Emiliano Martínez might reflect that, had it not been for a tumultuous afternoon in Stoke, the past five seasons could have turned out very differently. The Arsenal goalkeeper was 22 when, in November 2014, injuries to Wojciech Szczesny and David Ospina afforded him his first crack at the top level. He was outstanding in a win over Borussia Dortmund before keeping clean sheets against West Brom and Southampton. Arsène Wenger was sufficiently impressed to decide that, if another three points followed at the then Britannia Stadium, the imposing youngster would keep his place despite Szczesny’s return. But Arsenal crumbled in familiar fashion and, while little blame could be attached to Martínez in their 3-2 defeat, Wenger reverted to what he knew.
Until last Saturday, when Bernd Leno’s injury necessitated a 50-minute outing as a substitute, Martínez had made only made two further appearances in the Premier League. Now he has a chance to amass at least another eight, with Leno almost certainly sidelined for the rest of the campaign, and those who have worked with him during his decade in north London are adamant that he is no stopgap; Martínez, they say, has what it takes to become Arsenal’s long-term No 1.
Mikel Arteta agreed on Tuesday, pointing out that anyone who was not ready to become first choice “wouldn’t be the No 1 at Arsenal”. The nagging doubt, looking objectively at the career of a 27-year-old with only 90 professional appearances and 26 for his parent club, is that something must be wrong: is the player ambitious or, for that matter, good enough? But there would be few eyebrows raised within the club if Martínez used his own stroke of fortune and pushed seriously for the position he has never written off.
Martínez came to Arsenal’s attention during the 2009 South American Under-17 Championship in the Chilean city of Iquique. Their scout Francis Cagigao – who turned up Cesc Fàbregas and Gabriel Martinelli, and is the now the head of recruitment – had another target in mind before Martínez, drafted into Argentina’s side due to an injury, staked his claim. He was brought to London for a two-day audition with the then goalkeeping coach Gerry Peyton upon turning 18 and quickly signed from Independiente for a sum that – including a sizeable appearance-related fee paid this season – stands at around £1m.
Arsenal’s staff had a good feeling about Martínez. They liked the way he used his 6ft 4in frame maturely for one so young and saw the potential of his laser-like “side kick”, a technique often seen in Latin American goalkeepers. The raw materials were present in bundles and so, according to one figure closely involved at the time, was “an inner hardness” that he has certainly gone on to need.
While Szczesny, Ospina, Lukasz Fabianski, Vito Mannone, Jens Lehmann, Manuel Almunia and Petr Cech have been and gone, Martínez was shuttled around on six loans, the time never quite right to give him a serious first-team opportunity upon returning from any. He was lent to Rotherham, then struggling in the Championship, for the end of that 2014-15 season, with Arsenal’s coaches telling their second-tier counterparts in complete seriousness he would keep them up. They were not wrong, but other moves did not go as well. He began well at Wolves before hurting a thigh and a season with Getafe went less successfully than hoped, five La Liga appearances proving considerably fewer than Arsenal had been led to expect.
But Reading were hugely impressed during an 18-game spell last season and Martínez returned to north London with a bounce. “When I was playing for Reading, I got this feeling of being the No 1 – and I want that at Arsenal,” he said in an interview with the club’s website last September. One school of thought around Arsenal’s training ground has been that previous goalkeepers were, in some cases, pitched into action too early. Martínez has bided his time and is deemed a more rounded individual than some of his predecessors, living an uncomplicated family life and making plenty of allies with his sunny, yet focused, disposition.
If he can convince at St Mary’s on Thursday, and help Arsenal revive their push for the European places, then he will quickly forge thousands more friendships. Another close associate of Martínez points out that goalkeepers have become so durable over the last two decades that the mid-to-late 20s can still be considered a relatively young age, emphasising that none of his coaches has doubted his potential to become first choice. Now, half a decade after seeing a leaky back line sieve his chance in the Potteries, he finally has the opportunity to prove them right.