Emiliano Martínez’s departure at Arsenal has been met with both well-wishes and bemusement – many Gunners fans and former players believed he earned the right to keep the gloves ahead of the new Premier League season.
After a decade in the shadow of preferred number one’s, Wojciech Szczesny, David Ospina, Petr Cech and more recently Bernd Leno, it wasn’t until Project Restart that the Argentine was handed the opportunity to stake his claim.
Martínez left Club Atlético Independiente for London in 2010, and up until his departure this summer he’d registered 39 first-team appearances for Arsenal, as well as spending time on loan at six clubs – Oxford, Sheffield Wednesday, Rotherham, Wolves, Getafe and Reading.
So when Leno left the Amex Stadium on a stretcher in June, Martínez’s overdue audition for the number one jersey was a timely coincidence for the 6’2″ ‘keeper who’d used a full-size goal in his back garden to keep on his toes during the lockdown period.
It was more a mental, psychological game than anything else for Martínez having spent the duration of his Arsenal career second or even third choice – but he wasn’t going to let this opportunity pass.
He took it with both hands, and not only would he hold onto the gloves, he’d be raising aloft the FA Cup and Community Shield come the end of the 2019-20 season after some sublime performances against Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool.
“I’ve been at Arsenal 10, 11 years fighting for my spot. When I won the FA Cup and the Community Shield, I spoke to my family and said ‘it’s time to have a new challenge’,” Martínez told arsenal.com.
“When Aston Villa gave me the opportunity to fight for the spot and play loads of Premier League games and that’s why I decided to come here.”
With no shortage of potential suiters, the lure of playing for Aston Villa, for many reasons persuaded Martínez to leave the Emirates after a decade without regular football.
Villa’s goalkeeping coach Neil Cutler played a leading role in taking Martínez away from Arsenal for a fee worth up to £22m.
“I did my research first,” Martínez told Villa TV.
“I spoke to many goalkeepers that I know and they only told me good things about him. When I spoke to him, he told me the way he works and how he wants me to improve my game. I truly believe his words, that’s why I’m here.
“Tom (Heaton) has been in the Premier League for so many years, Jed Steer, (Lovre) Kalinic – I played against him in the Championship. They are all good goalies, all professional, so I will try to settle in and have fun in training.”
Martínez joins Tom Heaton, Jed Steer, Orjan Nyland and Lovre Kalinic to become the fifth senior goalkeeper at Bodymoor Heath.
Neil Cutler crucial to Martínez joining Villa
Cutler joined Villa with a track record of improving goalkeepers he’d worked with at Walsall and West Bromwich Albion.
At Walsall, he nurtured a young Neil Etheridge, who played in the Premier League with Cardiff in the 2018-19 campaign and also helped current Bradford City goalkeeper Richard O’Donnell.
“He’s one of the best coaches in the country in my opinion,” O’Donnell told Vital Walsall.
“On a personal note I can’t thank him enough for the work he did with me while I was at Walsall…he took me to the next level, pushed me everyday all to make me better.
“Not only is he a great coach, but a great guy and a very good friend. Still we speak daily and still we speak after games about performances and goals conceded.”
Cutler joined Smith and Villa’s coaching team in November 2018, a month after Smith was appointed head coach.
“The way I developed as a coach with Dean, not just technically and tactically, but as a person as well was key,” Cutler told Villa TV.
“I learned a lot about improving psychologically with them – emotional base lines and keeping them level. I developed so much on that front.
“The key for me is I always try and improve. I keep moving forward and don’t like to stand still. Dean and Richard are the same. That’s why I couldn’t turn this down.”
Cutler was also focal to Villa’s post Project Restart form, orchestrating from the technical area while Smith, John Terry and Richard O’Kelly fed information from their Trinity Road vantage point.
He helped bring out a notable difference in Orjan Nyland’s game, whose semi-final performances, especially in the second, home leg against Leicester City set up a Carabao Cup final at Wembley.
After the expiry of Pepe Reina’s loan last summer and Tom Heaton’s ongoing battle with an anterior cruciate ligament injury, Smith was keen to add some quality competition in the goalkeeping department.
“We are really pleased with the signing of our new goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez,” the Villa 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 we saw 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.”
How Martínez will fit Dean Smith’s style
Not only had Martínez topped the charts for his impressive performances in relation to statistics and all the numerical measurements of his game during the Premier League’s ending, but Villa boss Smith also sees him fitting into his brand of football seamlessly.
Martínez said: “He told me he wants me here. ‘You’ll be an important player for us, you’re a good man in the dressing room and you’re going to add something we don’t have here’.
“He explained why he wants me here and told me the process of the club and the playing style he wants to achieve.
“Obviously I trust the manager, I trust the goalkeeper coach and the club’s ambition, that’s why I decided to come here. I believe the club is going forward.
“I trust the process and I trust the manager’s playing style, I truly believe that we can have a good season at Villa.”
Away from the field, Martínez will become a key member of the dressing room. At Arsenal, he supported fellow South American Gabriel Martinelli through his adaptation period at 18 years of age.
“(Martinez is) like my big brother here,” Martinelli said.
“He helps me with everything. When I need to borrow something or a car, he helps me with everything. I couldn’t have asked for a better one (big brother).”
Martínez is keen to make a similar impact at Bodymoor Heath throughout the coming season.
“There’s some Brazilian guys, obviously I speak the language with them,” the Argentine said.
“I hear it’s a really nice dressing room and they have a lot of fun. I heard it’s a family.
“I played with Henri Lansbury at the Arsenal academy for two or three years, and I played with Kortney Hause at Wolves. I went on loan there for one season and he was there.”
For every fingertip save, commanding catch or pin-point pass, Martínez’s attitude and mentality to prove the critics wrong will remain his outstanding quality in a story that has taken him from Mar Del Plata to Villa Park – he’ll be eager to make the next chapter a memorable one.