Szczesny v. Liverpool

Is Szczesny the best goalkeeper in the Premier League?

In short, yes.

This season for Arsenal has been a story of resurgence: Aaron Ramsey overcoming injury and calumny to be leading candidate for player of the year, Giroud leading the line for Arsenal, Arsenal breaking the club record to sign Mesut Özil, the club playing much more assured in defense, and of course the club’s resurgence to the top of the table. So it doesn’t surprise me that with all those headlines swirling around the club that the resurgence of Wojciech Szczesny has gone largely unnoticed.

With Arsenal’s new defensive system, Szczesny has been asked to work harder than ever before and he has risen to the occasion. Szczesny commands his area better than at any time in his career, is showing greater confidence in his long kicks, and he has made several crucial saves this season to keep Arsenal in title contention.

First, let me remind you of how Szczesny compared to the top keepers (and Pepe Reina) from last season:

Comparison of Arsenal 5 most-likely keeper signingsIn 2012-2013, Szczesny played 25 League matches (all these stats are for League appearances only) and was making about 1.68 saves per game while allowing 0.96 goals per game. He was also making 1.76 high claims per game and a punch just about every other match. In my article last season, I proposed a metric for measuring how often a keeper was being worked by adding up saves, claims, and punches (SCP) and dividing that by the number of matches the keeper played. Szczesny had exactly 4 of those actions per game last season.

I then divided that number by the number of goals, errors, and failed claims that the keeper made, Szczesny had 29. This gave me a ratio of “good” actions to “bad” and last season Szczesny’s ratio was 3.45. In short, Szczesny didn’t have much to do and when he was called upon to do something, he was somewhat underwhelming.

This season, however, Szczesny has already been worked about as much as he was last season and he’s been superb – he’s already made as many saves in the first 12 games this season (40) as he did in the 25 matches last season (42). And, crucially, he’s let in only 10 goals, whereas in 2012-2013 he let in 24.

Pundits credit Arsenal’s midfield for the team’s excellent defensive form this season. They point out that Ramsey, Flamini, and Arteta work hard to close space and harass the opposition. To some extent that is true, however, somewhat counter-intuitively, Arsenal are letting in more shots (per game) than last season yet are not conceding anywhere near as many goals per shot as they had in the past. If the midfield was really working hard to keep the opposition quiet I would expect that Szczesny would see fewer shots, like Artur Boruc has faced for Southampton, and not more shots as we have seen with Arsenal. No, the fact is that you have to give a lot of credit for Arsenal’s defensive form to the reflexes of Wojciech Szczesny.

SzczesnyErrors

Szczesny is making a lot more saves this year compared to last, up from 1.68 saves per game to 3.33, nearly twice as many. That indicates to me that while we might credit the Arsenal midfield for allowing the opposition fewer clear cut chances, they are still getting shots and Szczesny is coming up with a lot of saves, a lot of great saves as I will discuss in a moment.

SzczesnySCP

Now if we look at the ratio of “good” actions to “bad” again we see a remarkable turnaround from last season. Where Szczesny’s SCP/GEF ratio was 3.45 last year it’s now approaching 7. That’s nearly on par with the likes of Manuel Neuer who is arguably the best goalkeeper in the world. Again, this isn’t a case of the opposition not getting shots or crosses in, Szczesny already has 89 saves, claims, and punches where last year in 25 matches he had 100. This is simply the case that Szczesny is playing remarkably well — saving 80% of shots faced this year compared to just 62% last.

Szczesny has also historically struggled with his kicking and again the young man has matured greatly in his career over the last few seasons going from 2.1 successful long passes per game in 2010-2011 to 6.25 in this season: 

Accurate long Long attempts Percent Per game
2010-2011 32 121 26% 2.1
2011-2012 144 373 39% 3.8
2012-2013 134 278 48% 5.4
2013-2014 75 156 48% 6.25

Those of you who are wondering if Giroud has had an impact in this regard, the answer is “probably”. Giroud has won 61/115 aerial duels this season. That’s 53%, which is pretty good. Last year Giroud was 131/232 which is an even better 56% but you might have noticed something, Giroud is winning more aerials per game than he was last season, which correlates to the fact that Szczesny is trying more long kicks* per game. Watching him play, the young Pole seems much more confident in his long passes than ever before and thus more willing to try a long outlet to Giroud or Sagna.

So, numerically Szczesny has been outstanding both in terms of the saves and claims he’s making and also in terms of his long ball ability. In fact, he’s peerless among the other top keepers in the Premier League. But as many folks like to point out, numbers don’t tell the whole story. The whole story is that Szczesny is also making crucial saves at key moments to help Arsenal win games. Let me just recount a few for you.

Southampton, Arsenal are up 1-0 and the Saints are marching on goal. In the 39th minute, Szczesny produced one of the finest saves of the season – an acrobatic leap to keep out Ward-Prowse’s karate-kick dipping volley. Replays showed the Pole was unsighted.

Liverpool, Arsenal are up 2-0 in the 82nd minute. Liverpool are piling on the pressure and suddenly Suarez, Coutinho, and Sturridge combine to play the Englishman in, but before he can settle, Szczesny is off his line and smothers the shot from point blank range. Arsenal fail to maintain possession on the clearance and Liverpool again work the ball to the exact same spot, this time to Coutinho, and again, Szczesny smothers.

West Brom, scoreline 0-0, Bearinho’s shot from distance takes a wicked deflection off Flamini, Szczesny was originally going left to stop the shot but switches direction and gets down well to his right to save the goal.

Tottenham, Arsenal up 1-0, 75th minute and a shot comes from distance, Koscielny deflects the shot and again like West Brom, Szczesny is going the wrong way to start but shifts back and gets low to save. Who doesn’t love a great save at a crucial moment to keep a clean sheet against a hated rival?

And Fulham, again Arsenal up 1-0, this time the team look tired after the punishing match against Fener, Szczesny makes a killer double-save in the rain, first off a shot from distance and then the follow up — a thunderstruck shot saved when Szczesny sacrifices his body.

And of, course, against Crystal Palace, Szczesny won Barclay’s Man of the Match for his outstanding overall performance. A performance which included a fine save with Arsenal up 1-0: Jedinak fired a wicked curling volley which Szczesny palmed over the bar.

Szczesny save Lallana

 

Wojciech Szczesny has been outstanding for Arsenal this season and it’s a testament to the faith and patience Arsene Wenger paid over the last few years. There were moments when that patience might have wavered a bit and Szczesny was dropped but when great players are dropped they come back stronger and hungrier and that’s exactly what Szczesny has done this season. Szczesny is now the crucial man in the heart of a resurgent Arsenal defense and it was no surprise when Arsenal rewarded him with an improved contract. In fact, if Szczesny keeps playing at the level he has been playing he might even push Aaron Ramsey for player of the year.

That would be something.

Qq

*Prior to Giroud playing for Arsenal, Sagna was actually Arsenal’s leading target man, winning 2.7 aerials per game (57/81). This was because Robin van Persie is not good in the air and won just 28/95 aerials in his one good season with Arsenal.

37 thoughts on “Is Szczesny the best goalkeeper in the Premier League?

  1. +3 Vote -1 Vote +1jeff

    he is still young and still learning. the way arsenal defend also helps. we defend better, the keeper is less exposed and plays better. arsenal win games, confidence grows throughout the team and they all play better

  2. -3 Vote -1 Vote +1NW

    I have to admit I support Arsene signing another goal keeper which he did with a loan deal. I am not against Szczesny but he is still very young and I thought it would be good to have someone older playing may be two more years and then his time will come.

    He made some bad errors and seemed cannot do a goal kick properly.

    His improvement is almost as big as Ramsey this season!

    I believe investing in goal keeper is the best business. U need several good players to get the ball to the front and score. You only need one goal keeper to stop goals. Of course you need others but they can do the relatively simple job of parking the bus.

    Teams score fewer than two goals each game most of the time. So if the goal keeper makes two good saves, he is at least contributing points to his team.

  3. +4 Vote -1 Vote +1mothegooner

    When you say we concede more shots can you tell me where the shots are coming from? It’s a little refreshing watching our defence, it wasn’t that many seasons ago when I used to close my eyes everytime the ball was on our side of the pitch.

    Mayay the unholy Gallas/Almunia duo forever be banished into the history books.

      1. +1 Vote -1 Vote +1Rufusstan

        That was the point I was going to make. As well as his clear improvement in concentration and shot stopping, Szczesny sits behind a defense that seems incredibly hard to play through.

        The pattern so far this season seems to be teams attacking the defense and getting picked off, and only occasionally getting behind us. The impression I get is as games progress, opponents get to the point where they are reduced to getting the ball into the box from set-pieces, long crosses and shooting from range.

        Obviously Szczesny is getting more confident in the box, but the guys around him are helping. When he is called on, not only is he better at dealing with threats, but the threats themselves are often neutered.

  4. +2 Vote -1 Vote +1BayGooner

    As always, great stuff. And as with stats, they ask as many questions as they answer. It almost sounds like Szczesny is saving the team’s sorry declining in defending. Clearly, his success rate is way up, but why is his work rate? And he’s already doubled the number of goals ceded last year in only 40% of the games. And his clean sheet rate has dropped from 40% to 33%.

    Don’t get me wrong: love stats and love this season’s results. Last weekend I found myself lacking the usual traditional tension, nay terror, I used to fend off anytime an attack of potential went towards Arsenal’s end. Not on Sat.

    So, why? Is it Szczesny’s movement? Less passive than previously? Is it fewer instances of indifferent clearance, leading to quick counters? Is it fewer corners and set pieces conceded in the final third? Is the act four handling threats more confidently, so there are fewer OMG! moments as the yellow balloon dawdles in the box waiting to be slotted home? Is it simply that Vermalen is not on the pitch? Or that both Gibbs and Sagna are receiving better midfield support so that near-ground crosses are happening less frequently. I firmly believe there are numbers that should help explain the contrast with last season’s first half.

    That said, there is no doubt our Pole owns his goal. But if his excellence is extinguishing some weakness, then maybe we are more in need of a back-up for him than for GeeRoo.

    Btw, how does Woychek compare to the other top 4 goalies?

  5. +8 Vote -1 Vote +1Tee Söng

    Szczesny, like Ramsey and Giroud, is having a breakout season. So it is a little counterintuitive to observe that despite the fact that we’re conceding almost two more shots per game and Szczesny’s had double the amount of saves, we seem better defensively than last season. However, we’re currently leading the league in terms of the proportion of opposition shots from outside the the box at 58%. Last season, 44% of the shots we conceded were outside the box. A little simple math reveals that compared to last season, we’re conceding one less shot inside the box and that the difference in shots conceded is entirely made up of the three more shots opponents are attempting from outside the penalty area. I remember you did an analysis looking at big chances(?) last year. I wonder if, despite the fact that we’re overall conceding more shots per game, we’re conceding fewer big chances. If we are, than it would dovetail nicely with the above information as an explanation that we are better defensively despite the fact that we’re conceding more shots.

    1. +1 Vote -1 Vote +1Dr.Gooner

      You nailed it… there is a statsbomb article that deals with this very topic (linked on twitter by Tim earlier, thanks Tim!). Earlier this season, Arsenal were second in the top 5 leagues when it came to restricting quality shooting opportunities, only behind Roma (before they went off the boil of late). Spurs by the way were nowhere to be seen on that metric.

  6. Vote -1 Vote +11NiltotheArsenal

    Two big factors play into his/our current success:

    1) “… it’s a testament to the faith and patience Arsene Wenger paid over the last few years.” A two sided coin to be sure, with all the flops that have gone through the club we’ve discussed endlessly. Ramsey and Szczesny are the other side of that same coin of course, and it’s been a pleasure to see that this season. I wouldn’t trade Ramsey for anybody right which is a feeling that may extend to Szczesny as well.

    2) “…the way arsenal defend also helps.” from commenter Jeff above. No doubt he’s got more confidence with Per and Koz playing so well in front of him. Plus Song and Gibbs. And the redoubtable Flamini in midfield who may be the biggest factor. Jenkinson is a ways off, but I believe he’ll eventually be another example of the “right” side of that coin if Wenger sticks with him.

    I am expecting 3 points from Marseilles today. It’s pretty much a dead rubber match for them as they are out of it. Conventional wisdom says that they’ll be playing kids and reserves out there give them much needed experience, while we should be fielding a much stronger side. COYG!!

  7. +5 Vote -1 Vote +1poznaninmypants

    Excellent work.
    I do remember a couple of seasons ago, probably 11/12, that Arsene defended our relatively poor defensive record and our general flakiness in defense, by pointing out we had significantly lower shots allowed.
    Problem was, when you looked at it, that the shots allowed were often on the break (like Swansea did to us last year) or defensive eff ups, so that the shots allowed were excellent opportunities.
    Now we hold our shape for the most part, and get 8-10 men behind the ball, so that the opposition takes shots from disadvantaged positions more often.
    Anyway, I always remember us have lowest shots allowed and a shit Goals Against record.

  8. Vote -1 Vote +1Zeddington

    As always, an interesting article. While it is fantastic to see Chesney’s improvement to one of the top keepers in the game, it is a bit worrying to read that he’s been busier than last season. And yet, this season, I feel a lot less nervous during games, and I feel the opposition barely threaten consistently. So are they shooting more from distance? From weaker positions? Is Chesney making “easier” or more routine saves, as opposed to being put in more threatening positions?

    Also curious to see how De Gea fits in. With a leakier Man Utd defense and a less stable team overall, I wonder if his numbers have suffered.

  9. +1 Vote -1 Vote +1colario

    Szczesny like Tony Adams was a legend in the making the moment he arrived at Arsenal.
    Of course when a youngster arrives there is no knowing if he will work at his ability and be disciplined.
    Szczesny suffered the most horrific set back when he broke both his arms. That did not stop him.

    His first league game was at manure, where he made a wonderful save. He had arrived and was here to stay. Much to learn and experience to gain.

    Last season when he lost his form, he listened and work his way back.

    If Arsene had followed the advice of all the experts of all the pundits and 99% of the fans he would have gone out and splashed the cash on a ‘top goalie’. Szczesny would be making himself a legend somewhere else.

    At 23 just being between the sticks says to the opposition ‘Beat me – if you can!’

    In response to Arsene’s faith in him, Szczesny has signed a long term contract.

    We have a top class goalie – Szczesny.

  10. Vote -1 Vote +1Zeediddy23

    Well-timed article Tim, as Szczesny had another great performance today.

    Unrelated, I know that a point or better in Italy gets us through top of the group, but what if we lose? Does it go to total goal difference or GD in our two matches with Napoli? I can’t seem to find a clear answer. Can you shed some light on this?

  11. +1 Vote -1 Vote +11ntta

    What is that, like three clean sheets in four matches, with another couple of great saves?
    And Wilshere! Easy to forget how bloody good he can be with all the injuries and time away.
    This is team is evolving and only getting better.

  12. +2 Vote -1 Vote +1johngoodman

    ” If the midfield was really working hard to keep the opposition quiet I would expect that Szczesny would see fewer shots, like Artur Boruc has faced for Southampton, and not more shots as we have seen with Arsenal. ”

    Arsenal have seen more shots, but fewer shots inside the penalty area. ~6 shots conceded inside the penalty area last season, 5 per game this season. Outside box shots have gone up from 10 to 12. You’d have to break all those shots down by location to know for sure but given outside box shots are usually much less likely to result in goals my guess would be that defensive improvements cutting out shots will save 4-5 goals a season – and the extra outside box shots will raise Szczesny’s save percentage. Szczesny’s been very good, but some credit is due to the defence for making it easier on him – he himself gives it to them.

  13. Vote -1 Vote +1Cazorla's Cohort

    Szczesny has been exceptional this season and made a few cracker saves again last night. But the midfield and defence deserve the credit of restricting opposition players to shooting from outside of the box this season and trusting Szczes to stop the long range efforts – which he duly does, despite the odd deflection every now and again. Nevertheless, the young Pole is certainly earning my trust and I hope he keeps it up.

  14. +1 Vote -1 Vote +1Ssinderias

    Over the years I have loved being an Arsenal fans and I have hated being an Arsenal fan. Ramsey and Szczesny are definitely the reason why it’s great to be an Arsenal fan right now

  15. Vote -1 Vote +1Jen the gooner

    It goes on goal difference between rivals. Say we lose and Dortmund win, that puts us, Napoli and Dortmund on twelve pts. Whoever has the best goal difference from the six matches featuring our clubs would win the group. Then whoever of the remaining two teams has the best goal difference against the other would place 2nd. Or at least that’s how I read it. Regardless, we don’t just need to get beat to go out. Napoli need to beat us by three clear goals.

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  17. Vote -1 Vote +1Matt Lanna

    God article 7AM. I read on one of the other blogs, where they mapped the point of opposition shots and while it is true we are letting them take more shots, they are from less dangerous positions with only a small percentage coming from central goal threatening areas. This means the defence and midfield are working hard and happy to let the opposition shoot from difficult angles, maybe as they are confident in their goalkeeper.

  18. Vote -1 Vote +1Wazza

    He’s certainly started the season well, indeed he finished last season well. On current form he is the best keeper in the league, to prove himself to be the leagues best keeper he needs to continue season after season. I think he has it in him to be up there with the best in the world.
    @NAarsenalblog
    http://www.notanotherarsenalblog.com

  19. Vote -1 Vote +1Dr.Gooner

    Fantastic summary, Tim. As usual your approach is calm, evidence based and objective, so refreshing. Also, you don’t leave any burning questions in my mind; I fully believe having seen these numbers that Chesney really is a stellar stopper. I’m also heartened not to find Cech, de Gea or Hart anywhere near the top of the pile. Perhaps for the first time in nearly a decade, GK is an area of strength for us compared to our rivals. Such differences can decide titles.

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