

James McNicholas (@Gunnerblog) in his piece for ESPN asked this question:

“Cech is so bad with his feet that it makes you wonder how bad Leno must be with his hands.”

It seems harsh but its is worth pondering. McNicholas also points out that at his cost he was instantly in the top 6 of most expensive keeper signings. And coming with that fee you’d expect him to be an instant starter.

So, what happened with to a young goalkeeper that FourFourTwo Magazine had as an honorable mention of the top 20 Goalkeepers in Europe?

Sometimes, what we think isn’t the truth of the matter. We aren’t aware of what is going on in training or what was talked about with Leno coming into the club. One thing was clear early on from comments Cech made was that the position was up for competition.

Leno came in likely looking for a fresh start. For a keeper who was tapped with so much promise his last season at Bayer Leverkusen was equal parts stellar and disastrous. He had 10 clean sheets in the season, making some tremendous saves. However, since 2015-2016 he has the dubious distinction of being the second ranked goal keeper for most errors leading to opposition goals.

That would be a worrying sign and you’d be right if you worried why Mislintat, who is regarded to have a key eye for players, would recommend him at a time when a player like Alisson was available on the market. For that answer it helps to understand what led to Leno’s decline.

Leno came onto the scene in 2009/2010 season when at 19, the young keeper was promoted to Stuttgart II after impressing at the club’s youth level. When he started playing for the squad, he had an instant impact, helping halt a slide of 7 consecutive losses and turning in 4 clean sheets in his first 7 matches.

His rise to Leverkusen’s Bundesliga side was no surprise to those who knew him. He was a widely regarded shot-stopper with good reflexes and a that little bit of craziness that makes keepers unafraid to put their bodies on the line. To top it off, he had the temperament to match his talent.

During his time with Stuttgart II he came under the tutelage of none other than our own Jens Lehmann. Maybe it was due to that tutelage he got from the Mad Jens that as he developed he earned the nickname “Elfmeter Killer” or penalty killer after his heroics in the 2013/2014 season, doing everything he could to earn his team points.

That season though was the last we’d see of the protégé, many likened to the next incarnation of Manuel Neuer.

The following year, Leverkusen would appoint Roger Schmidt as their new coach and he changed everything about how the team played, forgoing playing out of the back and solid defending for an intense press from the front.

The biggest mistakes of his career came to light under Schmidt’s reign at Leverkusen and culminating with the colossal whiff against Augsburg when on a simple back pass, he missed the ball and it trickled into the net. For someone so young and with so much promise it was an unmitigated disaster.

What many people don’t know was that during Schmidt’s time at the club, Leno was pretty much left on his own. He wasn’t incorporated into planning and there were even times in training he did not get sufficient goalkeeping training.

The errors were pretty much the same over and over again as Schmidt’s style of play forced Leno into the sweeper keeper role. A role he was openly uncomfortable with.

You may have noticed in pre-season, but Leno is better than Cech with his feet and that’s because he is good at it. He said as much when Schmidt was eventually relieved of his duties at Leverkusen and replaced by Heiko Herrlich.

I am very happy with the way that we try to play football, for three years, we had no build up play. The coach now puts more of an emphasis on build up play and possession – I think that’s very, very important.”

As I’ve tried to break down why Unai Emery would start Cech over Leno, who we all agree has better feet than Cech, the only thing I can surmise is that all that those 3 years under Schmidt hurt him.

Look at how we criticized Wenger for becoming tactically naïve and then expecting our players to suddenly turn it around under Emery. Its going to take time. Maybe what has happened here is that Mislintat who knew of Leno’s upward trajectory knew what he could do with the right training.

Going back to James McNicholas, in the recent Arsecast he mentioned that he had heard that the coaching staff may think that Leno just isn’t ready and that would, at least to me sync up with the fact that he had gone a long period of time without proper training.

Before the season started, I thought Cech would start with Leno being eased into the league. Eventually, I thought that by the time the calendar turned to January, Bernd Leno would take over the number 1 spot.

I am still sticking to that story. I still think Leno has the ability to be a top keeper. He only missed out on making the German National Team because Manuel Neuer came back to health and the two keepers in front of him were named Ter Steegen and Kevin Trapp.

Frankly if that’s who’s keeping you out of the national team, then its not all that bad.

His early years were filled with praise with comments like this by center back Daniel Vier:

“He was a really special goalkeeper,” Vier told Sky Sports. “In his first training session with us, we looked at him and said, ‘Where did this guy come from?’ He was saving every ball that came at him and he was a really calm person as well. To be so calm at that age with experienced players around him was very impressive to see.”

“I don’t think I ever saw a better young player than Leno and I played with guys like Antonio Rudiger and Sebastian Rudy. I always think you have two types of goalkeepers. Some guys are crazy and really loud, but others are calmer. I’d say Bernd was more like Petr Cech in that way. He is a really smart guy who doesn’t scream about everything.”

As we argued yesterday everything about this new time at Arsenal bears having some patience. Bernd Leno should not be looked under any different light. In due time, he too will come good.

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