When Bernd Leno was stretchered off against Brighton three and a half weeks ago, a distinct panic began to spread through the Arsenal fanbase.
The German had – alongside Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – been the Gunners’ standout performer in a disappointing season. With the humiliation of another 3-0 defeat at Manchester City fresh in their minds it seemed as though a perfect storm was brewing.
The one man at the Amex who remained calm though was their backup goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez. This was the moment he’d been preparing for for over a decade. A run as Arsenal’s number one goalkeeper.
Martinez had a shaky start
The concerns Arsenal fans had as Martinez jogged onto the field were legitimate. Most Gooners’ limited exposure to their longest serving player had come in a 4th Round League Cup tie eight years prior, where the then 18-year-old Argentinian had conceded five times in a crazy 7-5 victory over Reading.
It’s a game Martinez himself wishes most people would forget. “I don’t wanna remember any more to be honest” he said in an interview years later. “It was a crazy game. I remember losing 4-0 in 20 minutes and everything was going in, even a mistake from myself”
Bouncing back from such a setback at such a young age was going to be tough for Martinez, but it wasn’t even close to the toughest challenge he had faced in his career by that point.
Martinez grew up in the city of Mar del Plata on Argentina’s Atlantic Coast in poverty. He has recalled how in his childhood his “dad couldn’t afford to buy [him] gloves when [he] was younger and sometimes we wouldn’t have any meat because he didn’t have enough money to buy dinner.”
Growing up he started playing as a striker, but a self-described predisposition for diving on things and getting hurt meant that he settled in between the sticks at a young age.
It was a decision that saw him move five hours away from home to Buenos Aires at the age of just 12. There he lived on his own while training with Independiente.
That experience meant that when Arsenal came calling four years later, he was far from afraid to leave his home country for pastures new despite being just 16.
Before leaving for England though he made a promise to his father. That he would not leave the country until he was Arsenal’s number 1.
Ten years of waiting
Thus, began a fairly nomadic career where in between making 14 appearances across eight seasons for Arsenal he was sent out loan six times in two different countries.
Throughout his ability was never in question. Arsene Wenger would regularly tell Martinez that he was the future of the club.
The reality was though that the Argentine struggled to really make an impression and failed to establish himself as a number one like he had wanted.
The club signed David Ospina, Petr Cech and Bernd Leno who would all play ahead of him in the first team throughout this time.
Martinez shines at Reading
However, in his most recent spell at Reading it seems the penny finally dropped. Now 26 and a father of a young child Martinez arrived at the Madjeski Stadium with a new level of drive and motivation to make this loan spell his final one.
He quickly established himself as the first choice stopper for Jose Gomes’ side as they moved from the Championship’s bottom three to ensuring survival with games to spare.
His skill with the ball at his feet, and his ability to hold shots – a characteristic that seems bafflingly unpopular amongst goalkeepers today – saw him earn rave reviews from fans of the Royals who were desperate to have him stay.
They are traits that Martinez has brought with him into his run in the Arsenal first team. But the now 27-year-old himself has admitted the most important thing he learnt in Berkshire was to be “arrogant on the pitch. It’s not that arrogance where you know you’re the best, it’s the arrogance that gives you the confidence to show it”
This “arrogance” is something you can see with Martinez as he commands what is now his Arsenal box. One of the few benefits of not having fans in the stadium is the clarity with which we can hear him organising the players in front of him.
Replacing a goalkeeper of the quality of Bernd Leno was never going to be easy, and with Arsenal’s calamitous defenders for protection, the odds were once again stacked against Emi Martinez as he embarked on his first ever run as the Gunners’ number one.
He is no longer content to be a number two and said as much in an interview with Goal.com last summer: “Being No.2 is not enough for me. I will never accept being No.2.
“If Arsenal give me the No.2 spot, it has to be to have a chance of getting the No.1 spot otherwise I’m not going to do it. If they don’t offer me any games, I can’t stay at Arsenal. I need to play.”
With three clean sheets and another Man of the Match performance against North London rivals Tottenham, he is finally backing that talk up.
After over a decade waiting for his moment, Martinez is playing with the drive of someone who knows this is probably his last chance to keep the promise he made to his father all those years ago. This is his opportunity, and he’s determined to take it.
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