The difference between a “Great” and “World Class” GoalKeeper.

In 2017 Manchester City broke the transfer record for a goalkeeper when they signed Ederson for €40 million from Benfica surpassing the previous record 16 years earlier that Juventus paid for the legend that is Gianluigi Buffon. Little did they know that this would be a trend that was irreversible as it changed how the world of football seen the value of a keeper in the modern game. Ederson was a massive piece of the jigsaw in the Pep Guardiola project at City as he demanded to play out from the back under even the most ferocious of pressing, something that the ice cold Brazilian managed to do with ease.

Within a year of this, Liverpool – almost under the radar managed to swoop in and seal the deal for Allisson Becker from Roma – which was almost double the transfer price of Ederson at €78 million in a move that sent shockwaves through the footballing world for a few reasons. Much like the Neymar deal this was unprecedented for a keeper to go for such a commanding fee, but would also have a huge effect on a number of clubs that were simultaneously completing a merry-go-round of keeper moves. Chelsea were in the middle of sealing a deal to send Courtois to Madrid but demanded to first find and secure his replacement. With so few top quality keepers available they were thought to have narrowed the shortlist with Allison as the prime target. With the Brazillian now heading to Anfield this made their situation all the more desperate as the next target was Bilbao keeper Kepa Arizabilaga. Not only that but it was now also going to cost them in the region of €30 million more than they intended to splash out! The deals were finalised almost a month later than intended but many felt that Chelsea had let go of a world class keeper only to sign something of an unfinished article.

With less than 2 years on it seems the chickens have come home to roost as the Blue fans of Chelsea are feeling somewhat short changed by the current form of the world’s most expensive keeper. In order to see if it can be quantified by stats as well as the human eye I’ve decided to do some number crunching on 6 of the best shot stoppers in the Premier League.

With most keepers having reached the 24 game mark by now we can view what I would consider the most concerning stats of the modern day keeper with not just arriving at one solitary statistic and then beating them with that stick. It would be fair to assume that most Premier League teams play from the back, use their keeper as an extra defender (Sweeper), rely on their keepers help in aerial attacks and that the keeper can play out with accuracy so the team can retain the ball.

What strikes me straight away is the number of saves by Arsenal keeper Leno with nearly 1/3 more saves to his credit this season than his nearest competitor. It is no surprise that he therefore has a saves per match stat of 3.1 which would signify he is certainly earning his corn at Arsenal this season. Here is where the worry kicks in for Kepa as he has made less saves than anyone else on a similar number of games but also has only a stat of 1.7 saves per match indicating that he is not called into action as much as a De Gea or a Pickford.

One stat that seems to redeem many of the keepers above is their extra defencive contributions in the form of claiming high balls/crosses and sweeping the area to snuff out attacks. It is not normally something we discuss in terms of valuable attributes but when you play the likes of Burnley it is a huge help to have a keeper that dominates his box when the ball is being pumped in at all angles. Kepa and Leno lead the way in this stat so where Kepa might not be making a high amount of saves per game he is certainly sweeping his area efficiently when it matters most. Interestingly David De Gea is shown up by these 2 stats by being stuck to his line more than most in what seems to be a lack of willingness to go the extra mile for the cause.

The most interesting stat of course is the one that is being talked about the most and that is successful saves per game %. This is the one that separates the men from the boys as it clearly shows the amount of times your keeper will save a shot when called upon. With Allison Becker leading the way in this stat by a country mile it really shows the value of a world class keeper. Again, Leno excels here as the unsung hero for the gunners closely followed by Ederson. Once⁸ more though Kepa is bringing up the rear with the lowest percentage which show him saving barely half the shots that are hit at him! Maybe this is the reason why the pensioners are beginning to think they were sold magic beans for their prize cow. Of course this will be interesting to see if the trend continues until the season ends. With Frank Lampard publicly calling him out as needing to improve, there is definitely a concern at Stamford Bridge over their young keeper.

Jordan Pickford has an interesting set of stats here with his highlight being the number of actual touches he receives per game. It is obvious that he is well used by his team mates as a port of call for safety more so than any other keeper in the league. But closely followed by his distribution percentage, he has a horrific completion rate when compared to his peers. This suggests that he kicks long and hard but into no man’s land more often than not, with barely half his passes making it to a friendly shirt. His successful save % is also something to be improved upon as the second lowest of the group. Not that I would consider Pickford in the same ilk as the group but it shows perhaps the gulf in class between what we call a Top Keeper and a World Class keeper.

If we were to break this down in stats alone and take the best of what we have on the table and put it in one person’s abilities it would look like this :

  • Concede 1 goal from 5 shots.
  • Claim 2 crosses per game.
  • Sweep up 2 long balls outside your box per game.
  • Make 4 saves per game.
  • Complete 84/100 passes you make.

Of course in real terms, it can be hard to compare Allison Becker’s performances with say Bernd Leno when the latter has nearly 3 times the amount of work to do in each game. It also has a skewed effect when you are sitting behind a leak tight defence compared to one that ships goals week in week out. But in essence what is the real difference between a Top Keeper and a World Class keeper. For me it is the ability to do the simple things well (Catch and hold shots without spilling them back out to the strikers), add a sense of calmness to the backline with your presence (Good communication skills) but most importantly make the big saves at the big moments. Looking back over the years I can remember the really World Class keepers making pivotal saves at times where it literally saved their team from losing a game. A keeper that might even be having a relatively quiet game until called upon for a big save in the 60th minute.

  • Peter Schmeichel March 1996 v Newcastle  : Newcastle were in the middle of blowing the biggest lead of the Premier League era against Man Utd when Schmeichel made a stunning save from Ferdinand to keep a clean sheet and win the game.
  • Allison Becker November 2019 V Napoli : The Brazilian denied Arkadiusz Milik in the 92nd minute at Anfield last December to secure a 1-0 victory. Liverpool would have gone out of the group and not ended up winning the title that year.
  • Gordon Banks v Brazil 1970 : Regarded as the greatest save in world football, Banks somehow saved a header from Pele.

So in essence, it might just also show why some keepers grow in stature the older they get – Like a fine wine they get better with age. The reasons are probably due to the experience they gather over the years on how to deal with pressure, how to stay focussed even when things are quiet and how to be in perfect shape mentally and physically to do one of the hardest jobs in football. It is a job that comes with huge responsibility because every keeper in the world has made mistakes in the past, it is about how quickly you can deal with those mistakes and how you move onwards. It is why young keepers can be eaten up and chewed out and why the mental strength is possibly the most intense on the field.

For Kepa Arrizabalaga in particular, he is still only 26 years of age. He has played around 200 games in his professional career to date and has only made 10 appearances for Spain. He could play on for at least 10 more years if he chose to. There is little doubt that for now he is not to be placed in the same bracket as World Class keepers like Alison/Neuer/Oblak but that is not to say that he cannot become a great keeper. It is a huge test for him at Chelsea which is only cemented by the fact that he is the world’s most expensive ñhts. Frank Lampard will have to earn his managerial merit badge to get the best out of his young keeper.

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