Forget Cech, Arsenal’s real villains were the men just in front of him

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Arsenal‘s new goalkeeper didn’t cover himself with glory, but the Gunners’ awful start to the season wasn’t his fault – or at least, not his alone.

This was meant to be Arsenal’s season. And it still might be.

But if it is to be, there is a lot of work to be done because the ease with which West Ham took the Gunners to pieces for their goals at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday was quite staggering.

And the disturbingly weak efforts of high-profile new signing Petr Cech to stop those efforts was, while entertaining for Chelsea fans and nay-saying neutrals, only part of that.

Even before his arrival in north London from rivals Chelsea, the Champions League-winning goalkeeper was hailed not as a match-winner, but a title winner.

John Terry announced before the deal was even concluded that the new keeper would be worth 12-15 points a seasonto Arsenal. Rio Ferdinand hailed him as the “signing of the summer”.

And our very own Jim White went to town as well, writing that it was a “proper signing”:

“If part of the purpose of entering the transfer market is to weaken opponents as much as strengthen yourself, then the Arsenal boss has achieved a rare double here. Cech is a proper goalkeeper: athletic, strong, experienced. The fact is Arsenal have not had one of those since David Seaman,” wrote White.

And my, how Arsenal fans were delighted by such analysis, so simple and seductive as to be irresistible, and so temptingly reinforced by the Community Shield victory at Wembley against Chelsea that seemingly broke the Arsene Wenger-Jose Mourinho hoodoo.

Petr Cech celebrates Arsenal win at Community Shield.
Petr Cech celebrates Arsenal win at Community Shield. – AFP

Yet Sunday’s match showed the dangers of jumping to conclusions about football, and the futility of making predictions – at least until the clocks have gone back, at any rate.

With glorious 20/20 hindsight it’s easy to see that no more could have been expected of Cech. We’re talking about a goalkeeper who has been out of regular first team action for 15 months, and who is being asked to slot in as part of an entirely new unit. As the two goals were scored, he looked like he didn’t know where his defenders were, didn’t know where they were going, and didn’t know where the opposition players are.

All three things are disturbing, but only to be expected in the circumstances. It hardly seems time to declare that Cech is past his best, at an age (33) when most top goalkeepers still have a minimum of five seasons left on the clock.

What should really disturb Arsenal supporters – from manager Arsene Wenger down to the most casual fan – is how Cech was exposed to danger by the men tasked with protecting him.

For the first goal, Cheikhou Kouyaté was allowed to charge into the box without any defender getting in front of him; for the second, a total of five Arsenal players managed to bungle away the ball into the path of Mauro Zarate – one of them even slipping over for extra comedy value – and then step back to both partially unsight Cech and allow the West Ham striker a free shot on goal.

Cheikhou Kouyate scores the first goal for West Ham
Cheikhou Kouyate scores the first goal for West Ham – Reuters

Yes, Cech should probably have got in front of Kouyate himself; yes, he probably shouldn’t have allowed Zarate to beat him at the near post. But after playing at Chelsea for a decade he’s probably forgotten what it’s like to play behind a back four capable of so completely forgetting its duties en masse, and without warning.

Cech will get used to it and come good, of that there’s little doubt – he’s simply too hard working and talented not to. And any fault attached to him is excused by the fact that he has not long been playing with Mathieu DebuchyPer MertesackerLaurent Koscielny and Nacho Monreal.

That quartet, however, have no such excuses. They’ve been playing together long enough that they should read each others’ minds by now, yet at times they still look like a group of strangers who’ve got into a kickabout in the park. And as long as that remains the case they will continue getting torn open from time to time, just as they did so many times last season.

The bottom line? Arsenal have finally found a goalkeeper who could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the man in goal last time Arsenal won the title.

But the back four playing just ahead of him are still short – woefully short – of the players who were a part of that magnificent 2004-05 vintage.

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