Bernd Leno ArsenalGetty Images

'I was No.1, I am No.1 and I will be No.1!' - Brilliant Leno ends Martinez debate

They say absence makes the heart grow fonder but in Bernd Leno’s case it seems to have worked the opposite way in recent months.

Arsenal’s German goalkeeper has been a revelation since he arrived from Bayer Leverkusen in 2018 and has been in the running for the club’s player of the year award in each of his two seasons in north London.

Yet, through no fault of his own, he started the current campaign with the spotlight firmly on him due to the departure of Emiliano Martinez, who Arsenal sold for £20 million ($26m) to Aston Villa.

The decision to sell Martinez, who performed so well during the final weeks of last season having been thrust into action following the knee injury sustained by Leno at Brighton, suddenly had fans questioning his status as Arsenal No.1.

It was a debate that dominated the build-up to the new season and one that only ended when Arsenal sanctioned Martinez’s move to Villa Park.

But that decision only sparked a new debate. Had Arsenal made the wrong choice? Should Leno have been the one to go?

Suddenly, the Germany international was scrutinised and any slight errors he made during Arsenal’s opening games of the season would be used as a stick to beat him with.

The situation wasn’t helped by Martinez making an immediate impact at Villa, saving a penalty on his debut and keeping two successive clean sheets.

Leno needed a big performance - a display that would remind everyone of just how good a goalkeeper he was - and he produced one at Liverpool on Thursday night.

The 28-year-old was magnificent; he was the major reason why Arsenal claimed their first win at Anfield since 2012 and booked their spot in the Carabao Cup quarter-finals, where they will play host to Manchester City.

Leno made six saves in the 90 minutes against the Premier League champions, including one fabulous reaction stop to deny Virgil van Dijk early in the second half and another to tip over Marko Grujic’s looping header towards the end.

Bernd Leno

He stopped everything Liverpool threw at him and then denied Divock Origi and Harry Wilson during the penalty shoot-out, allowing Joe Willock to score the decisive spot-kick and send Arsenal through.

“I’ve never feared it,” Leno said to Sky Sports after the game, when asked if there had been a moment where he thought he might lose the No.1 spot at Arsenal.

“The club always gave me the feeling that I was No.1, I am the No.1 and I will be the No.1. That was always very good from the club.

“My job is to prove it every week. I think I’ve done it again.”

The focus that Leno has found himself under this season has certainly been unfair. Given his performances since he arrived from Germany two years ago, he didn’t have to prove anything to anybody.

His display at Anfield, however, will certainly have been useful in terms of proving his doubters wrong.

As good as Martinez was when he stepped in to fill the void left by Leno at the end of last season, the Argentine stopper is now in the past.

He is an Aston Villa player and, in Leno, Arsenal have a keeper who is up there with the best in the country.

“We had two fantastic goalkeepers, that were both performing really well,” said Arteta following Thursday night’s victory at Anfield. “Bernd before he had the injury and Emi when he came on.

“But we had to make a decision. I think it was a moment when Emi needed [to take] the next step and financially it was a really interesting proposal for us and we need to manage the resources that we have to strengthen the team.

Bernd Leno

“I am really happy for him (Leno), for his performance and the character he showed.”

When quizzed on whether Martinez’s form before his departure had added more pressure on Leno this season, Arsenal’s manager added: “I think the biggest pressure is coming from the players individually.

“Honestly, I don’t think they read that much about what other people are saying.

“Bernd’s very stable. He works, he has his routine and I don’t think he’s bothered about what’s happening outside.”

One of Leno’s biggest strengths is his character.

He is well known for his calm persona behind the scenes at Arsenal. He trains exceptionally and never lets anything get to him.

If he makes a mistake, he just brushes it off and goes again.

That approach has served him well at Arsenal so far and it’s certainly earned him the backing of Arteta since the Spaniard arrived in December to replace Unai Emery.

Some managers may have been tempted to stick with Martinez given the form he showed last season and how vital he was to the FA Cup success, but Arteta was always adamant that Leno was his No.1.

It was a clear show of faith from the Arsenal manager - one that Leno has now already started to repay.