Seven years ago, Bayer Leverkusen’s head coach, Robin Dutt, said that his young goalkeeper, Bernd Leno, was “in the same league as Petr Cech.” He couldn’t know then how prescient his words of praise would be. Leno would eventually not only literally play in the same league as Cech, but on the same team. And now the 26 year-old German shot-stopper could be set to usurp Cech as Arsenal’s #1.
Leno, a product of VfB Stuttgart’s football academy, was loaned to Bayer Leverkusen at the beginning of the 2011-12 season. Four days after his loan paperwork was signed, he suited up to face Werder Bremen in the Bundesliga. He kept a clean sheet in that game as well as his next two, becoming only the third GK in the Bundesliga to keep clean sheets in his first three top-flight matches. Weeks later he became the youngest goalie to play in the Champions League when Leverkusen were defeated by a Chelsea team anchored by none other than Petr Cech. Leno was 19.
Leno’s loan to Leverkusen was made permanent, and he went on to miss only 4 games over his first 6 seasons. In his time at the BayArena, he piled up over 300 appearances — more than any other keeper in the Bundesliga, which included the great Manuel Neuer. Here are some examples of why he became such an important player there:
In June, Leno left Leverkusen for a 5-year, £22.5M contract with Arsenal. The move saw the words of Leno’s coach at Leverkusen come true — Leno now literally was in the same league as Petr Cech. But while Leno was clearly set to be the goalie of Arsenal’s future, 36 year-old Cech was still firmly ensconced as the club’s present-day #1.
Indeed, it took an injury to Cech for Leno to find his way onto the pitch in the Premier League. That came on September 29, when Cech suffered a first-half hamstring injury against Watford. Leno came on in relief and preserved the clean sheet, and kept another in the club’s next match — a 3-0 Europa League victory over Qarabag FK.
On October 6, Arsenal stated that Cech’s injury would keep him out of training for 3-4 weeks. It’s therefore likely that it will be November before the Czechoslovakian could be in contention to elbow his way back into the starting lineup. In the interim, Arsenal play two league games, hosting Leicester on 10/22 and then traveling to Crystal Palace on 10/28. The relatively attractive nature of those fixtures, as well as Leno’s low price across all platforms, makes the German a compelling short-term fantasy play for managers seeking a temporary solution at the GK position, or as a cut-rate second keeper in leagues with benches.
But there is the potential for Leno to be more than that. Having been handed the jersey, Leno will be loath to surrender it back to Cech. Does the warrior in this video seem like the kind of guy who will be content to get a few games and then sit back down?
Leno definitely has the ability to win the starting job. While the two keepers seem equally-talented at stopping shots, Leno is clearly better with his feet. That is an important attribute in Unai Emery’s system, which puts an emphasis on playing the ball out of the back. Indeed, Cech has seemed to struggle to adapt to Emery’s style of play, making clumsy errors and generally looking uncomfortable with the ball at his feet. Here’s a fine example that almost led to what would have been an absolute howler of an own-goal:
Cech will leave a legacy as one of the best goalkeepers in Premier League history. But for all his undeniable greatness, he is now 36-years old and in the twilight of his career. At some point, the baton will inevitably be passed to Leno. If the German can seize upon the opportunity presented to him by Cech’s hamstring injury, the changing of the guard between Arsenal’s goal posts could be playing out right in front of us.
With only a home match against Liverpool looking troublesome in Arsenal’s next 5 league games, and with Leno’s price easy to afford in all fantasy platforms, now may be the time to invest. He’s a great short-term play either way, but if Leno can parlay his deputy appearances into a promotion to starter, you could be buying Arsenal’s new #1 goalkeeper for a song (currently priced at £4.8 in Official FPL and $3.75 in the Fantrax standard NMA league).
Do you think Leno will win the starting job during Cech’s injury? Is Leno this year’s Nick Pope? Are you buying Leno for any of your fantasy squads? Share your thoughts in the comments below.