Goalkeepers and the exaggerated relevance of shot-stopping ability

Late last night, The Telegraph broke the story that Arsenal are considering making a move for Cardiff City’s David Marshall.  Conveniently, that provides me with the opportunity to get something off my chest and address the way in which goalkeepers are publicly evaluated.

Marshall had a good season, and he produced many eye-catching saves, but the consensus that he was the Premier League’s best goalkeeper this season is a flawed perception.

We need to uncouple the relationship between ‘making a lot of saves’ and ‘being an elite goalkeeper’.

Because the primary aim of a goalkeeper is to prevent the ball from going into the net, it’s easy to assume that his most important attributes are his shot-stopping, his agility, and his reflexes. They’re essential qualities, of course, but they’re ones that every professional goalkeeper has.  It’s a prerequisite for playing the position and there isn’t a single starting Premier League goalkeeper who isn’t capable of producing highlight-reel saves.  Sure, some are better than others, but generally the variation across the board is very small.

The first point to make, is that there’s a failure to recognise that the perception of a goalkeeper’s ability is artificially altered by the strength of the team he plays for.  David Marshall, for example, is someone who has benefited enormously from playing for a defensively porous side this year.  Cardiff City - on average - conceded a division-high of 18.2 shots per game this season, hence his shot-stopping ability was far more visible than that any of his positional contemporaries.

While it’s fine to say that Marshall played well this season, it’s erroneous to separate him from the pack on the basis that he was highlight-friendly.  He may be a good goalkeeper, but he’s really no better than any other who has made his reputation on shot-stopping during the Premier League era - Shay Given, Jussi Jaaskelainen, Shaka Hislop, Ben Foster, David James, Scott Carson, Rob Green and so on and so on.

All of those players have produced brilliant moments - and even seasons full of brilliant moments - but none of them were anything more than mid-level players who had deficiencies in other, more important areas of their game.

The goalkeeping yard stick in this country is still Peter Schmeichel.  The Dane wasn’t great because he saved a lot of shots, he was great because he possessed everything a team needs.  His command of his penalty-box was exemplary, his control over his back-four was absolutely complete, his distribution was reliable and accurate, and his decision-making - both in one-on-one and crossing situations was almost flawless.  During Manchester United’s dominance of the 1990s he would typically make just one or two important contributions per game, yet he was still an invaluable part of Sir Alex Ferguson’s side.  He had the mental attributes to show up when his teammates needed him, and he very, very rarely made mistakes.  Schmeichel made memorable saves, but even if you took the Banks-esque stop against Rapid Vienna and his performance at St James’ Park in 1996 out of his portfolio, he would still have been as important as he ultimately was.

Shot-stopping is the cherry on top of the goalkeeping cake; it only makes it look better.

Tottenham provided a very good example of this when they made the change from Heurelho Gomes to Brad Friedel in 2011.  The Brazilian was a sensationally agile goalkeeper and he made saves which were almost a physical impossibility, yet his game was built on deeply insecure foundations.  His catching technique was suspect, his decision-making was frequently dreadful, and he had issues whenever the ball was at his feet.  Conversely, Friedel - forty years old when he arrived at White Hart Lane - was solid-yet-unspectacular.  He wasn’t capable of making the same range of saves as Gomes, but the fundamentals of his game were far, far better.

So who do you pick?  The player with the high risk/reward ratio or the one who provides consistent solidity?  The latter every time, because he is - despite a lack of pyrotechnics - the better goalkeeper.

Maybe part of this problem is created by the way statistics are presented for goalkeepers.  Look on the Premier League’s website now, and you’ll presumably find a positional ranking based on ‘shots saved’ or ‘save percentage’.  Those categories aren’t irrelevant, but they provide little context - and it’s very difficult to numerically price a lot of what a goalkeeper should be doing.  What statistical category would detail decision-making, for example, or how would you measure levels of influence and control over defenders?  It’s not really possible.

The point here, is really that - more than any other position on the pitch - analysis of goalkeepers needs to more thorough, and it requires between-the-lines evaluation which examines non-obvious intangibles like mentality and emotional resilience.  Shot-stopping is just part of many, many attributes which are needed in a goalkeeper.

The position is about fundamentals and consistently performing the basic principles of the role to a very high standard.  If I’m a manager, I want the keeper who will always, always make the right decision at a corner rather than the one will tip the top corner-bound shot around the post.  Every time.

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2 Comments on "Goalkeepers and the exaggerated relevance of shot-stopping ability"

  1. Shadman Haque (@e_tcp) | May 28, 2014 at 8:31 am |

    Great points, Goalkeepers who play for mid level teams generally have more shots to save to begin with, so they have a greater chance to show off.

    I would be really interested in your thoughts about the importance of Goalkeepers during penalties, and other close range dead ball situations.

  2. I like your points on goalkeepers but I wouldn’t discredit Marshall entirely.

    I remember one of my rare forays into the Championship highlights show I happened to see Marshall put in a man of the match performance with some simply outstanding saves. It reminded me of Joe Hart when returned on loan from Birmingham (Man City vs Tottenham 0-0 draw).

    I decided on such little footage this guy will make it in the premier league and he has.

    Distinctly average against Chelsea on both occasions otherwise he has been consistent and could certainly fill a role in middle tier premier league clubs. The role 2nd goalkeeper at a top club is interesting because being backup requires a different skill set and a heap more pressure. I am not sure if he is cut out for that kind of role.

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