Petr Cech is has become used to taking knocks since arriving in the Premier League. Sadly for him, they’ve been of the more verbal variety in recent weeks as he has taken some of criticism for Chelsea’s stuttering form. There’s no doubt that the Czech goalkeeper is not reaching the high standards he set for himself in his early days. But if he isn’t, why isn’t he? And can he ever recapture his best form or is this the start of a slow and irreversible decline?
Cech arrived in Chelsea in the early stages of the Abramovich era and although he didn’t come with the eye-watering price-tags of other signings, it soon became apparent he had the potential to be one of the most important. He impressed almost immediately and replaced Cudicni at the start of the 2004-05 season – initially as cover for an injury to the first choice Italian, but before long, on form. Later in the season, behind Mourinho’s water-tight defence, he set a then Premier League record for going 1,025 minutes without conceding. Like all goalkeepers, he wasn’t foot perfect, but he was nothing short of a sensation. He commanded his penalty area with the authority of a more senior keeper. His handling was excellent, his agility almost impossibly good for a man of 6ft 5in and his footwork and technique made him very easy on the eye. The 2005-06 season went almost as swimmingly as Chelsea defended their title on the foundation of that solid defence. Then came that day in October of 2006 when he came off second best in a challenge with the knee of the ever-enthusiastic Stephen Hunt. It’s impossible to over-state the severity of the injury. The collision gave Cech a ‘depressed skull fracture’ and there was a period when the doctors feared for his life, let alone his career. After ten days in hospital, he returned home and begin the path to recovery – a path that ended surprisingly early in January with the aid of some intense medical work and the reinforced scrum cap that has now become a crucial part of his kit.
When Cech returned from that horrific head injury, I though he looked like a man with no interest in being there. He was hesitant, slow to get involved and gave the signs of someone who was enduring rather than enjoying his football. He looked so disenfranchised, the thought of a depressingly premature retirement for the sake of his health – both physical and mental – wasn’t laughable. It was understandable after the trauma he suffered. Pundits and commentators frequently seem to long for the day when you could do most things short of attacking the goalkeeper with a chainsaw, but lost on them seems to be the point that the goalkeeper receives ‘excessive’ protection, but he or she is very vulnerable when going to catch a high ball or throw themselves at the feet of an attacker. Outfield players can use their arms and elbows for leverage, but the goalkeeper has no such protection. Even playing a game in the park, the sound of legs thundering towards you as jump to claim a cross if enough to briefly raise the heart rate of even the calmest of custodian. For Cech, it must have difficult to throw himself in dangerous situations with gusto knowing the problems he has had in the past.
Thankfully he slowly rebuilt his confidence and clawed his way back into the debate about the best goalkeeper in the world. After few weeks of the 2010-11 season, it looked like the renaissance was complete. Chelsea started the season like an express train and another league looked like a formality. Cech’s form however was so good it covered up the glaring cracks that would only appear later in the season. The Pensioners bulldozed a few teams early in the season, but Cech’s contribution facilitated it. He made crucial saves when the result was still in the balance that allowed his team-mates to press on with the business of administering a trouncing. He was agile, sharp, brave and the commanding presence of old. Shaka Hislop described it as “falling in love with him all over again” and it’s only the romantic implication of that phrase that is any exaggeration. Fans of football in general and goalkeeping in particular could appreciate the sight of a great player recapturing his best form. Like his team however, it could not be sustained and the second half of the season was a different story. Cech make a few costly mistakes as a league title that looked guarantee in October slipped away.
With Andre Villas-Boas arriving at Stamford Bridge over the summer, there was cause for optimism and the season began well with Cech performing very well in a stalemate against Stoke. Before too long, the honeymoon was over and the problems began to surface. He was uncharacteristically ineffective as Arsenal put five past him at the Bridge and rather unfairly got some more negative attention for his part in Liverpool’s opening goal last weekend. Against Bayer Leverkusen, the were murmurs of needing to do better for the host’s winner. Personally, I think it was a very difficult header to save, but equally, Cech’s flailing didn’t give the impression of a player at the peak of his form. Granted he isn’t getting much help from his defence, but individually, Cech must expect more from himself.
As for searching for an explanation, I think it’s telling that his most recent dip in form has come not long after the broken nose the suffered against Blackburn and after a series of less. If any player suffers serious injury, it’s bound to make them more hesitant in the direct aftermath. If a goalkeeper spends even a millisecond too long thinking about nursing an injury, the ball will be beyond him. It’s not the full reason for his struggles, but I’m sure it’s a factor. His confidence in aerial battles seems to have evaporated similar to how it was when he returned from his first major injury. His headgear has had to be adapted now to cover his nose and it must play on his mind that another major head injury may end not only his career, but possibly his life. That may come across with a whiff of melodrama, but they are the medical facts that Cech goes into every game with.
Not for the first time, Cech’s form mirrors that of his team. Whilst Chelsea have the financial power to recover, it remains to be seen if Cech can return to his best form. With Thibault Courtois learning his trade in Madrid, his replacement is learning his apprenticeship. Ideally for Chelsea, Cech will recapture his best form and the Belgian’s education will continue for a couple of seasons yet. That’s the perfect scenario, but as Cech now knows, things don’t always go perfectly.