In the city where Aston Villa’s class of ’82 made their penultimate trip en route to European glory, Belgium’s capital region, Brussels played the same setting for a modern-day Villan to begin a quest to realise his own dreams.
Otherwise known as the ‘Crossroads of Europe’, Brussels – the city that hosts Belgium’s most decorated football club, Anderlecht – probably best describes Emiliano Martínez’s journey to Premier League stardom.
His route to the top has been anything but ordinary with a story full of sacrifices not many would believe in order to reach his goals. Martínez promised his father that one day he’d repay his trust, and in 2014, Alberto travelled across the globe to watch Emi play in the Champions League for the first time.
Training with Petr Cech for Arsene Wenger’s Champions League Gunners was an eye-opener for Martínez after a two year stay at Independiente, a club five hours journey away from where he grew up, in a coastal Buenos Aires province.
Martínez left Club Atlético Independiente for London in 2010, and up until his departure from Arsenal last summer, he’d registered only 39 first-team appearances as well as spending time on loan at six clubs – Oxford, Sheffield Wednesday, Rotherham, Wolves, Getafe and Reading.
These are not the credentials for a world-class goalkeeper in the making.
Martínez wasn’t supposed to stake a claim for Argentina’s number one jersey, nor threaten to keep the most clean sheets for Aston Villa in a single Premier League season – but such are the extraordinary feats achievable at Villa Park right now, Martínez is proving all the doubters wrong at a club you dare bet against.
Having become a lower-league journeyman on loan deals away from The Emirates, the Argentine demonstrated a desire and determination to get minutes under his belt, polish his game and ultimately improve his chances of becoming the goalkeeper he is today, right from the get-go.
Only Manchester City’s Ederson has kept more Premier League clean sheets this season than Martínez, who is playing in front of a defence who had shipped the second-most league goals last term, excluding Matty Cash, who Villa bought from Nottingham Forest last summer.
Including the signings of Martínez and Cash, Villa devised a thorough summer transfer strategy which was effectively executed through some savvy negotiating. Captain Jack Grealish had persuaded Ross Barkley that Aston Villa was the place to realise his EURO 2020 ambitions, while Ollie Watkins needed little persuading in rejoining his former head coach Dean Smith.
Martínez however, had no shortage of potential suitors and by no means was a move to Villa destined to happen after displaying some quite sensational Project Restart form since deputising for the injury-stricken Bernd Leno.
Villa’s unsung goalkeeping coach Neil Cutler played a leading role in taking Martínez away from Arsenal for a fee worth up to £22 million in September.
“I did my research first,” Martínez told Villa TV after penning a four-year deal.
“I spoke to many goalkeepers that I know and they only told me good things about him. When I spoke to him, he told me the way he works and how he wants me to improve my game. I truly believe his words, that’s why I’m here.”
Martínez settled right away at Villa Park. His debut penalty save at the Holte End against Sheffield United was a piece of history in itself. The Argentine became the first Villa goalkeeper to save a penalty and keep a clean sheet in the same game at Villa Park for the first time in Premier League history.
Martínez’s mentality matches Aston Villa’s ambitions
Training alongside Tom Heaton and Jed Steer on a day-to-day basis, Martínez’s undisputed claim for the number one spot is a testament to his performances this season and indeed the effect he’s had on a Villa team indebted to his influence so far this campaign.
Martínez was so embarrassed by his below-par display in a 3-1 home loss to West Ham, he demanded that some of the squad’s strikers do some extra shooting drills with him after training the following day. Two games later and Martínez hadn’t conceded a single goal after facing 17 shots from in-form Arsenal and Brighton sides.
For Martínez – a goalkeeper who acquitted himself very well during Project Restart and in loan moves in the Championship – a move to Villa, who only on the final day of last season secured Premier League safety may have seemed like a backwards step to outsiders.
But look closer, and with an exciting project underway at Villa Park, club owners Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens have communicated their ambitions for a club steeped in history. They’ve invested over £200 million in transfer fees alone with the demands of seeing improvements on the pitch.
In a five-year plan that is already taking shape with a 7-2 win over Liverpool and a perfect start to the first months of the Premier League campaign, Sawiris and Edens can sell a project to prospective players.
“We will not be satisfied until we achieve our goal of bringing sustainable success to Aston Villa at the top tier of European football,” Villa’s ownership pair said in a statement upon the unveiling of new sporting director Johan Lange last year.
In an interview in the Guardian, Dean Smith also said: “Villa footballers have won the top trophy before, the European Cup in 1982. I’m not saying I’m going to lead the team to that but that has to be the aim: to plan, over the next five or six years, to try to be challenging in Europe and things like that.
“You see the progress Wolverhampton have made over the last three years and that’s been fantastic to see as a fellow Midlander. You can’t help but admire what they’ve done.
“So a club as historically esteemed as ourselves should be aiming at that level as well. That’s what our owners will be aiming at and that’s what we have to aim at as coaching and playing staff.”
Baby steps, for now, are required for sustainable growth, but being proactive and clinical in a tricky transfer market is a must. Upon securing survival on the final day of last season, Villa’s chiefs set out their transfer plans, and luring Martínez was a priority.
“I’m in the best shape of my career and when I didn’t have the security of that game time, I wasn’t sure about staying,” Martinez told Sky Sports after leaving Arsenal.
“My goal is to play in Europe because I did not come here (Villa) thinking that we are going to settle for not getting relegated. My ambition is to reach the Europa League & that is my goal, my dream, that’s why I work, that’s why I do everything I do.
“I’m fighting to be Argentina’s number one, that’s my dream. Aston Villa is a massive club, I had no doubts over coming here. Everyone thinks it’s a step down going from Arsenal to Villa, but I actually think it’s a step up in my career.”
Martínez working with ‘one of the best coaches in the country’
As part of Dean Smith’s coaching staff, Cutler has become a key cog in the Villa dressing room.
“Neil is one of the top goalkeeping coaches in the game”, head coach Smith said.
“Emi had seen the fact he has improved so many keepers and he will go and improve Emi as well. There’s a real enthusiasm about Emi, when he first came into the club about what he wanted to do and how he wanted to do it.
“He’s a proud South American who wants to get to the top of the game. He is ambitious and believes playing for Villa right now will help him get where he wants to.”
Cutler works with Martínez every day at Bodymoor Heath having joined Villa with a track record of improving goalkeepers he’d previously worked with at Walsall and West Bromwich Albion.
At Walsall, Cutler nurtured a young Neil Etheridge, who played in the Premier League with Cardiff in the 2018/19 campaign and also helped current Bradford City goalkeeper Richard O’Donnell.
“He’s one of the best coaches in the country in my opinion,” O’Donnell told Vital Walsall.
“On a personal note I can’t thank him enough for the work he did with me while I was at Walsall…he took me to the next level, pushed me everyday all to make me better.
“Not only is he a great coach, but a great guy and a very good friend. Still we speak daily and still we speak after games about performances and goals conceded.”
Cutler joined Smith and Villa’s coaching team in November 2018, a month after Smith was appointed head coach.
“The way I developed as a coach with Dean, not just technically and tactically, but as a person as well was key,” Cutler told Villa TV.
“I learned a lot about improving psychologically with them – emotional base lines and keeping them level. I developed so much on that front.
“The key for me is I always try and improve. I keep moving forward and don’t like to stand still. Dean and Richard are the same. That’s why I couldn’t turn this down.”
Cutler also played a vital part in Villa’s post Project Restart form, by communicating tactical strategies from the technical area while Smith, John Terry and Richard O’Kelly fed information from their Trinity Road vantage point.
He also helped bring out a notable difference in Orjan Nyland’s game, whose semi-final performances, especially in the second, home leg against Leicester City set up a Carabao Cup final at Wembley last year.
After the expiry of Pepe Reina’s loan last summer and Heaton’s ongoing battle with an anterior cruciate ligament injury, Smith was keen to add some quality competition in the goalkeeping department and with the recommendation of Martínez from Cutler, there was a resounding sense of excitement at Bodymoor Heath when it become apparent that the Argentine was available on the market.
“We are really pleased with the signing of our new goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez,” the Villa boss said after getting his man through the door last summer.
“We know how highly Arsenal rated him and we watched his outstanding performances last season in a trophy-winning top side.
“We moved for Emi when we saw the opportunity, as it is rare to be able to buy a top-class goalkeeper who hasn’t yet reached their peak age and who can therefore be a key player for our club for the long term.”
For every fingertip save, commanding catch or pin-point pass, Martínez’s attitude and mentality to prove the critics wrong will remain his outstanding quality in a story that has taken him from Mar Del Plata to Villa Park – he’ll be eager to make the next chapter a memorable one.
His influence at Bodymoor Heath might even reach further than those acrobatic stops Villa fans have come accustomed to seeing on the television every weekend. With Villa bringing through a new conveyor belt of talent, there’s an exciting trio of goalkeepers who can learn a thing or two from Martínez’s game.
Martínez inspiring a new crop of goalkeeping talent at Villa Park
When the club suffered a major coronavirus outbreak at Bodymoor Heath in January, Villa were left to field a team of Under-18 and Under-23s to face Jürgen Klopp’s Premier League champions, Liverpool. While Louie Barry rightly stole the headlines for scoring Villa’s remarkable goal, on the night, it was goalkeeper Akos Onodi who’d keep the scoreline respectable come full-time.
The battling nature of Villa’s display installed a sense of pride that few performances could in any campaign, but in reality, despite missing key academy stars, Carney Chukwuemeka, Jadon Philogene-Bidace and the Ramsey brothers, Villa’s exciting crop of youth is reflective of the feel-good factor at the club right now.
Many Villa fans might have been puzzled when young prospect Matija Sarkic left for Wolves last July, but take a look at the bigger picture and Villa are by no stretch in short supply of promising stoppers of their own.
22-year-old Sarkic was promoted to third-choice goalkeeper back in January following the season-ending injury to the number one, Heaton after he enjoyed a successful spell at Livingston before being recalled in the New Year.
The Montenegrin supported both Reina and Nyland on matchdays as Villa secured their Premier League status for another year, but without a pathway to the first team in the foreseeable future, Sarkic has since made way for another bunch of exciting goalkeepers at Villa Park.
From Hungarian stopper Onodi, to Finnish 19-year-old ‘keeper Viljami Sinisalo and new signings, 16-year-old Oliwer Zych, and even 13-year-old Sam Proctor, Villa are well stocked in youth sides and in safe hands with an excellent coaching department.
Cutler, who heads up the goalkeeping department at Villa, previously explained how he wants to be coaching the very best, promising goalkeepers from around Europe.
“We want to be the best goalkeeping department in the Midlands, if not the country”, Cutler said.
“Goalkeepers through the system and into the first-team has to be the way forward.
“We’ve got detailed goalkeeping coaches who believe we can do that. We don’t want to be out spending millions and millions. We want to be developing our own first and foremost.”
Sinisalo had started the season as Villa Under-23s number one and as regular starter for Finland Under-19s. Standing at 6ft 2in tall, Sinisalo began his career in his native Finland with FC Espoo.
Having moved to the UK during the 2018/19 season, aged just 16, Sinisalo almost immediately became the number one for Villa’s Under-18s and Cutler believes the shot-stopper is one of the best of his age anywhere in Europe.
Sinisalo was training with Villa’s first-team for over a year on top of making himself the club’s regular first choice at youth level, but nothing can prepare a young goalkeeper like some wee senior experience north of the border.
The Fin penned a season-long loan deal with Ayr United in the summer and made a good start to life in the SPFL, having made more saves and kept more clean sheets than any other Scottish Championship keeper after the first ten games to the new campaign.
“He’s very calm when he’s stepped in and doesn’t look out of place,” Cutler said recently when speaking to Villa TV.
“If you see a young goalkeeper like Viljami who’s got a really good chance to accelerate his learning, it will really help him in terms of what he needs to be doing, and to learn.”
The goalkeeping department was an area Ayr manager Mark Kerr was looking to strengthen ahead of the new season. He was delighted to capture the services of Sinisalo for 12 months.
“Villa considers Viljami one of the best of his age, anywhere in Europe”, Kerr said.
“He is extremely highly rated and has been training with the Villa first team for the last year. We have had him up to have a look at him and he has shown us the level of his potential and our goalkeeping coach has been hugely impressed by him.”
The Finnish keeper made his move to Ayrshire after lengthy conversations with Villa’s own Scot, John McGinn.
“I’m only 18 so for my career plan it is massive to get these experiences out on loan and play competitive football. It’s completely different to U23s and I’m looking forward to getting these experiences.
“I spoke to John McGinn and he also spoke to the gaffer as well. It was really nice to get some encouraging words from a seasoned pro like him.
“I’ve been with the first team at Aston Villa for a good 18 months so I feel like I’ve developed as a player. It’s been great to train with the player’s Villa have and see the quality that everyone has.”
Like Sinisalo, Onodi joined Villa from his homeland after catching the eye as a teenager. The Hungarian penned a deal at Villa in 2018, after plying his trade with Eto FC Gyor.
Onodi had been providing competition for Sinisalo with the Under-18s and Sarkic with the Under-23s development squad before at the start of this season being promoted with his Finish teammate to the U23s.
The 19-year-old goalkeeper won the U18 Premier League Save of the Season for a sensational reflex save onto the crossbar, denying Arsenal’s youngsters a goal in spectacular fashion last year.
Continuing the theme of recruiting young goalkeepers on the continent, 16-year-old Oliwer Zych was a part of Zagłębie Lubin’s youth system, having joined them from Arki Gdynia in 2018 but continuing to develop his career, Zych is one of several new recruits for Aston Villa’s Under-18 squad.
The Polish Under-16 international had been invited to trials at Arsenal, Liverpool and Bayern Munich in years past, but despite not making his debut for Zagłębie Lubin’s first team, he was on the bench for two Polish Cup games last year.
Reports claim that Villa paid training and development costs to his former club Lubin, who play in Poland’s top flight. Having played at multiple youth levels for Poland, Zych is well accustomed to the pressures of emerging as a shining light in his homeland.
Mark Harrison said upon Zych’s arrival: “This signing, along with all of our new additions, is the result of a lot of hard work in terms of recruitment.
“It is further evidence of the club’s vision to build a long-term player development strategy, which is backed by Nassef, Wes, Christian and Johan.”
Sam Proctor, formerly of Peterborough is now the latest ‘keeper to join Villa’s ever-improving academy of young stars after the club forked out £100,000 for the 13-year old earlier this season.
Proctor, who hails from Boston, had been at the Posh Academy since he was eight and even started out as an outfield player. He was selected to attend an England Under-15 training camp at St George’s Park last December and if he pens a professional deal with the club in the coming years, Villa will pay an extra £50,000 for the teenager.