It’s the day after the night before at Arsenal’s training ground. Some 24 hours earlier, the team was preparing for a Champions League home tie against Olympiakos that many believed would give them their first points of the competition. Instead, Arsenal are reeling from a defeat that puts them on the verge of their earliest exit since 1999.
“It was a game we had to win,” says Petr Cech, the Gunners’ goalkeeper. “So obviously you can still see the disappointment around the squad today.”
The former Chelsea man’s non-inclusion was the hottest topic of conversation among fans and pundits during the 24 hours that followed the Olympiakos defeat. Arsene Wenger instead decided to play his number two, David Ospina, in goal against the Greek champions. If it was a tricky selection to explain before kick-off, it was almost impossible after Arsenal’s 3-2 defeat.
Ospina’s calamitous error gifted Olympiakos a goal that put them 2-1 up at half-time. It also ensured the post-match spotlight shone on the futility of leaving Arsenal’s best shot-stopper on the bench. Wenger was in no mood to explain the Photography by James Eckersley thinking behind his decision – and when we ask Cech about it in the cold light of day, he keeps his counsel too.
In fact, during the hour we spend with the 33-year-old, when he speaks as freely and honestly as a Premier League footballer possibly can, this is the only time he keeps an obvious leash on his words:
“The manager has the choice between players and keepers, and he decided to go with David. You have to respect the manager’s choice.”
It’s the kind of answer one expects from a player who has been the consummate pro since he arrived in England from French side Rennes in 2004. Fortunately, there are plenty of other issues on which Cech is willing to let loose, revealing much about the man on whom Wenger spent £10m this summer. It would appear to be a smart gamble, with Arsenal second in the table after Sunday’s 3-0 win over Manchester United. That result meant Cech moved a step closer to matching the Premier League clean sheets record: he is now on 166, by his own analysis, with David James’ mark of 170 now within touching distance.
You watched the Olympiakos game from the bench. How do you analyse the defeat?
“We started well. We created two chances early on and you think: ‘Okay, we have the right intensity to win the game.’ But then the rhythm of the game slowed. They took time before playing on after any foul or set-play and there was a period where the game went too slow, which suited them. In the second half we put more pressure on them and equalised, but the killer blow was the third goal. We were back in the game with 20 minutes to win, but we gave them a chance to get the third and that’s when the game turned against us. You can’t afford to give your opponents in the Champions League a lead like that.”
How can Arsenal ensure that games like that don’t continue to thwart their challenge for trophies this season?
“You need to get away from the emotions and make sure you play the game in a practical way. Last night we went with the emotion after coming back to 2-2, and we lost because of that. Sometimes you need to be more practical. You have to make sure you don’t give your opponent any easy options and that you are focused and concentrated every minute of the game. This is where we need to control the emotions better.”
At this stage of your career, can you see the positive side of being rested?
“Obviously you would prefer to play every game, but football is a team game and sometimes the manager needs to spread it on every player, so he [Wenger] made a decision last night to play David. Every manager wants to win every game, so you pick your team the way that you believe makes the team ready to win. That didn’t happen [against Olympiakos], but we all win together and we all lose together. This is the nature of football and we have to get on with it.”
David Ospina was slammed for his mistake. Have you developed a way of coping with the aftermath of games like that?
“You have a good game and you are the best in the world. You have a bad game and you are the worst, so it’s better not to read anything. The fact is you made a mistake. The reason why you are where you are is the way you prepare, the way you work and the way you approach your job. I believe if you are 100 per cent prepared and concentrated and in a game everything goes wrong, then at least you know you’ve done everything possible to make this a successful game. If you don’t prepare 100 per cent and something bad happens, then you have your regrets and you feel much worse about it. I try to avoid these feelings.”
Your first league game at the Emirates against West Ham was one of those days when everything went wrong. Do you attribute that to early-season jitters?
“It was just a coincidence, in a way. We were all raring to go and then the first half was really slow. There was a bit of a lack of rhythm and you think: ‘Let's put a bit of energy in here.’ So when that ball came [a free-kick by West Ham’s Dimitri Payet], I was thinking: ‘Let’s go and get the ball and make something happen.’ A fast counter-attack, or whatever. And this was where the mistake came, because there was no way I could have got this ball.”
So you were overexcited?
“I wanted to do something extra, but this usually goes wrong. You shouldn’t do things that are extra; you should do things the precise way and not try to do something you don’t have to. You learn in every moment, even at 33. And, in a way, you surprise yourself because this has never happened to me before. I’m always good at keeping myself focused on doing what I need to do.”
Did you look at any of the social media reaction afterwards?
“My wife showed me that Superman-style picture floating around the internet. This is part of the game. When something like that happens, people take the opportunity to make a bit of fun. The way I see it is: they don’t get a chance to do that the whole year, so the first time they have it, they have to use it. For the rest of the season they might not get a chance.”
Having spent 11 years at Chelsea, were you apprehensive about starting afresh? “Last year I realised that the club [Chelsea] had sort of turned the page from me. I knew the manager had made his choice and that this was not for me at this point of my career. If I was new to the club or I had been there two or three years, then you might think: ‘Okay, let’s fight for my place and see what the outcome will be.’ But at my age and after all I’ve done it was like a chapter closing. Sometimes you have to think about yourself, and this was the best thing for me. At 33, I don’t want to just give things time, just to wait and see. So, after all I’d done at Chelsea, I felt it was the right time to move on.”
You have said before that meeting Arsene Wenger convinced you Arsenal was the right club. Why?
“He introduced me to the vision the club has for the coming years, to the reason why certain things are the way they are now and how they will be next year and the year after. I really liked the project in the way it matches my ambition and motivations. It’s a difficult decision to go from Chelsea to Arsenal, but I believed it was the right decision because I wanted to be part of the Premier League at a club that matches my ambitions. With Arsenal, that all came together.”
Does his longevity at the club give him anything different to other managers?
“In football everything changes fast, so you need to have a clear vision and support from people at the club. Obviously the board and everyone at Arsenal believe in the manager – that’s why he’s still here. It’s not just for the way you are – it must be for the way you work, too. The public only see the game, they don’t see all the things that are happening behind the scenes. So, sometimes, judging people only on the fraction of the time you see them working can lead to different opinions.”
He and your old boss Jose Mourinho have had their differences. Do you see any similarities between them?
“The similarity is that everybody wants to win. If you ask Jose Mourinho or Arsene Wenger if they want to win everything: yes they do. You can see they don’t like losing games, and I think this is something you need to have in you if you want to be successful.”
Is that similarity a reason why they clash?
“It’s more a question for them. But, yes, sometimes two pluses doesn’t make a plus.”
You have won everything in club football. What do Arsenal need to do to go from finishing third and fourth to winning titles?
“We need to be more consistent in the way we put a run together, and avoid the games where you switch off. I think that’s the only thing, because in terms of the quality of the team Kieran McManus/BPI/REX Shutterstock and the motivation of everyone, you can see that we can compete with everybody. But we need to make sure that every game we are 100 per cent consistent and focused. Sometimes this is the hardest part.”
You’ve been at a club that found a winning consistency. What’s the secret?
“You need to make sure you do the basics right in every game. That gives you the platform to build on – and then, if you don’t have a particularly great day, you can make sure you still get the maximum out of it. At Chelsea we had games where we knew it was not going our way, but we managed to get the most out of it, which was a great skill to have. Sometimes you need to stick to the basics and forget about playing the way you want when it’s not going your way. It’s about adapting to the situation better. As I said before, if you go too much with the emotion, you can be punished. I think that’s what happened to us against Olympiakos, with that third goal.”
There has been a lot of head-scratching over the struggles of English clubs in Europe. Do you have a view on it?
“I know from my own experience why. If you look at the game against Olympiakos, the only time they looked like they couldn’t cope was when we played at full intensity. In the European game, there is not the same rhythm, even down to the way the referee blows the whistle more often than in the league and how everybody is kind of cheating with the time. The English teams are so used to playing end-to-end stuff that, when the game slows down, everyone gets frustrated. We always had a problem with the Italians [at Chelsea] because they made us almost fall asleep with the way they walk around. You think: ‘Oh, the game is easy,’ and suddenly you are 3-0 down because you fall into this trap.”
Should teams be prepared better for that?
“We need to be more cautious in European games because every week English teams get caught. We need a change in mentality to make that switch between Premier League and European games. You know it’s going to be more tactical and slower. So you need to make sure that, even if the game goes really slow, you pick up your own intensity. It’s the only way. The other factor is that we spend so much energy on every game in the Premier League that sometimes the teams you play prepare better because they can afford to rest players [in the league]. You can’t do that here. If you want to win it, you have to play every game 100 per cent – no matter what.”