In the city where Aston Villa’s class of ’82 made their penultimate trip en route to European glory, Belgium’s capital region, Brussels played the same setting for a modern-day Villan to begin a quest to realise his own dreams.
Often termed the ‘Crossroads of Europe’, Brussels – the city that hosts Belgium’s most decorated football club, Anderlecht – probably best describes Emiliano Martínez’s journey to Premier League stardom.
His route to the top has been 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 travelled across the globe to watch Emi play in the Champions League for the first time.
“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.”
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 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 Bernd Leno left the Amex Stadium on a stretcher during Project Restart in the summer, 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.
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.
Martínez had 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.
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, but he’d also 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 suitors, the lure of playing for Aston Villa, for many reasons persuaded Martínez to leave the Emirates after a decade without regular football.
Martínez persuaded by Aston Villa’s ambitious project
For Martínez – a goalkeeper who acquitted himself very well during Project Restart and in recent loan moves in the Championship – a move to Villa, who only on the final day of last season secured Premier League safety may have seemed a backwards step.
But look closer, and with an exciting project underway at Villa Park, club owners Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens have communicated their ambitions for a club steeped in history. They’ve invested over £200 million in transfer fees alone with the demands of seeing improvements on the pitch.
In a five-year plan that is already taking shape with a 7-2 win over Liverpool and a perfect start to the first months of the Premier League campaign, NSWE can sell a project to prospective players.
“We will not be satisfied until we achieve our goal of bringing sustainable success to Aston Villa at the top tier of European football,” Villa’s ownership pair said in a statement upon the unveiling of new sporting director Johan Lange.
In an interview in the Guardian, Dean Smith also said: “Villa footballers have won the top trophy before, the European Cup in 1982. I’m not saying I’m going to lead the team to that but that has to be the aim: to plan, over the next five or six years, to try to be challenging in Europe and things like that.
“You see the progress Wolverhampton have made over the last three years and that’s been fantastic to see as a fellow Midlander. You can’t help but admire what they’ve done.
“So a club as historically esteemed as ourselves should be aiming at that level as well. That’s what our owners will be aiming at and that’s what we have to aim at as coaching and playing staff.”
Baby steps, for now, are required for sustainable growth, but being proactive and clinical in a tricky transfer market is a must. Upon securing survival on the final day of last season, Villa’s chiefs set out their transfer plans, and luring Martínez was a priority.
“I’m in the best shape of my career and when I didn’t have the security of that game time, I wasn’t sure about staying,” Martinez told Sky Sports after leaving Arsenal.
“My goal is to play in Europe because I did not come here (Villa) thinking that we are going to settle for not getting relegated. My ambition is to reach the Europa League & that is my goal, my dream, that’s why I work, that’s why I do everything I do.
“I’m fighting to be Argentina’s number one, that’s my dream. Aston Villa is a massive club, I had no doubts over coming here. Everyone thinks it’s a step down going from Arsenal to Villa, but I actually think it’s a step up in my career.”
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 have 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 this 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.
The goalkeeper to lead Aston Villa’s rejuvenation
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.
Martínez 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 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.
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 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’s eager to make the next chapter a memorable one.