There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
True story: yesterday I was prepping for a stats piece that I am working on with Brian from 11cannons. This preparation included watching all of the bitesized videos from Arsenal.com for every Champions League and Premier League match from last season. Oh what tortures I endure for your love.
By some twist of fate, I accidentally clicked on the full highlights video for Arsenal’s 1-0 win over QPR back in October and it took me a few minutes before I realized what was going on. But in those three minutes or so, I was treated to a highlight reel of Julio Cesar’s goalkeeping against Arsenal. Even the bitesized video does him justice (free and you don’t need to be a red level member). You get to watch as Cesar makes impressive save after impressive save. He’s not perfect, mind you, a few of those saves he spilled in rather Szczesny-like fashion, but his reflex saves in that video are really something special to watch. In fact, when Arteta finally scores from an offside position, Cesar made three impressive saves in that attack. And if he’d had a single defender around him worth his pay, he probably could have kept that clean sheet.
I’ve written extensively about how Arsenal need an experienced keeper to challenge Szczesny for the number one shirt at Arsenal. And I’ve written that I felt Simon Mignolet was the best keeper in the League last season. But Mignolet has signed for Liverpool for a fee of around £10m and an annual salary of about £2m, so, he’s not really available for Arsenal to sign.
In that article, though, I compared Szczesny, Mignolet, Reina, Begovic, and Julio Cesar. Who I identified as the five most likely candidates for Arsenal goalkeeper next season.
I want to be clear so I am going to put this in bold and red: I LIKE SZCZESNY, I do not think Szczesny should be sold. But liking someone and suggesting that they need competition for the starting spot are not mutually exclusive. I like Aaron Ramsey, I would also like it if he had competition for his starting spot because having a large squad and lots of good competition in that squad is good for the team.
I’ve seen a lot of mealy-mouthed excuses being made for Szczesny’s performances this season: that perhaps the Arsenal goalkeeping coaches are to blame, that the Arsenal system is to blame, and that the defenders in front of him are to blame. But the way I saw it, Szczesny had a poor season, and Wenger dropped him after two clangers against Bayern and Villa followed by the disastrous Tottenham match. In fact, it was only injury to Fabianski which saw Arsene reinstate the younger Pole.
Fabianski, himself, did have one great night, in Munich but after that reverted to having difficulty making claims with just 5 successful claims and 2 dropped. And the Arsenal defense looked less assured with him on set plays as they conceded one (a header against Norwich) and the penalty against West Brom in his four games. A pretty poor return when you consider that in both Champions League and Premier League play (45 matches) Arsenal only conceded 5 times from set plays off fouls.
And this isn’t the first season for Szczesny to look shaky. I made excuses for him last year in a series of articles which looked at how Arsenal play football and why Szczesny was a good fit. Mostly, it was his distribution and the fact that he made very few mistakes in passing the ball in his own final third which was the basis for my excuses. But I also touched on the idea that Arsenal’s keepers face more “big chances” than other keepers and along with distribution I have since abandoned that as simple rationalizing.
Like clean sheets, big chances are a data point that depends on too many variables outside of the keeper’s own two hands. You could have a clean sheet and not face a single shot. And defining what makes a “big chance” is less reliable than defining an assist, which as you know, is one of the stats that sticks in my craw.
Which is why I like to look at the goalkeeper’s overall workrate and see how many errors he makes per save. Or how many claims he makes per failed claim. These seem to me to be relatively more dependable statistics. Not that statistics are completely dependable, remember that they only tell part of the story, not the whole story because they are like a bikini. Also, remember that famous saying “lies, damn lies, and statistics”. There, did I cover all the bases of people complaining about stats?
In the case of the five keepers above, then, you can see that Pepe Reina is terrible. Really terrible. He had 14 clean sheets, the most clean sheets of any of the other keepers measured, but like I said, clean sheets are not really in his command. What the keeper really does is make saves and “command his area” by making claims on crosses and corners. That’s a keeper’s real job and Reina’s not real good at his only job.
For example, Reina’s saves rate is just 45%. If Cesar had a similar saves rate as Reina, he would have allowed 54 goals. As it was, he only allowed 37. Here’s the chart for the percent of goals allowed per shot on target faced:
As you can clearly see, Mignolet is the best, but Cesar is right there next to him and if we remove penalties (which I don’t think we should do) their rates only get better.
The next metric I look at is how well the keeper claims on crosses and corners. A high rate of failure here means that the keeper is putting his defenders in a lot of trouble, while also being out of position to make a save if the offensive player gets on the end of the ball. Again, Reina is the worst.
Cesar is one of the shortest keepers in the League and yet he made 83 claims and 0 drops. That’s really impressive. Szczesny did, uhh, ok, but Reina is crap, super-crap. In fact, if I was an opposing coach I would literally just bombard the air around Reina and wait for the inevitable error.
Speaking of which, I also like to take all of the defensive actions a keeper is forced to make and divide that by the number of bad results so that I get a ratio of good actions per bad. So, if you add all the saves, claims, and punches and divide it by the number of goals/errors/and missed claims you get the following table:
|Saves, Claims, Punches||Goals, Errors, Failed Claims||SCP/GEF|
Again, you can clearly see why Liverpool dropped £20m (transfer fee+salary) on Mignolet. Last season he was the best keeper in the League in my opinion and the metrics above show why I hold that opinion.
However, Cesar was right there with him statistically speaking and I would have no problem if Arsenal dropped £2m on his transfer. There is the small problem of his salary, which is reportedly £70,000 a week. If Arsenal offer him a long-term deal (5 years) that would put the total transfer cost at around £20m. Which is a lot of money to pay to take a flyer on a player who would be 38 at the end of the deal and have no transfer value to pass on.
But Cesar is Brazil’s starting keeper, he played 300 matches for Inter Milan, he’s a five time Serie A winner, he’s won the Champions League (against a rampant Bayern side), and he’s a seasoned Premier League player. How much do you pay for that experience?
But whatever Arsenal does, please, for the love of all that is holy do not buy Pepe Reina. He is terrible… and a bad keeper.