Arsenal beat Newcastle 1-0 to stay top of the Premier League thanks to a scrappy goal from Laurent Koscielny on Saturday.
Although the centre-half will inevitably be hailed as the hero, the real match-winner was actually stationed behind him: Without Petr Cech, Arsenal would never have come away with a victory.
Just before Arsenal signed Cech from Chelsea, his then-team-mate John Terry told talkSPORT that he could save the Gunners 12-15 points in the 2015/16 campaign. Cech certainly accounted for two—or perhaps even three—of those against Newcastle.
In the past, Arsenal teams had a nasty habit of conceding at the first shot on goal. Cech has helped put paid to that vulnerability. He produced a number of important saves to keep the score at 0-0 and enable Arsenal to capitalise.
He needed to be at his best, because Arsenal’s midfield did a poor job of protecting the back four. Perhaps it was because of fatigue after the difficult winter schedule, but the double-pivot of Aaron Ramsey and Mathieu Flamini was unusually porous, allowing the likes of Moussa Sissoko and Ayoze Perez to break into space far too regularly.
Without the vigilance of Cech, Arsenal would surely have found themselves behind.
The biggest moment came just after the restart. A rapier-quick Newcastle counter-attack saw Georginio Wijnaldum played in on goal, but Cech was quick off his line to block the Dutchman’s goal-bound effort.
Had Arsenal fallen behind, they would have been forced to chase the game and been even more vulnerable to Newcastle’s threat on the break. Instead, the teams stayed level and Arsenal were able to eke out the win.
This superb performance from Cech saw him set another milestone. Having surpassed David James’ Premier League record for clean sheets in the previous game against Bournemouth, he extended it against Steve McClaren’s men.
Speaking to Arsenal.com, Wenger sounded understandably confident he will continue to build on his impressive achievements:
We have been solid defensively, especially Petr, and it is enough to win these games. If Cech goes on like that he will add a few more clean sheets to his record because he has shown he is real top, top class. When you achieve a record sometimes in the next game you relax a little bit and to not lose concentration and to still turn up with two quality saves in the first half and second half was huge for us.
It’s not just his shot-stopping. He also emanates an aura of stability and calm that seems to pervade the entire back four. David Ospina had a similar effect when he came into the side to replace the erratic Wojciech Szczesny, but he lacked the natural authority and aerial command that Cech clearly possesses.
Arsenal would not have beaten Newcastle without Cech. It seems certain that they would not be title contenders either. If they go on to lift this season’s Premier League trophy, the veteran goalkeeper will surely come to be regarded as one of Wenger’s most important influential signings.
As for John Terry, how he and his Chelsea comrades must rue the day that their club allowed Cech to move across London. Chelsea’s loss has undoubtedly been Arsenal’s gain.
James McNicholas is Bleacher Report's lead Arsenal correspondent and is following the club from a London base throughout 2015/16. Follow him on Twitter here.