When Bernd Leno left the Amex Stadium on a stretcher, all hopes of Arsenal ending the Premier League campaign with a bang were seemingly over as Mikel Arteta’s number one left the field in agony.
The German became a standout player in Arsenal’s pursuit of European football last season, but after landing awkwardly under a Neal Maupay challenge, Arsenal’s season was a write off with a huge run of fixtures ahead.
Emiliano Martínez – who hadn’t made a Premier League appearance since 2014 – was drafted in to replace Leno. The Argentine was trusted by Arteta and formerly Unai Emery to play in cup competitions, but when Arsenal went 2-1 down to Brighton in June, the thought of counting on superb goalkeeping performances to win FA Cups and Community Shields would’ve been an unlikely eventuality.
In truth, Martínez has been banking on his chance for almost ten years, waiting in the wings to take the chance promised to him for almost a decade. His story however, starts well before a debut on the south coast.
A couple of days prior to Martínez’s first outing of the season at Brighton, Villa were counting their lucky stars as Orjan Nyland carried the ball over the line against Sheffield United. Hopes of Premier League survival were low amongst Villa fans, but nonetheless, top-flight security was confirmed on the final day.
Dean Smith has since been keen to identify some competition for injury stricken Tom Heaton who is expected to return to action in October, and recruiting Martinez will go is some statement.
After Martínez penned a four-year deal at the club, Smith expressed his delight to sign his new goalkeeper to Villa TV.
“We are really pleased with the signing of our new goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez,” Villa’s boss said.
“We know how highly Arsenal rated him and we watched his outstanding performances last season in a trophy-winning top side.
“We moved for Emi when west the opportunity, as it is rare to be able to buy a top class goalkeeper who hasn’t yet reached their peak age and who can therefore be a key player for our Club for the long term.
Born in the Argentinian City of Mar Del Plata, Martínez grew up in a family who struggled to make ends meet, so much so, on occasions he and his brother, Alejandro would eat – but parents Alberto and Susana, did not.
When on the books at Club Atlético Independiente, there’d be times when Martínez would see his father cry when he couldn’t pay for the family bills. He couldn’t afford to frequently see his son – visits from the family were restricted to twice a month as petrol was too expensive.
Martinez spoke to Arsenal.com about the sacrifices his parents made for his future.
“I promised my dad I was going to make it,” Martínez remembers.
“I came from a poor background, my dad couldn’t afford to buy me gloves when I was younger and sometimes we wouldn’t have any meat because he didn’t have enough money to buy dinner. I remember the day that me and my brother ate and not my mum and dad. So I know exactly what they’ve been through.
“I said to him when I joined Independiente that I was going to make it and then Arsenal bought me. When I signed here, I said to him, ‘I just want you to be happy and proud of me’ and told myself that I would not leave this country until I was No 1. He’s always there in my thoughts, at training or on match-days. He calls me every day, he watches every game.
“I was living in Buenos Aires and I would only see them twice a month, when I travelled, because they couldn’t afford the petrol to go and see me. So I know what they did for me to reach the top, where I am now.”
Training with Petr Cech for Arsene Wenger’s Champions League Gunners was an eye-opener for Martínez after a two year stay at Independiente, a club five hours journey away from where he grew up, in a coastal Buenos Aires province.
Martínez’s route to the top was anything but ordinary, his is a story of sacrifices not many would believe in order to realise his goals. He’d promised his father one day he’d repay his trust, and in 2014, Alberto traveled across the globe to watch Emi in the Champions League.
“I remember for my Champions League debut against Anderlecht,” Martínez said.
“My dad flew 27 hours to reach that game and he was crying all 95 minutes! It will be tough but I’ll be thinking about them when I play.”
Champions League nights under the lights however, were a long way away for the young Argentine in 2012.
After injuries to Oxford United’s main goalkeepers, Ryan Clarke and Wayne Brown, Martínez went on emergency loan to the League Two club, and deputised in their final game of the 2011-2012 season. A 3-0 loss in Staffordshire proved to be a grounding to life in English football for Martínez.
After arriving back at London Colney to report for pre-season, Martínez impressed enough to fight for his place in the first-team, later making two starts in the League Cup that year. He was also named as a substitute for Arsenal’s opening away fixtures at Liverpool and Stoke City.
Martínez would eventually fall out of favour as Wenger’s back-up, following a bizarre 7-5 scoreline at Reading. The Argentine was again subject to an emergency loan, this time with Sheffield Wednesday in the Championship – a move he’d extend to the end of the 2013-14 campaign.
He returned to Arsenal the following season, playing behind David Ospina and Wojciech Szczesny due to suspension and injury. Martínez was soon drafted in for his Champions League debut, four years after joining the club from Independiente.
Arsenal won 2-1 against Anderlecht, and a month later, Martínez would get the chance to make his Premier League debut against Manchester United. He gave a good account of himself, and kept the gloves for the following three matches, registering three clean sheets in a row at the age of 22.
1-0 wins over West Brom and Stoke followed a 2-0 win against Borussia Dortmund in his second Champions League appearance. He was even named in UEFA’s team of the week for his performance at the Emirates over Jürgen Klopp’s Dortmund.
Facing Robert Lewandowski and Marco Reus would’ve no doubt been an experience for the young ‘keeper, but despite his impressive displays, more lower league loan moves would follow for Martínez.
Rotherham and Wolves were both keen to pick up his services, and spent the back end of the 2014-15 campaign at the New York Stadium, keeping two clean sheets before spending the whole 2015-16 season at Wolves. His luck at Arsenal was showing no signs of turning, but his appetite to find minutes elsewhere would eventually pay off.
Martínez failed to make a breakthrough after his forgettable loan at the Molineux, and so he went further afield after a succession of EFL loan moves. He spent the 2017-18 season at La Liga side Getafe where he’d battle for game time with current Crystal Palace keeper Vincente Guaita.
Martínez found himself no closer to the number one jersey when Emery took over from Wenger’s tenure in 2018, but after five loan moves that took him from the black country to the outskirts of Madrid, it would be his sixth and final loan spell away from North London that transformed his career.
“I want to show him (dad) that it’s all been worth it, that he can be proud of my journey. I don’t know if I’m going to be the No. 1 in two months or 10 years, but I will be,” Martínez said.
Sensing time was running out to claim his place at Arsenal, he dedicated himself utterly to self-improvement and development at Reading in the season when Dean Smith’s Villa climbed out of second division via the play-offs.
Martínez even stayed in a hotel away from his family so he could focus on a highly personalised training routine. It paid off too. He made some stunning saves to help Reading pull off a great escape and avoid relegation from the Championship.
His top performances caught the eye of Arsenal and Emery. Ahead of the 2019-20 season, Emery assured him that he could stay at the club and fight for the number one spot as well as play in all the Cup games.
A mentality that sets him apart
At 27 years of age, Martinez now joins Aston Villa with his best years ahead of him. He’s never had a place to call home, even after spending the past part of the past decade at Arsenal. Traveling up and down the country in pursuit of first team minutes speaks volumes of his desire to reach the top.
If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door – and for Martinez, it couldn’t be closer to the truth.
“I came back here from that spell with Reading with the lowest body fat percentage, more confidence than ever before and more power,” the goalkeeper said.
“That’s how it needs to be whether you’re the No 1, No 2 or No 3. The other thing you need to look out for is your mentality.
“When I was No 3 and playing once every two or three months, I was thinking, ‘I need to perform otherwise I’m never going to have another chance’. It’s really a mental game, a psychological game.
“I don’t think people realise that until it’s too late. My best friend is a driving instructor and he was playing at under-17 level for Argentina alongside me, then for the under-20s. Mentally, he wasn’t strong enough and wasn’t doing the gym work that he needed to do. He thought he would make it with talent alone but talent is nowhere near enough.”
When the January transfer window rolled around in 2018, Martínez had a selection between a Championship promotion favourite, or a relegation candidate in Reading. In Martínez’s typical style, he chose the challenge of keeping the Royals in the league.
“It was a challenge for me because I had the choice of Leeds or Reading. One of the teams was competing for promotion and the other was struggling at the time,” Martínez remembers.
“I weighed it up and chose the harder option because I wanted to show to everyone what I could do and prove the haters wrong. Some fans were still reminding me about that 7-5 game… they forget that I was only 18 at the time. I wanted to go back there and prove that I could do it.”
Martínez has been proving many a critic wrong after his post-Project Restart form with Arsenal last season, in fact, his performances for the Gunners in the league and in their FA Cup crowning run, and Community Shield success, Martínez was hard to fault last term – and it wasn’t for the want of trying.
During the lockdown period, Martínez made it his personal goal to prepare himself in the best way possible, just in case the chance came his way.
“My wife was saying to me in lockdown: ‘Why do you train so much?’ Because I thought I might have my chance, I might do it. And look, I have it,” says Martinez, who has started Arsenal’s last 10 games.
“I have got a full-size goal in my garden. As soon as it (lockdown) happened, the fitness coaches sent us a programme.
“We had a bike from a club to do training, obviously we could not go out anywhere. I had plenty of space. I had weights, a mini-gym outside. I was doing proper goalkeeper training.
“I have something called a ball launcher, someone has to feed the balls. My wife used to throw the balls but she was terrible at it and I was playing with my boy, Santi. He was trying to put the ball inside the ball launcher as well.”
His application and character to pursue a first team place at one of the bigger clubs in England is admirable and his desire to fulfil his potential remarkable. He wants to be able to settle into familiar surroundings and concentrate at a club willing to offer a regular place to demonstrate his value.
“In the last game of the season, the Reading fans were shouting my name and begging me to stay permanently,” Martínez said.
“I can’t tell you how good that felt, but that’s how I want to feel all the time. I know how good I am and how good I can be.
“The only way you can improve yourself is through playing and I worked really hard in training, even when I was No 3 behind Petr and Bernd. I don’t think anyone works as hard as I do in training, which is why I’ve been at this club for 10 years, but I believe you can only get the opportunity to improve from game time on the pitch.”
Top of the charts
For all the heartfelt chapters of Martínez’s journey to where he is now, there’s a top-drawer player behind a sincere professional, worthy of every plaudit he’s drawn in the months past.
There’s been signs of promise ever since Martínez walked through the door at the Emirates as an 18-year-old. In his first week with the club, the then teenage ‘keeper collided with 6’3″ft tall, Nicklas Bendtner. He knocked the Dane unconscious – “I like to get hurt,” Martínez said.
As a youngster, Martínez set out to become an outfield player, and so it might not come as a surprise that during Project Restart, he recorded a 100% success rate with short goal kicks, open play passes under 20 metres and all thrown passes.
Martínez is more than capable of structuring attacks from the back, and for Smith, that’s a huge plus for next season. As a student of Pep Guardiola, Arteta demanded that his goalkeepers played out from the back, meaning Martínez had to be good with his feet if he was to impress in his late season audition.
His distribution came as an added bonus for Arsenal last year, but where he really impressed was simply his ability to keep the ball out the back of the net.
Martínez proved himself to be equally adept at making a big save too. His 96th minute stop against Liverpool was a genuine contender for save of the season, and his final day stop from Danny Welbeck was far behind either.
After making ten Premier League appearances last term, Martínez ranked amongst the very best of goalkeepers to make at least the same amount of appearances as he did last season. It comes somewhat unsurprisingly that the Argentine recorded the league’s second best ‘total save %’, with only Tottenham’s Hugo Lloris bettering his score of 78.6%.
Martínez also ranked second best for ‘saves per 90’ and ‘catches per 90’ behind Nick Pope, whose campaign last year was lauded by many.
Statistics also show that no other goalkeeper made a higher percentage of saves from ‘shots inside the penalty area’, and according to Opta’s expected Goals on Target stats (xGoT), Martinez prevented an extra 2.9 goals from being scored in his nine outings.
His ‘post-shot expected goals – goals allowed’ figure also ranked the best in the Premier League at +0.48. This variable measures, in layman’s terms, how good a goalkeeper is at saving shots that should have gone in.
Martinez also ranked highly for ‘ball recoveries per 90’. On average, he recovers 3.39 balls per 90, which would suggest he is quick and alert off his line, to prevent direct balls in behind a defensive line.
However you look at Emi Martínez, from his spectacular, inspiring journey to the Premier League, or simply the top performances he racked up to help Arsenal win the FA Cup and Community Shield against top opposition, he is a real coup for Dean Smith’s Villa.