The goalkeeping department has been a point of weakness for Aston Villa in recent years. Brad Guzan’s disastrous 2015/16 campaign saw him keep only 2 clean sheets in 28 appearances, although, to be fair, he wasn’t the only player to perform so poorly that season. Relegation to the championship didn’t see an upturn in fortunes for Villa’s goalkeepers either as Roberto Di Matteo signed Italian shot-stopper Pierluigi Gollini on July 8th 2016 only for him to be loaned out again 6 months later.
For several seasons the goalkeeping position at Aston Villa was like a constant merry-go-round with multiple keepers playing bit parts throughout each campaign including the likes of Lovre Kalinic, Sam Johnston, Orjan Nyland and Jed Steer. Luck would begin to change when the club was promoted back to the Premier League in 2019 when veteran shot-stopper Tom Heaton was signed from Burnley. However, this would not last long. On his return to Turf Moor, Heaton would suffer a shoulder injury that would see him sidelined for the remainder of the season. With some good fortune, a spirited team effort and the experience of emergency loan keeper and former Liverpool favourite, Pepe Reina, Villa would finish the campaign in 17th place, narrowly avoiding relegation.
But who would be the next to fill in between the sticks with Heaton still struggling with his earlier injury? Who would start in goal for the new season? This became a concern until the club stumbled upon a gem called Emiliano Martinez.
Early career and move to Arsenal
Martinez began his club career with Argentine outfit Club Atletico Independiente before attracting interest from Premier League club Arsenal. They secured his signature in 2012 and thus began a long, tedious spell on the sidelines with little in the way of first-team action at Arsenal followed by a number of loans, treatment not befitting of a player of such talent and professionalism as Emi Martinez.
Over the next 8 years, Emi would go out on loan 6 times to various English clubs including Oxford United, Sheffield Wednesday, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Reading and even to Spanish club Getafe. Across his many loans spells, Emi would only rack up a total of 56 appearances, a number which is considered quite astonishing to many given how accomplished he currently is.
His time at Arsenal was disappointing for him, something he would later go on to discuss. It seemed as though his talent was largely overlooked at times when, in reality, Arsenal had a top-class goalkeeper on their books. In the 2014/15 season, Martinez would make his Champions League debut against Anderlecht in the group stages, helping his team grind out a 2-1 win. Not long after, he was handed a second start in the Champions League, this time against Bundesliga heavyweights Borussia Dortmund. He guided them to a 2-0 win, keeping a clean sheet and even securing a place in the UEFA team of the week. It’s difficult to understand how, after performances like these, he wasn’t given more opportunities at Arsenal.
Late in the 2019/20 season, during project re-start, Martinez was given his chance to shine when Arsenal’s number 1, Bernd Leno, was taken off before half-time in a game against Brighton and Hove Albion. Martinez staked his claim as number 1 for the remainder of the season even helping Arsenal to their 14th FA Cup, defeating Chelsea in the final on August 1st. His performances did not go unnoticed by many high-profile footballers and even several Premier League clubs, including Aston Villa.
Having shown the footballing world what he was capable of, Martinez stated of his desire for first-team football. He reiterated to the Arsenal hierarchy that he wanted assurances over his position in the team, something that they could not guarantee. With his future up in the air, several Premier League clubs began to circle and that’s when he got his move to Midlands giants, Aston Villa.
Move to Aston Villa and present-day success
On September 16th 2020, 28-year-old Martinez completed his long-anticipated move to Aston Villa, arriving on a 4-year contract in a deal potentially reaching £20 million. It looked as though Villa had finally secured their long-term number 1, but even he exceeded the expectations of many.
From the get-go, Emi became an instant hit. He saved a John Lundstram penalty in the Hawkeye derby against Sheffield United on his debut and that form was set to continue throughout the course of the season.
Emi’s presence between the sticks played a huge part in stemming the flow of goals Villa had conceded in previous seasons. His heroics proved crucial in securing valuable points and keeping clean sheets. The team went from conceding the second-most goals of any team during the 2019/20 campaign (67) to achieving the joint 7th best defensive record in the league in 2020/21, conceding only 46 goals. The newfound security at the back, provided by Martinez, was a key reason for Villa’s transformation in such a short space of time. His reward came in the 0-0 draw at home to Everton in May as he equalled the record for the most clean sheets in a Premier League season for Aston Villa, previously set by former Villa icon Brad Friedel. For his outstanding contributions throughout the season, he was also voted Aston Villa Supporters’ Player of the Season by the Villa faithful. In his first season at the club, Emi has enshrined himself in Villa folklore.
Martinez began his international career playing for Argentina’s under 17’s in 2009 and continued on into the countries under 20 set-up. In June 2011 he received his first call-up to the Argentina senior squad, however, he wouldn’t receive his first cap until 10 years later, in June 2021, when his side played out a 1-1 draw with Chile in a 2022 FIFA World Cup qualification match.
On June 14th, Villa’s shot-stopping sensation would commence the Copa America with a starting spot for Argentina and it wouldn’t be long before he began grabbing headlines once again. He played a pivotal role in guiding his home country through the competition and it was in the semi-final against Columbia that he would make his greatest impact. With the game heading to penalties and a place in the final at stake, Emi stepped up and saved 3 penalties to propel Argentina into the final.
Martinez concluded the tournament with another clean sheet, 4 in total, in Argentina’s 1-0 triumph over Brazil, securing their first Copa America trophy since 1993. With so much success in such a short space of time for Emi, it can’t just be a coincidence, can it? Well, even ask footballing great and Barcelona legend, Lionel Messi, what he thinks of Emi Martinez. In an interview after the semi-final against Columbia Messi spoke incredibly highly of Martinez, stating ‘We have Emi, who is a phenomenon.’ Now, if the worlds best player is calling you a phenomenon you must be doing something right, eh?
It is no doubt that Aston Villa have an extremely talented goalkeeper on their hands and, at only 28-years-old, he still has many years of success ahead of him. A lot has happened in the space of a year, and this goes to show that, with patience, Emi can achieve great things for himself and for the football club. With a new season almost upon us, Emi will be looking to play his part in guiding Villa further up the table towards a European place and, with the continued support of the Villa faithful, there is no reason why that can’t be achieved.