Over the last few years, the words Goalkeepers and Arsenal have rarely been used in a positive sense in the same sentence. But the recent emergence of Wojciech Szczesny has evoked a sense of stability and confidence, at least amongst the Gooner ranks. In this post I want to look at some stats to see whether facts corroborate the perceived gulf in class between the supposedly God-awful Almunia, the horrific-to-heroic Fabianski, and superstar-in-the-making Szczesny.
The above table covers a number of key goalkeeping stats for the three custodians over the last four Premiership seasons. The current year only has figures for Szczesny, naturally. All three played a part last season, while it was Fabianksi and Almunia before that in 09-10. From 08-09 I have only taken Almunia’s numbers as he played most of the games. Vito Mannone played 5 games in 2009-10 but those are not included as he hasn’t really been involved regularly.
Most of the rows should be self-explanatory. Saves/Shots measures the percentage of shots on target that were stopped by the Keeper (Saves/(Saves+Goals Conceded)). Similarly, Missed Crosses/Total Crosses provides the percentage of total crosses that were missed (Missed Crosses/(Missed Cross + Cross Catches)).
Min/Catch Attempt is an interesting number that shows how often the Keeper came for a cross (Min Played/(Missed Crosses + Cross Catches)).
Before getting into a comparative discussion I want to look at the players individually.
If we look at 08-09 alone, the Spaniard hasn’t done badly at all. The 0.81 goals conceded per game figure is more than respectable, especially when compared to the rest of the numbers in that row. Almunia also saved 76 percent of the shots that season and kept a clean sheet every 2.29 games. Again these are the best stats in the group. His minutes per defensive error figure of 717 is not shabby either.
Unfortunately, I don’t have the stats for 2007-08 but it won’t surprise me if those numbers match or better the ones that we have discussed. While such statistics cannot be conclusive, It’s not hard to see why Wenger had faith in the much maligned custodian.
Moving forward, there are some interesting changes in his numbers for the next season i.e. 09-10. Every stat that is in bold takes a hit. Goals conceded/Game is higher, Saves/Shots is lower than the prior year along with a higher Min/Save ratio implying fewer saves, and he was making defensive mistakes more frequently (522 compared to 717).
At this point it is important to note that despite the drop in performance, Almunia wasn’t doing that badly compared to the others. I will return to this later in the post.
I believe the most crucial numbers to analyze are the frequency and efficiency of the cross catches. There is a clear drop in the ratio of Missed Crosses to Total Crosses in 2009-10 (from 8.33 to 13.56 percent). Most fans will associate this with the ‘flapping’ that caused great concern and despair. This lower efficiency coincided with a greater occurrence of catch attempts as it fell from once every 59.75 min to 44.24. That is roughly a 25 percent increase.
It’s important to recall that the Gunners had a poor start to the 2008-09 campaign with struggles against the likes of Hull and Stoke. Galls and Toure weren’t really working well in tandem. My theory is that at some point during that season the coaches must have put greater emphasis on the Goalkeeper coming for/attacking balls into the box. Since it would have been thought up and worked on in the middle of that year, the real impact was visible in 2009-10 and in subsequent years.
This put great pressure on the Keeper and forced mistakes. Almunia’s reputation was tarnished and he could never recover. In 2010-11, the Spaniard’s frequency of catch attempts was increased even further to nearly thrice a game. That is a staggering figure. And while the number of missed crosses wasn’t high, one could see the frequency of defensive mistakes increase alarmingly.
Looking at the numbers and considering the sequence of events over the years, I think it’s safe to say Almunia was never a bad goalkeeper but crumbled under extra pressure from the tactics and from the fans/media (after a number of errors), and has reached a stage where it will be hard for him to perform for Arsenal ever again. This lack of confidence is probably the reason why Arsene made that massive bid for Reina. These days just the thought of him in goal gives many the jitters.
There was a time when it was impossible to imagine Fabianski playing another game for Arsenal. Some of his errors beggared belief. In fairness though, the senior Pole didn’t get many games in 08-09 and 09-10. Lack of continuity can make it difficult for a player to perform, particularly in goal.
I haven’t included his figures from the earliest season under consideration, 08-09, where he conceded 10 goals in 5 games but his other stats are worth exploring.
In 2009-10, Fabianski played just 4 league games and kept 2 clean sheets. But in the other games he managed to make 2 defensive mistakes and conceded 5 goals. This was probably the time when Arsenal’s oft-repeated goalkeeping crisis was at its nadir as Fabianski was doing worse than Almunia whose form was also dipping. There was some justification to the criticisms as the Pole too was coming for crosses rather regularly and missed a fair percentage (12.5). Similar performances in some Cup games earned him the derogatory moniker ‘Flappyhandski’.
The player deserves credit for turning things around last year when he got a decent run of games. His goals conceded/games ratio was respectable even if a little over the desired one. Fabianski was also making a greater percentage of saves (72) and more frequently (every 35 min).
He still missed a disappointing proportion of the crosses (20 percent) but was making significantly fewer defensive mistakes.
The other noteworthy stat is that Min/Catch Attempt was higher. Based on observations during the course of the season, I am of the opinion that the coaches finally changed their approach and asked the central defenders to take more responsibility. This allowed both the Polish Keepers to stay on their line more often and reduced the frequency with which they attacked the crosses. It was a belated but much needed change and has contributed to the greater confidence in the custodians.
The youngster has a confident demeanour and seems to bring at least a greater feeling of stability at the back. But it is worth noting that in terms of goals conceded/game Szczesny lags the other two significantly. Even if the freakish result against United is taken out, the Arsenal No. 1 would have a GC/Game ratio of 1.25 this season.
Interestingly, Szczesny didn’t miss a single catch attempt last season and has only 2 misses this year in 17 attempts. In all, that puts him around a highly impressive 6.66 percent mark, which is notably better than Fabianksi and Almunia even at their best, for the periods under consideration. Part of the reason could be the youngster’s greater height but the change in tactics by the coaches must also have mattered. With a catch attempt every 103.85 minutes, it’s clear that Szczesny was extremely selective in coming out for the ball last season. It didn’t reduce the number of goals conceded (as the defenders struggled) but it did create an impression of a more reliable presence in goal.
The current Polish number one isn’t doing spectacularly on the saves front. This year has been a bigger struggle with a modest 57 percent of the shots saved after a fairly respectable 69 percent last time around. Furthermore, compared to his previous effort, Szczesny has already made more defensive errors and will have to do much better in the remaining games.
Comparing the Three
It’s hard to compare the three as they have played in vastly different sides with a number of tactical alterations. Furthermore, Fabianski only had one short continuous run whereas Szczesny has just had two. Their experience levels are different as well. Nevertheless, there are a few points worth discussing.
From a shot-stopping point of view, it can be said that Almunia is better than the other two. It is certainly debatable but the Spaniard has the best ratio of .76 in 08-09. Even his 0.69 in 09-10 matches Szczesny’s best and is just behind Fabianski’s 0.72. I’d also hazard to guess that Almunia’s stat from 07-08 would probably better all these numbers.
That’s not all. Almunia has also saved 5 of the 11 penalties he has faced whereas Szczesny has only saved 1 in 7. Fabianski couldn’t keep either of the two out. Let’s add to this a stat that isn’t in the above table – goals conceded from outside the box. 9 of the 42 (21.4%) Szczesny has conceded have come from outside the box including 6 this season. In contrast, 10 of the 66 (15.15%) Almunia has conceded have come from outside the box. Fabianski has only let in 3 from outside the box out of a total of 19 (15.78%).
It would be easy to discard these stats but if one can get past the initial emotions that the name Manuel Almunia evokes, it’s not so hard to believe. Certainly not if you think back to his heroics against Barcelona.In fairness though, Szczesny isn’t too far behind so this must not be construed as a criticism of the youngster.
Indeed, the lanky Pole leads the other two in the cross catching efficiency as already discussed. This season he’s also impressed with his passing accuracy (matched only by Almunia in 2010-11).
If we look over the years, it seems Almunia started off really well but then dropped to an abysmal level as he struggled to cope with the tactical changes (that’s my assumption/theory of course). Even then, in 2009-10, he was doing as well as the other two have done. One can only imagine how well things might have turned out if in the Summer of 2009 Wenger had asked his central defenders to attack the ball instead of overloading the Goalkeeper. To an extent Vermaelen did attack the ball but it was his first season and he made a number of mistakes. Gallas was extremely disappointing in my opinion.
Fabianski wasn’t very comfortable when he didn’t get games but grew in confidence when he had stability. This season he has again had one or two iffy moments. Szczesny has not come for the ball as often as the others, and combined with better effort from his teammates, that has reduced the perception that Arsenal struggle with balls into the box. But it’s worth mentioning that the number of goals hasn’t gown down despite numerous combinations of defenders and Keepers.
This season, Szczesny has made some mistakes but part of it is down to inexperience and also to the churn and instability at the club. There is no reason to assume that he cannot improve. Wojciech will have to match and better Almunia’s figures from 08-09 if the Gunners are to finish in the top four this season. And I strongly believe he can do it.
In conclusion, I would not say any one Keeper is better than the other (some might find that blasphemous and I’d love to hear a counter-argument that isn’t based on random anecdotal evidence) but that all three are(were) fairly competent in their own right. The manager was not a fool when he kept reiterating his faith in the custodians. But Arsene and his coaches have struggled to create a compact collective defence. This is still an area that needs a lot of work and Szczesny’s stats at the end of the season will not make for pleasant reading unless it’s sorted out soon.
The knock-out goal conceded against City is a good example. In another reality, in keeping with earlier tactics, Almunia might have come charging out to tackle Adam Johnson. The winger would probably have beaten him and scored, making the Spaniard look like a right nit-wit. In our reality, Fabianski stayed back but the goal was still scored. If we look at Koscielny’s own goal against Blackburn, Szczesny was drawn out of position by the run of Olsson that the team (Djourou and Song specifically) failed to stop. Almunia would probably have been crucified for that.
Similarly, one can argue that the recent goals scored by Dortmund, Norwich, and Fulham should all have been defended. The Keeper wasn’t at fault but the real point is that even when the Keeper appears to be at fault there could be a more complex underlying dynamic that is forcing those errors.
At present, I can’t see a way back for Almunia and even Fabianski might choose to move on but if Szczesny or any other Keeper has to thrive at Arsenal, Wenger has to find a way to tighten the collective defence. It’s improved considerably after the new signings but the recent goals show a lot more needs to be done.