Arsenal, it is safe to say, have got their money’s worth from Bernd Leno. The German goalkeeper, who joined for what now seems a measly $28.7million from Bayer Leverkusen last summer, has proved a shrewd and intelligent acquisition.
His value to the team was highlighted on Monday night, when he made a string of impressive saves to keep out a determined Watford side at Vicarage Road. Arsenal left with a 1-0 win – only their third away victory of the year – thanks largely to their goalkeeper.
It was a first clean sheet on the road in the Premier League this season, too, a welcome accomplishment in what has at times been a difficult season for Arsenal’s back five.
Leno, though, has been remarkably consistent throughout the campaign. After a brief period of acclimatisation following his switch from the Bundesliga, the 27-year-old is now firmly established as Arsenal’s No.1 in the Premier League.
And it is not really surprising. Leno has always been an excellent shot stopper – earning predictable comparisons with FC Bayern’s Manuel Neuer while at Bayer Leverkusen. His decision making, too, has improved since his move to Arsenal. He has often been seen rushing out to beat an opposition striker to the ball or distributing intelligently in awkward situations.
Crucially, Arsenal now have a goalkeeper they trust implicitly, one who assures the defenders in front of him. Petr Čech, who still starts in the UEFA Europa League, was a suitable option in the short term. But he is 36 now and will retire at the end of the season.
Leno, meanwhile, is at his peak, a goalkeeper with the potential to secure the No.1 spot at Arsenal for the foreseeable future.
It is a testament to Arsenal’s recruitment that Leno has, so far this season, gone about his business with relatively little fanfare. Unlike Liverpool’s Alisson or Chelsea’s Kepa Arrizabalaga, there has been no great expectation. That is, of course, partly because of the fairly modest fee Arsenal paid to secure his signature.
Leno, though, has proved himself amongst the most talented goalkeepers in England’s top flight. And it feels like people are beginning to take notice. At Watford, he used his feet to deny Craig Cathcart at close range and then made a superb flying save to keep out a curling Étienne Capoue free kick. By now, that is becoming the standard for the Germany international.
“Leno is really playing with confidence and is helping us a lot,” said Arsenal boss Unai Emery after the Watford win.
“I think Bernd is competitive with Čech and also now we are giving them two competitions, the Premier League for Leno and the Europa League for Petr Čech. They are both giving us a lot in goal.”
Leno might feel the widespread praise he has received since Monday night is overdue. Only two goalkeepers in the Premier League – Tottenham Hotspur’s Hugo Lloris and Liverpool’s Alisson – can better his save percentage of 73.5 per cent. And Leno is some way ahead of Manchester United’s David de Gea (71.2 per cent) and Chelsea’s Kepa (67.5 per cent).
Leno also ranks high for distribution, averaging 21.32 completed passes and 5.92 completed throws per 90 minutes. In an Arsenal team that continues to play out from defence, that is just as important as shot stopping. Čech had issues with it last season, but Leno has proved much more capable with the ball at his feet.
“He’s made some big saves and he’s looking better every time I watch him,” former Arsenal goalkeeper David Seaman said recently. “He’s settling down a lot more, his confidence is growing and he’s having moments in games that Arsenal fans will remember.”
It is understandable that much of the focus this season has been on Arsenal’s attacking play. That has been their strength under Emery. But, increasingly, an argument could be made that Leno has been the Gunners’ most important player this season.
If he continues to perform as he has in recent weeks, Arsenal’s No.1 will not go under the radar for much longer.
Expect him to shine, too, when Arsenal take part in the International Champions Cup this summer.