After fans across the country watched on as Arsenal lifted the Community Shield with the help of former Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech, Blues supporters could have been forgiven for wondering what might have been, just as Gunners fans will have been wondering what still might be. Is this man, who unthinkably switched allegiance from blue to red just a month and a half before, going to play a pivotal role in a first league title win for Arsenal in twelve years at the behest of the Chelsea owner?
This will have been the thought racing through the minds of fans of both sides at Wembley on August 2nd as they watched the giant goalkeeper lift the trophy aloft. Cech, a serial winner for the Blues, had been drafted in for the meagre sum of £10m and, at the age of 33, many would argue bringing another five years of top-level football with him, this time, instilled with the drive to prove Chelsea wrong after benching him in favour of Thibaut Courtois.
Exactly one week later, the Premier League season had begun and Arsenal’s supposed title challenge was set to ignite with a roaring 4-0 victory against a West Ham team still gelling after the mid-summer appointment of Slaven Bilic. This was made all the easier by Cech’s sublime performance in goal, palming shots to safety and catching each and every testing ball aimed towards a hapless Diafra Sakho. The game did not, of course, pan out quite like this. Indeed, while this was the fantasy opening to a glorious league campaign for the Gunners, it proved to be fiction in quite comprehensive fashion — in reality, they succumbed to a 2-0 defeat and while performances from players such as young Reece Oxford and newcomer Dimitri Payet must be praised, a large portion of the blame for both goals had to be attributed to — you guessed it, narrative fans — Petr Cech. After horribly misjudging a free-kick, allowing Cheikhou Kouyate to thump a header into an empty net, and being deceived by a Mauro Zarate effort from 20 yards, the palpable excitement within the Arsenal fanbase had evaporated. It already felt like ‘one of those’ seasons.
Cast your minds further forward still, to today. The present. It’s January 2016 and Arsenal sit top of the table on goal difference after finishing that awful first weekend at the bottom. While the effortless magnificence of Mesut Ozil has marshalled Arsenal’s offensive this season, much of the credit for an organised and disciplined defence (aberration at Southampton aside) can be laid squarely at the feet of the same man whose scarily bad debut had many amongst the Arsenal faithful doubting whether the Gunners would ever go the distance again. Cech, however, has been remarkable. For a Premier League stalwart who has won well-nigh everything with his previous club, his insatiable drive to succeed will always be an underestimated factor in his presence this season. Whether it’s personal goals such as the clean sheet milestone, or eking out the last few minutes of a tight Premier League contest which had before been so painful for Arsenal fans, he exudes desire, serenity and leadership.
Since that difficult Sunday afternoon in August, he has been everything both the fans and the team wanted and needed. Arsene Wenger has brought in a player that the cumbersome, old grandfather of the team, Per Mertesacker, can look to in order to help drill the back-four into shape at key moments and the confidence of this well-built defensive quintet has flowed exponentially through the rest of the players on the pitch. Indeed, while in years gone by, Arsenal have had to rely on outscoring opposition having just assumed that they would ship goals, this is the first year where you can find yourself genuinely surprised if they concede. Watching Arsenal now, there’s undoubtedly an elevated composure whenever Cech is between the sticks, a bit like when you’d be in the back seat of your family Citroen, watching your dad drive through thick, night-time fog on a winding country road: you have no idea how he’s doing it, but you know everything is going to be fine.
Credit where it’s due, as soon as Wenger caught wind of the goalkeeper’s availability, the deal was done. Roman Abramovich, too, had a part to play in granting Cech the choice of where to go as a reward for his years of service. Little did he know that he wasn’t just selling Arsenal a goalkeeper: he was selling them a steely aura that the Czech international gave to countless Chelsea teams down the years, and a trait which Wenger’s teams have lacked for years. If Arsenal hold their nerve, which looks ever more likely with the miserly Cech in goal, Chelsea might just have sold Arsenal a Premier League title too.