Back in February, we flagged Swansea’s Lukasz Fabianski as the best goalkeeper in the league. Boy were we right! Fast forward to May and Fabianski has clocked up 13 clean sheets this season – the best in the league. The below is what we found out:
Even some great managers have a blind spot when it comes to goalkeepers. The skillset for the role barely relates to anything else in football. Most of us tend only to notice keepers when they make a mistake. No wonder we struggle to judge them. That’s where stats come in handy. The data provider Opta has provided me with numbers going back to 2012 that help us rank the keepers of the Premier League. Some surprising names stand out. Few would have guessed the man with the best stats: Swansea’s Lukasz Fabianski (below). Arsenal’s recent history might have been happier if Arsène Wenger hadn’t spent seven years underestimating him.
First game for Swansea City Football Club – feels good ! Pierwszy mecz jako zawodnik swansea – super uczucie! pic.twitter.com/rIx53ssSaG
— Lukasz Fabianski (@LukaszFabianski) July 18, 2014
First let me explain the Opta data. Opta counts the number of shots each keeper has faced since 2012/2013. Next it calculates how many of those shots would have been expected to go in, based on their location, the type of shot (a header versus a volley, for instance), and “phase of play” (a fast break is more likely than a long build-up to produce a goal). Each keeper is then judged on how many goals he conceded compared with Opta’s expectations. Let’s take Fabianski as an example. From the start of the 2012/2013 season through January 23, he faced 99 shots. Based on their difficulty, he was expected to concede 28.7. However, Fabianski let in just 22 – or 6.7 stops better than expected. The difference per 10 shots would be 0.68 goals. That last number is key. It ranks him as the league’s best keeper since August 2012.
The five Premier League goalkeepers with the best stats (2012-2015)
(Opta only ranked keepers who faced at least 40 “non-deflected” shots in the period. As the stats refer exclusively to the Premier League, I have identified each man only by his clubs in that league.)
Admittedly this single measure doesn’t reveal everything. It ranks keepers only as shot-stoppers. However, Opta’s stats also show that Fabianski excels against crosses: by mid-November he had caught 35, more than any other keeper in Europe’s top leagues at that point. The Pole really does seem better than Wenger realised: remember that at one stage at Arsenal Fabianski was third-choice keeper behind Vito Mannone and a young Wojciech Szczesny. Of course this does show that Wenger at least has a knack for signing good keepers. (See below for Szczesny’s recent improvement.) Other managers have a worse record. Recall how Alex Ferguson struggled with Peter Schmeichel’s succession after 1999, until he finally risked £2 million on Fulham’s Edwin van der Sar (below) in 2005.
The top of our table is packed with unexpected names. Julio César was on loan at Toronto FC when Brazil made him their first choice for the World Cup. Mannone has lately been sitting on Sunderland’s bench, perhaps unfairly singled out for that ghastly 8-0 defeat to Southampton. And Chelsea seem to have been hasty in benching Cech in favour of Thibaut Courtois. The Belgian hasn’t yet been as impressive as he was at Atlético Madrid. He has actually conceded slightly more goals than Opta would have expected given the shots he faced.
Manchester United’s saviour
Judging this season alone, a different winner emerges. Ahead of Fabianski by a nose is David De Gea: the Spaniard faced 75 shots, and let in just 20, five fewer than expected. That’s a difference of 0.66 per ten shots. And his saves had an above-average difficulty rating of 0.333, says Opta. Imagine where Manchester United might be now without him. Just behind De Gea and Fabianski for this half-season are Hugo Lloris, Szczesny (possibly improving as at 24 he starts to approach goalkeeping prime) and Joe Hart. This season’s three weakest performers so far are (starting with the very worst), Newcastle’s stand-in Jak Alnwick, Everton’s Tim Howard (hailed as American “secretary of defense” at the World Cup), and Crystal Palace’s Argentine cult hero Julian Speroni.
Judging anyone on half a season isn’t fair. Alnwick ranked bottom after facing just 23 shots. (The cutoff line for inclusion in this season’s table was having faced 20-plus non-deflected shots.) So to increase the sample size, let’s look at the worst performers of the last two-and-a-half years, from the very lowest ranked to the slightly less sorry:
Perhaps Southampton need to take another look at its reserve keepers. None of the men in Opta’s bottom five is currently keeping regularly in the Premier League, which suggests that managers are at least able to judge the very weakest performers. But given that hardly anyone would have expected Fabianski or Julio César to top Opta’s table, clubs should probably rethink how they value their last line of defence.
Simon Kuper is a columnist with The Financial Times and is co-author of Soccernomics. Find him here on Twitter