Aston Villa’s second and third-choice goalkeepers, now well-accustomed to their role, came out for their warm-up 49 minutes before kick-off at Nottingham Forest.
Emiliano Martinez, six days on from winning The Yashin Trophy — the best-performing goalkeeper award— and finishing 15th in the overall Ballon d’Or, joined the last of the outfield players who jogged out a quarter of an hour later.
As is his customary pre-match routine, Martinez stretched and jogged the width of the 18-yard box while Robin Olsen and Filip Marschall warmed up intensely with goalkeeper coach Javi Garcia, catching shots and crosses, and performing long, raking diagonal passes.
It was a peculiar sight given the two ‘keepers, who were training the longest and hardest, were not going to play.
Garcia is a close friend of Martinez and was invited to the awards evening in Paris by him. It served as a shared recognition of Martinez’s sharp improvement and the bond the pair have forged since Garcia’s arrival with Unai Emery.
Garcia knows what Martinez needs to ensure he feels equipped to play. Even though Forest proved a rare low point in Martinez’s annus mirabilis, marked by that World Cup win, the short warm-up demonstrated a goalkeeper entirely comfortable in his own skin. It tends to last 15 to 20 minutes, the shortest of any keeper in the Premier League.
Four days on, Martinez returned to Villa Park, a place where home comforts are increasingly luxurious. Form and confidence are imperious and upon stepping onto the pitch, again a quarter of an hour after the rest of the goalkeepers, the stadium announcer read Martinez’s name over the tannoy, congratulating him on his “Ballon d’Or success”. Just 18 minutes later, he was off again, receiving further applause as he returned to the dressing room.
After five loans lurking around the Football League, solid but hardly noteworthy and more likely to end up a lower division nomad than taking residence in a permanent home, Villa Park has become the place he has felt most at ease. Even in the afterglow of World Cup glory and subsequent individual accolades, Villa’s work in transforming his career has not been lost on him.
“I like it a lot when players speak about how they are feeling, what they want to achieve individually and collectively,” said Emery. “Sometimes I ask the players in front of everyone, ‘Please speak for yourself about your wishes and desires, your ambitions.’ Some are more shy than others but Emi is always very demanding himself. In front of other players, he is always sending a very ambitious message.
“After leaving Arsenal, he was thinking he could progress here a lot. He is very professional and demanding every day. Everyone has to follow the message he is sending.”
Martinez is Villa’s undisputed No 1 and debatably, their most crucial player. The drop-off between him and Olsen is stark and without the Argentina international’s presence, the team becomes discernibly more introverted.
Though habitual cheers greeted Martinez as he jogged towards the North End ahead of kick-off, to his right were AZ Alkmaar supporters, arms locked together and bouncing. They began whistling at Martinez.
Boos and jeers greeted his first few touches, as they did in Holland a week ago. Again, Alkmaar decided against pressing him, threatening to repeat the cowboy-like stand-off from last time around, when their man-to-man marking system did not involve closing down Martinez.
While he did not quite stand on the ball for 35 seconds this time, coaxing opposition forwards and inflaming those who already carried grievances towards his antics in Argentina’s World Cup quarter-final win against the Netherlands, he was as important in maintaining composure. Villa largely spluttered but through Douglas Luiz’s ingenuity towards the end, they conjured a decisive act of telling quality in the 2-1 victory.
Martinez has spoken about how very little fazes him since the World Cup final. And although he would rather — contrary to perception — not be the pantomime villain or arch enemy, depending on your strength of feeling, he will not change his behaviour.
He is often the lightning rod at most grounds, games and, in some cases, ceremonies. Didier Drogba had to step in to ask for “respect” after Martinez provoked unusual jeers from the crowd when he stepped on stage.
Martinez’s performances hinge on his confidence and showmanship. It takes a lot for him to be unnerved, acknowledged following his blip in Nottingham and his response against Alkmaar, where he returned to his commanding self.
“Emi is mature,” said Emery afterwards. “He wasn’t happy on Sunday (against Forest) and he knew and understood he made a mistake. But he faced it — today, he was playing trying to be consistent, focused and efficient.”
Martinez produced a sharp save just before half time from Vangelis Pavlidis and at a point when Villa were ragged.
When a rotated backline ahead of him malfunctioned in performing the high line against Alkmaar’s deep runners, Martinez had to be prepared to dash out of his area to sweep. Margins are very fine and timings need to be exact for this approach, with serious repercussions for bad decisions. Martinez’s intrinsic self-belief increases his success rate.
Over the past year, Martinez ranks in the top one per cent of keepers’ from Europe’s top five leagues for actions outside his penalty area (2.70 per 90 minutes). Put simply, the 31-year-old’s ability to sweep is critical — almost determining — in whether Emery’s high-line methods are justified or flawed. On several occasions, offside or not, he timed his interventions, clearing with his hands and feet and intercepting early crosses into the box.
“Emi Martinez, the world’s No 1”, sang The Holte End when Villa finally did pick the lock through Douglas Luiz’s clever dink for Ollie Watkins. Martinez raised his fist theatrically, his bottom lip protruding and his head nodding.
“I only see forward. I never see sideways,” said Martinez, perhaps encapsulating his mindset in one short sentence. On a laboured evening for Villa and in a game that threatened to go wrong, Martinez was back to his old self, starting from that very short warm-up.