The Potential Influence of Emiliano Martinez
I promised myself that I would do everything not to see your face again. Or that I would do it as little as possible. It was painful every time I did, turning round and realising I had disappointed you. – Gianluigi Buffon
Gianluigi Buffon’s letter to his goal, written in 2016, is possibly the finest yet strangest piece of literature produced by a footballer. It is influenced by his stereotypically passionate Italian nature and the fact that he is a rare, weird breed of human that dreamed of being a goalkeeper when they grew up – no deep-lying playmaker or tricky winger would pen anything like it.
Buffon’s poetic nature may have been slightly wayward a couple of years later when he described Michael Oliver as having “a rubbish bin where his heart should be”, but it’s this touch of insanity that can turn goalkeepers into cult icons. As the most exposed position on the pitch, their form and performances are often polarised by fans; a good keeper can single-handedly win points whereas a poor one can shake the confidence of the team in front of him and the fans behind him.
In recent years, Villa have had their fair share of shot-stoppers, bringing one in for each of the previous five transfer windows: most recently, Smith’s first signing Lovre Kalinic has never made an impact, Ørjan Nyland has had one-too-many a high profile blunder and Jed Steer, despite memorable performances to secure promotion, isn’t of the calibre required for the top half of the Premier League.
The capture of Tom Heaton was a sign of ambition and, had injury not ruled him out for half a season, would have reduced the need for a dramatic, miraculous last day escape from relegation. However, in the form of one of Smith’s most recent signings, we now have our No.1 that is well on his way to becoming a cult figure if his impressive performances continue.
Former Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson once said that “A great goalkeeper is worth 15 points over the course of a season,” and Villa’s current number one, Emiliano Martinez, certainly could potentially fall into that bracket.
What does Martínez bring?
Solidity. Despite recent swings in form and games in which we’ve conceded heavily, Emi’s performances have never been particularly questioned. On their visit to Villa Park, Southampton scored all of their four shots on target, but the quality of all of the strikes left little blame in the gloves of the man marshalling the wall for yet another dangerous free kick.
Anomalies like this make it difficult to statistically show the impact he’s had since joining the club, as fantastic long range efforts often skew the much quoted xGA (expected goals against) figure vs the actual number conceded – you may not expect Ward-Prowse to hit the inside netting but when he does, there isn’t a whole world of good that can be done about it.
There are some stats that do show how good he is – Villa kept a grand total of seven clean sheets last season; so far this campaign, we’re on five, although that is largely down to overall better team performances. Additionally, the post-shot expected goals (the expected goals based on how likely a goalkeeper is to concede that type of shot) total of 14.7 is marginally higher than the actual total we’ve let in.
For all the expected, hypothetical and mythical situations that we can find ourselves lost in, the statistical rabbit-holes that we go down, the simple things are often the easiest to back a point:
Leicester – last minute winner & 5 saves made.
Wolves – last minute winner & 7 saves made.
Six points won, and at this stage of the season that separates a promising campaign with the slightest whispers of European football from lower mid-table obscurity. The most recent performance in particular gave the team the resilience needed to grind out a result in a knife-edge game. It’s not just the tense, battling wins in which his performances have been important either – the six saves made against Liverpool also kept them from gaining any foothold in the game on the way to one of the most unexpected results in Premier League history.
It’s always a good sign when a player is signed much to the discontent of the fans at his previous club and those are exactly the circumstances in which the Argentine arrived. This season has proved them to be right, with Bernd Leno struggling to match the performance levels of his Villan counterpart, I assume much to the exaggerated annoyance of AFTV.
The reflexes and shot-stopping ability shown across the first 10 games put him in the upper bracket of keepers in the league, albeit not quite at the elite level and whilst a preference to parry a ball shows a keeper less likely to take a risk, there is comfort in this given some of the decisions made by previous incumbents (apologies if you, like I, have had a horrible flashback to Nyland carrying the ball over his own goal line – occasionally the technology does work in our favour).
Martinez’s awareness and distribution to feed into the way Smith Villa team to play is also a key asset that the Argentine brings to the team. A modern keeper who is comfortable on the ball, as Arsenal would have developed him to be, gives Villa an extra dimension and gives them an assurance when playing out from the back.
Comparisons to other keepers do however seem irrelevant in a season as open and twisted as this – every team can have an off day and the trend of a 90+ point haul to win the league may be coming to an abrupt end. Therefore, consistency is key for goalkeepers and a more open league is going to make the key stops to squeeze out a result even more important for all teams.
A keeper’s relative importance to their team is more important than any raw statistics and few teams can be more thankful for the man between the sticks than Villa.
Off the Pitch
The mindset and character of Martínez are key reasons behind why he’s been a dressing room and fan favorite in both North London and Birmingham. A tough start to life on Argentina’s Atlantic coast, a move to the capital at twelve, before a move to England at only seventeen, followed by a decade of loans before injury gave him the lucky break required.
A career and life path overcoming both personal and professional hardship make Emi difficult to dislike and after finally being trusted by a club, he appears keen to re-pay such trust in full.
A family man, so much so that he video called them from the Wembley turf after winning the FA Cup final last year, the Martinez’s seem to have settled well in Birmingham, if Instagram posts are to believed (n.b. they’re quite often not, but we’ll allow it to fit the narrative). With his son joining the academy, this seems to be for the long term – as long as this continues, there is unlikely to be any transfers ‘demanded’, ‘come-and-get-me’ pleas or any other sensationalist headlines. It’ll simply be a case of a man enjoying his football.
Trips to his native Argentina are becoming more frequent, thankfully as a result of international call-ups rather than any burning longing to leave Birmingham. He’s yet to appear for La Albiceleste, but it will be comforting for him, and subsequently us, to know that international ambitions can be realised and fulfilled in his current role.
With an attacking set-up still in relative infancy that has the potential to put teams to the sword but also to misfire, coupled with a defence that can switch off and lose a tactical, positional focus at times, a strong keeper will win points across the slog of a 38 game season. We’ve arguably not had a goalkeeper of this calibre at top flight level since Brad Friedel – whilst we have Martínez, the decade of uncertainty (or complete certainty that our goalkeeper is a liability) is behind us.
His ambition has always been to be the first choice for a Premier League side and to repay the faith that others have had in him.
Here, in B6, he is no longer the understudy – he finally has what he’s wanted.