When Emi Martinez joined Aston Villa from Arsenal in September 2020 he attached a laminated list of targets to his locker, and one of them was to become the best goalkeeper in the world.
At the time, that might have seemed like an admirably lofty but somewhat unlikely ambition for someone who had never even been the number one keeper at his club, let alone on the entire planet.
Martinez’s move to Dean Smith’s newly-promoted team came a few days after he turned 28. The previous decade had seen him make just 13 Premier League starts for the Gunners – who loaned him out six times to the lower leagues or abroad.
Just two-and-a-half years on, however, the charismatic Argentina international might soon need a new career objective as he prepares to face his former club this weekend.
That same locker at Villa’s Bodymoor Heath training ground is now bulging with winners’ medals from the World Cup and Copa America and, after being awarded the Golden Glove trophy for being the best keeper in Qatar, he has just been named on a shortlist of three for the individual accolade he craves at the 2022 Fifa Best Awards.
It has been quite a journey, one that he shared with his long-time goalkeeping coach at Villa, Neil Cutler, who persuaded him to move to the Midlands and became his close friend and unofficial psychologist.
“To go from being a number two keeper in the Premier League to winning a World Cup in such a short time is a unique path, but there are many reasons Emi has made such a rapid rise, starting with his desire and work ethic,” Cutler told BBC Sport.
“His will to do whatever it takes to get where he wanted to be was just massive, and his passion was so evident, which is why I tried so hard to get him to Villa in the first place.
“This is a guy whose biggest problem was that he sometimes did too much, partly because of his lack of experience. He once picked up an injury because he practised saving too many penalties, but that had to happen for him to learn he could over-train.”
‘He’s driven, but he’s down to earth too’
Cutler left Villa at the end of October when new boss Unai Emery was appointed and brought with him his own coaching staff, including goalkeeper specialist Javi Garcia – who also worked with Martinez at Arsenal.
But the pair remain close, with Martinez reacting to Cutler’s exit with an emotive message on social media, where he described him as “the best English coach by miles” and phoning Cutler from Lusail Stadium in the immediate aftermath of his World Cup triumph.
“The first thing I felt for Emi after the final was relief,” Cutler added. “I was unbelievably proud because I knew he had dedicated his entire life to that moment.
“To do my job I had to find out what makes Emi thrive, so that meant knowing everything about his lifestyle away from football as well as the level of detail of the work he did with me on the training pitch, and beyond.
“People criticised him for his antics during the penalty shoot-out against France, and then said ‘what an idiot’ when he celebrated with the Golden Glove trophy, but I know him differently.
“He’s really empathetic; someone who would do anything to help people around him, and who wants everyone to be happy. At Villa he’s always arranging barbecues and trying to bring the squad and their families together, because that’s what is important to him.
“He’s driven, to an extraordinary level, but he is down to earth too.”
Maximising Martinez’s potential meant making his mentality as much a part of his game as his imposing physical frame.
“Emi gave everything to reach that World Cup, and also to win it,” Cutler said. “He has got his own nutritionist, yoga and Pilates teacher and I’ve know him to go swimming in the middle of the night just to recover for the next game.
“When you realise exactly what it took for him to get here, then you just think let him celebrate the way he wants to, because he has earned it every step of the way.
“I think when he came to Villa, he maybe had a point to prove to Arsenal – but not any more. When he spoke about his time there, his frustration was about not getting games, rather than any dig at the club – and in any case things have worked out very well for him and for them since he left.”
Bringing Martinez to Villa
Martinez’s best run in the Gunners’ first team came at the end of his final season at Emirates Stadium, the Covid-affected 2019-20 campaign, when first-choice Bernd Leno was injured.
He started 11 consecutive games in all competitions, including the FA Cup final win over Chelsea, but decided to seek regular first-team football elsewhere. Cutler was watching him.
“We had a list of keepers and myself, [Villa sporting director] Johan Lange and the scouting department had lots of meetings,” Cutler said.
“Johan and the scouts would mainly go off stats like clean sheets and save percentages but Emi was somewhere lower down that list because he hadn’t played many games, compared to the other keepers across Europe we were looking at.
“Luckily they were open to my ideas and how I work – I look at a keeper’s style and shape, and Emi’s bio-mechanics were excellent, he ticked every box.
“Trying to convince people to spend £18m on a goalkeeper who has not played much first-team football was not easy, but I did it. I put on a PowerPoint presentation, showing what he would bring, including his character.
“Then it was a case of me selling the club to Emi, and I had so many conversations with him over the phone telling him what I do and how, and what we would achieve together. He knew I would go above and beyond to make him better, which was the same approach he had.
“He felt that connection straightaway and he was like ‘that’s it, I am coming to Villa’. In the end he was chased by quite a few other clubs but he was a man of his word.”
The road to the World Cup final
Martinez made an instant impact at Villa, with four clean sheets in his first seven Premier League games, and ended his first campaign with 15 shutouts in total.
That form alerted Argentina – he had made a couple of their squads during his time at Arsenal, without getting off the bench, but playing international football was still on his wishlist.
“He had lots of targets, as soon as he arrived at Villa,” Cutler said. “Every day when he opened his locker, we would tick some off.
“In the first year, one of them was him becoming number one for Argentina, so it was huge for him when he made his debut in June 2021.
“He is so stats-driven, he always needs to reach this number, or that for saves, cross collection or his pass completion. He had the most clean sheets at that Copa America – four in six games – but then it was straight on to the next thing.
“Sometimes my job was just to be the psychologist, and understand him emotionally and what he was thinking. He was so eager to keep clean sheets, he wanted to save everything, even the impossible, so he has had to learn how to deal with not achieving certain things.
“But never once did I say ‘come on, Emi, you are never going to be the best in the world’. I’d always say ‘there is no reason why you can’t achieve that’, and now he is getting very, very close.”
‘We wanted him to have confidence, bordering on arrogance’
Playing at the 2022 World Cup was also on Martinez’s list, and he has obviously ticked that one off too.
He played an integral part in Argentina’s victory in the final, with a brilliant save from Randal Kolo Muani at the end of extra-time, and then by successfully unnerving France’s penalty takers with his antics in the shootout.
That was viewed by some as unsporting behaviour, but Cutler admits he played a part in that gameplan, and sees it as more evidence of how Martinez has developed a more robust and winning mentality.
“It was my fault really, because we worked for a long time on him bringing his personality and presence to own situations like that,” Cutler said.
“Instead of him showing frustration and going into his shell, we wanted him to show his passion by having confidence, bordering on arrogance, which could affect things in a positive way.
“The statistics are stacked against keepers with penalties – it’s very likely that the person taking one will score – so it is a case of thinking how can I put him off slightly.
“The first time we focused on trying to psych a player out was when Villa played Manchester United in September 2021, and Bruno Fernandes missed from the spot after Emi spoke to him and told him Cristiano Ronaldo should be taking it.
“It is about knowing the player and, if it is someone like Fernandes who you think you can wind up, then you know it might not take a lot to get inside his head.”
So what is the next target? There cannot be much of that original list left unchecked on his locker, but that does not mean Martinez has lost any of his drive to succeed.
“First it was playing, now he wants to win things,” Cutler added. “The big thing with Emi is his hunger, and he won’t lose that no matter how good he becomes.
“He’s played so few games that he is like a 30-year-old in a 22-year-old’s body, so he has so much more to give – he is going to be at the top for years to come.”