Wojciech Szczesny had an almost unique job as keeper for Arsenal in the 2011-2012 season. As part of a possession based team, he was expected to play an integral role passing the ball both short and long at a high percentage. And since the opposition decided that Arsenal were vulnerable on set pieces they attempted to exploit that perceived weakness with an aggressive aerial game forcing Szczesny to be commanding in his area. As if that weren’t enough, the Arsenal system last season also featured a hawkish attacking style which often left a lot of space between keeper and last defender and thus required Szczesny to come out and claim the ball in an almost sweeper-like role. When he was unable to claim, Szczesny was forced into a large number of what Opta calls “big chances” for the attacking player; one-on-ones and other scoring opportunities for which you think the attacking player ought to score.*
Given all these duties, Szczesny excelled at some and struggled with others as Arsenal allowed 49 League goals in 2011-2012, the most ever in the Wenger era. So, which areas did Szczesny do well in and where would we expect improvement this season? Remembering of course, that it’s a team sport, in part 1 we will look at what he and his teammates did well and tomorrow in part 2 we will look at where he and his teammates will look to improve this season.
A word of caution that no one will read: this is one season’s data and while it is an enormous amount of data gathered over that one season Arsenal already look as if they have already changed some of the fundamental problems from last year. Not only that, but the Opta data set I was given is missing some key information (especially about these “big chances” such as “big chances saved” and “big chances saved in the box”, etc.) which could shed further light on where Szczesny placed on an individual basis. And finally, this is a team sport but unfortunately it’s often the defenders (and especially keepers) who get the blame for goals allowed. Is it Szczesny’s fault for every goal? No. And maybe even more radically, is Szczesny a terrible keeper because, say, his saves stats are low? NO.
As for the methodology, I was given most of Opta’s dataset for the 2011-2012 season. Each player, each game, and every one of more than 200 events is logged by Opta, which I can comfortably say is more data than you can shake a stick at. In fact, it would take 100 kids shaking 100 sticks at 60 shakes per minute 17 hours to shake a stick at all this data.
This is the biggest data set I have ever played with and more than once, I lost my work and had to start over. That is why today’s post is so late and why this post has taken me so long to write overall. What’s even more frightening is that this data set is just a slice of the data that Opta are recording. For example, for every event in the data set I have, there’s position data which I don’t have: where, exactly, on the field events take place. Which is just one of many other events that I am confident Opta collect. Given the enormity of the task I undertook, there is the very distinct possibility that I’ve gotten something wrong. If so, please point it out.
I took all of the players in the League who played keeper more than once and filtered them by the 20 players who played more than half of their team’s games as keeper. This resulted in one keeper for every team in the League:
I then removed superfluous events from the data set, such as shots and shots on goal, and focused on the keeper’s main contributions to the team: saves, claims, penalty stops, distribution, etc. I will say here that in stats that don’t have much meaning, Szczesny led all keepers with 3 successful dribbles. Al Habsi, Cech, Howard, and Foster all had 1, and no other keeper had a successful dribble. Meanwhile, Begovich and Reina were the only two to have an unsuccessful dribble attempt. There was also the anomaly of Howard’s long range goal and Robinson winning a penalty for Blackburn. All of those I made note of for their “gee-wiz” factor and moved on.
In terms of passing the ball and “Goalkeeper distribution”, which are in the Arsenal system a form of defense, Szczesny’s numbers are exactly where you expect them to be.
Among goal keepers, Szczesny was second in the League in passing percentage with 70% and 2nd in total passes completed. That’s just behind Swansea’s Vorm at 71% and ahead of Liverpool’s Reina at 70%. However, if you remove free kicks, Vorm was the hands-down most prolific passing goal keeper last season with 706 passes, 209 more than 2nd place Cech of Chelsea. Szczesny comes in at a respectable 487 non-dead ball passes, good enough for fourth. I expect to see this pure passing number climb for Szczesny now that Arteta is playing in the deep lying midfield position, much like Brendan Rodgers had Joe Allen do for the Swans last term.
In the final third, Szcz only misplaced 13 total passes all season, again, the same number as Vorm and with a completed passing rate of 97% it doesn’t really matter whether it’s tops in the League or not, just so long as it’s not 84% like Paul Robinson. Just to give an illustration of how important that number is to Arsenal: if Szczesny had only completed 84% of the passes in his own final third, and given the number of passes that he attempted, that would have meant 74 misplaced passes in his own area. In fact, accounting for all passes in his own half, Szczesny passed the ball at a 91% rate which was second best in the League and meant that his defense didn’t have to worry about the keeper’s distribution behind them.
I actually shouldn’t use “distribution” in that last sentence because it’s a term of art for keepers and refers to their rolling the ball out, punting it away, or goal kicks. Again we see a familiar cast of characters topping the list in terms of distribution percentage; Reina is number 1 at 79%, Szczesny is 2 at 75%, and Vorm is tied for 3rd with 72%.
In his sweeper-keeper role, Szczesny led the League in keeper clearances with 49 last season and won the second most number of duels (tackles and aerial headers) behind Vorm. All of the keepers who play for the top teams are forced into duels and Szczesny did well in all of his attempts, winning 3 headed clearances (2nd behind Begovich), 1 last man tackle (tied for first with Begovich and Reina), and only conceded 21 corners all season. A number which is good enough for 7th best on the list.
And finally, Szczesny was outstanding in what people often refer to as “commanding his area”. This is typically measured in how often a keeper comes out and claims a cross or high ball off the opposition’s corner or dead ball situation. Szczesny led the league in successful punches with 27 and was 9th overall in total catches with 50. Once he does try to catch the ball, he’s very sure handed with just two dropped balls all last season. Arsenal weren’t tested the most off crosses and set plays into the box, that was Wolves’ Hennessey with 2.59 per game but Szczesny did have to deal with over 2 per game which puts him nearly 25% more per game than De Gea and Hart. And considering that possession numbers for Man City were similar to Arsenal that’s a significant challenge to the young Pole. One which did well to deal with managing an overall 3rd best 93% claim rate.
Wojciech Szczesny is very much the type of keeper that Arsene Wenger’s system demands: someone who fits into the possession type offense and can recycle the ball very efficiently in his own half (91%). Szczesny also does the job as last defender (clearing the ball and making last ditch tackles, etc) when Arsenal press for the winning goal — though some will say he was called upon to do this too often last term, a point we will examine in the next article. Where Szczesny has started to endear himself to the Arsenal faithful is in the way he controls the 6 yard box on corners and other set plays. Arsenal grew a reputation for a soft touch on set pieces over the last few years which will take time to overcome. Based on Szczesny’s performance last season, and some of the defensive organization this season, the club are well down that road. West Ham on October 6th will surely test that supposition.
Tomorrow we will look at where Arsenal’s defense needs improvement and where Szczesny could help push the club in the right direction.
*What we refer to as “pants-shitting moments” here on 7amkickoff.