It’s often fascinating when a first-choice keeper goes down injured and the backup has to step in to fill the gloves of his far more experienced and, often, more talented teammate. The latest club to enter this unique footballing limbo is Arsenal. Of course.
The injury Bernd Leno sustained against Brighton means he is out for the remainder of this season, and 27 year old Argentine Emiliano ‘call me Emi’ ‘but don’t call me Emu’ Martinez is set to replace him for the run in. But who is this fairly unknown stopper, who has actually been with the Gunners for ten (!!) years? Well. That’s what we’re here for.
Martinez joined the Gunners from boyhood club Club Atlético Independiente, touted for his impressive ball control (for a keeper of his height) and a calm, personable demeanour. He progressed through Arsenal’s prestigious youth setup and, after a short loan at Oxford United, he made his first team debut against Coventry in a League Cup third round tie in September 2012.
Initially third choice behind Wojciech Szczęsny and Lukasz Fabianski, the former Argentina Under-17 and Under-20 international played in just two League Cup outings – both of which Arsenal’s young side won convincingly – before being made to settle for a season in the reserves from there on in.
After another emergency loan to Sheffield Wednesday, Martinez finally got his first chance at a run in the Arsenal first team in November 2014, when injuries to Szczęsny and David Ospina threw him into the spotlight at the age of 22 for a Champions League clash with Borussia Dortmund.
He performed admirably as the Gunners ran out 2-1 winners, and he went on to keep clean sheets against Southampton and West Brom despite Szczęsny’s return. However, after a tough 3-2 defeat away at Stoke City, Martinez was one of the casualties of Arsene Wenger’s re-think for the next game. He ended up, bizarrely, finishing the season at Championship strugglers Rotherham United on loan.
After another solid but unspectacular loan spell at Wolves the following season (where he struggled with injury) and an ill-fated trip to La Liga outfit Getafe (where he played just five matches) his top flight career seemed to be hanging in the balance. But it was last season, on loan at Reading, that Martinez finally came of age – stringing together 18 consecutive league matches and helping the Royals escape relegation from the Championship.
After considering cutting ties with the club a year ago, he was recalled this season to be second choice under Leno with a promise from Unai Emery that he would feature in cup competitions.
The Spaniard kept his word, with Martinez starting all of Arsenal’s cup games, including the memorable League Cup fourth round exit to Liverpool on penalties (the less said about that game, the better). After performing very well in the Europa League group stage, his run came to an end when he was left out for the two-legged knockout defeat to Olympiacos in February by new boss Mikel Arteta.
All of a sudden, the reliable part-time cup feature must become full time Premier League number one – at least for the rest of this campaign – and many Arsenal fans are worried that a man who’s played just 13 top-flight games in any country won’t be up to the challenge. But they can take heart from that fact that Martinez is a loyal servant who clearly wears the badge with pride, and has done his very best to keep his side in games whenever he has been called upon.
This will be his greatest test yet, but after a tougher education in the lower leagues than most backup stoppers, he is well placed to become a hero for the Gunners as they seek to end their difficult season on a high.