There’s no denying that a great goalkeeper wins points, games and even trophies.
Every title winning side in the last few years has boasted a goalkeeper in excellent form, and, more often than not, the sides which are outperforming expectations or the form of the overall team are doing so because they have a keeper making match winning saves – Forster and De Gea are both keeping their respective sides in loftier positions than the reset of their colleagues inspire.
When it comes to Arsenal, many observers frequently make comments about how we haven’t had a world class keeper since Seaman left – personally I think that’s a bit disrespectful to Jens Lehmann, a player as professional as he was mad, and as talented as he was stroppy.
Still, there is something to the suggestion that Arsenal have been struggling to find that truly top drawer keeper for some time now.
Wojciech Szczesny joined the club back in 2006 at the tender age of 16, and despite suffering a career threatening injury when he broke both forearms, a successful loan spell and Brentford and the support of Arsene Wenger saw him establish himself in the first team in 2010.
Since then, he has been the undisputed number one bar a few blips…until recently.
Following two high profile Szczesny errors in the Southampton game, David Ospina was given his chance and has kept a number of clean sheets since.
With Szczesny set to return at the weekend in his new role as reserve keeper, the question arises – which of the two should be the long term owner of the #1 shirt, and which should settle for the cup games?
I’m choosing to ignore the rumoured disciplinary issues, since (a) they are not exactly grounded in proven fact so the full extent isn’t clear and (b) almost all of the great goalkeepers have had that edge to their personalities anyway. Lehmann wasn’t called Mad Jens for no reason, yet he was still a quality keeper.
We can look then at some of the statistics, although it does come with the caveat that the sample size for Ospina is significantly smaller than that for Szczesny, and therefore carries a little less validity.
When I assess a goalkeeper, the things that I particularly look for are shot-stopping (well, obviously!), dominance in the air, one-on-ones, sweeping up behind the defence, and distribution.
So let’s assess how each of Arsenal’s regular keepers stack up.
Szczesny v Ospina
|Name||Wojciech Szczesny||David Ospina|
Clearly both our keepers are good shot-stoppers – you don’t get to the top level of European football without being decent (Mignolet is a top level keeper after all!) However, it is an oft-levelled criticism at Szczesny that he gets beaten by the first shot on target that the opposition have, and for many there is the perception that Ospina is a significant improvement in this area.
Surprisingly then, in the first half of 2013-14, Szczesny had a saves ratio of 77%, bettered by only Mannone at Sunderland and Boruc at Southampton both with 80% (for goalkeepers who had played more than one game!).
Fast forward to the end of the season and a slightly less successful second half of the season saw him drop down the list to seventh overall with 73%, and highlights Szczesny’s biggest weakness at present – his consistency.
Ospina on the other hand is consistency personified – in his final three seasons at Nice he conceded 31, 27 and 27 goals, and managed an impressive 80% save ratio in his final year in France. Clearly then he is an accomplished shot-stopper.
Of course, these stats can only tell us so much, as they are rather vulnerable to the question of the quality of finishing – by most measures the Premier League is of a higher standard than Ligue 1, and that Ospina averaged almost a whole save per game more than Szczesny last year would back this up.
They also are in part reliant on the defence in front of the player – Hugo Lloris is widely respected as a quality goalkeeper and a great shot-stopper in particular, yet in his first season in English football he had a saves ratio of just 61%, in the bottom ten across Europe.
The concerning part of Ospina’s game which has come to light over the last month or two is his propensity to push the ball back into the danger area.
Five inches shorter than Szczesny, with the proportional impact on armspan and therefore save reach, it is possible that Ospina’s size is at least partly responsible for this troubling habit – after all if you can only get a finger tip rather than a full palm to a ball then your ability to direct it is impacted.
This is particularly noticeable on one side, with every goal Ospina has conceded so far being low to his right, compared to a much more even distribution for Szczesny.
More critically, size is one of the few things that he cannot work on to improve.
Command of the box is another area where Szczesny’s extra inches are extremely advantageous.
Ospina has a clear tendency to punch when under any pressure, which although it does at least get rid of the ball ,can also lead to the opposition being invited straight back onto the attack.
On average, Wojciech took twice as many high catches as Mignolet and De Gea last season, and this increased propensity to catch rather than punch means that Arsenal can regain possession and turn defence into attack.
In our festive victory over West Ham, Szczesny’s aerial dominance came to the fore and was in no small part responsible for us maintaining the score at 2-1.
Against a Hammers attack boasting Sakho and the not-so-diminutive Andy Carroll, as well as various gigantic defenders and Kevin Nolan at set pieces, our Polish Cockney came with confidence and displayed assured handling to win a game that in seasons gone by would have slipped from our grasp.
Then of course there was the time he absolutely *nailed* Gareth Bale under the pretext of collecting the ball, back in April 2011.
Ospina on the other hand, while passable, does not come for anywhere near as many high balls – so far it has not cost us any goals, but certainly from my seat in the stand there have been a number of near misses where the ball has been crossed to a very collectable position for the goalkeeper.
Ospina has the look of a nice guy, and we all know nice guys finish last.
Szczesny’s greatest quality – his desire to do everything he can do to help the team – sometimes leads to mistakes on his part, mistakes which have largely reduced in number and seriousness since he first broke into the team.
He might occasionally come for crosses and miss, but Ospina showed in the Leicester game that he does that too, and the Colombian certainly doesn’t deliver as much of the positive side to balance that out.
Arsene Wenger loves to play a high line – from an attacking point of view it gets our forwards nearer to the opposition goal and from a defensive point of view it gets the opposition further away from ours.
The consequence of this however is that there are huge swathes of space for opponents with the right runners, vision and pass execution to exploit.
It makes the sweeper-keeper an absolutely fundamental part of the team.
So far it is hard to judge Ospina on this aspect partly because in a number of games he has played in Arsenal have played very defensively with a view to counter-attacking and so there is no space in behind to have to sweep and partly because he doesn’t really leave his line very much.
In the Leicester game, he made a memorable foray towards the edge of his box resulted in him being caught in no-man’s land as Kramaric just failed to chip him. He also pressed a situation not dissimilar to the one which Szczesny so erroneously found himself in at Southampton where Mane scored, but was more fortunate than the Pole in that the opposition didn’t exploit it.
Not leaving his line is an accusation however, which simply cannot be levelled at Szczesny. It’s not a case of him having to buy a ticket to win the lottery, as his success rate is pretty high in these situations – he has never been sent off in his 132 Premier League games despite continuously putting himself at risk by rushing off his line.
Occasionally he makes mistakes – it’s inevitable when your game is all about weighing up risk-reward rather than just playing it safe, and certainly he is no more error prone than any other members of our defence, it’s just that as with all goalkeepers, your position means it becomes much higher profile.
However, I maintain that the number of goals he saves by playing in this manner far outweighs the balance of his mistakes.
Other than shot-stopping, I strongly believe that good distribution is the most-critical skill a keeper can develop, since it can impact the effectiveness of the entire team. It’s why Paul Robinson was able to have a top level career, despite being a bit on the tubby side. It’s also why every game Ospina plays makes me more convinced that we need Szczesny back.
Szczesny has many faults, but he finished last season with the best distribution accuracy of any Premier League keeper. He also has the strength and technique to comfortably clear the centre circle. This means that when Arsenal play with a target man like Giroud, the opposition defence have to drop off with him and leave space in front of him for the Arsenal midfield to collect second balls and feed of Giroud’s flick ons and knock downs.
Compare this with when Ospina plays – when forced to kick it long, his goal kicks often don’t even make it to the halfway line. This means that the opposition back line can press right up and compress the space in front of Giroud, allowing their central midfielders to press with impunity.
We saw this with great clarity at Spurs and in patches against Leicester when they finally forced us to start kicking long. Amazingly, Spurs had a tackle success of 95% against us (the average is usually around 70%) and this is thanks in no small part to always being very close to our players – it’s much harder to miss a tackle if there’s less space for the attacker to escape into.
This increased pressure from losing the ball closer to our own goal and in tight scenarios has seen a marked increase in the number of defensive actions per game – during Szczesny’s tenure, Arsenal averaged 44 blocks, clearances and interceptions per game, but with Ospina’s introduction, this increased by almost 50% to 64 actions per game.
The alternative reason for this increase – Coquelin – had a very marginal impact on the number of actions in the games played before Ospina arrived on the scene, so it seems that the Colombian is the real influence here.
Even if we look at accuracy, Szczesny still comes out comfortably on top – completing an average of 67% of his passes over the last three seasons, peaking at 69% last year, compared to Ospina’s current average of 53%, and that’s even with Leicester’s apparent apathy towards cutting off the short ball from goal kicks in mid-week!
I would go so far as to say that unless Ospina can improve his distribution, it’s impossible to see him as a credible alternative to Szczesny. He’s got a great throw, but his distribution from feet actively disadvantages the team by making it incrementally more difficult to retain the ball. I’d also really rather he didn’t let forwards get quite so close before clearing the ball – Sczcesny had to learn that lesson the hard way too.
It’s not necessarily about raw power – my other half was a professional goalkeeper and being able to leg-press over 250kgs was just a small part of the work that went into kicking well beyond halfway – technique plays a huge part.
Historically that’s not an area which Arsenal’s goalkeeping coaches have been hugely successful with – Szczesny’s kicking improved leaps and bounds during his loan spell at Brentford.
At his current level though, Ospina’s kicking makes him a liability.
Szczesny in reverse has consistently distributed with distance and accuracy. Occasionally he can take an unnecessary risk trying to get us on the front foot too quickly, but he also consistently improves the way the team can play by bringing different options to the table. He actually makes a higher percentage of short passes than Ospina on average, but he has the skills and variety to play the longer balls as required. Plus, he’s cut out the drag backs!
I WANT MY #1 BACK
Szczesny has all the raw attributes a goalkeeper requires – it’s no surprise that Wenger tipped him as a potential world-class keeper as far back as 2009, saying “we have identified Wojciech as a future great, great goalkeeper”.
Loan boss Andy Scott also once commented “it has reached the stage where when he lets in a goal we wonder why he hasn’t saved it.”
His distribution is far superior to his competition, and his aerial presence is also significant.
He also makes a real difference to the defence, sweeping up behind them and allowing us to play in a greater variety of ways safe in the knowledge that he is alert to any balls played over the top or in behind.
He may make the odd mistake in the process, but he also saves many more goals by being proactive.
Fundamentally, he puts himself out there at greater risk of making mistake because it is for the benefit of the team.
I read a great article recently where Gilles Grimandi talked about how some players play in a way that builds their statistics because they know that that is a large part of how they are judged these days, and their reputation and career potentially hang off the back of that.
However, it means that key parts of their game are missing.
Translating this into goalkeeping terms, for the team to succeed, we need a keeper prepared to minimise the overall number of goals conceded rather than the number of goals directly caused by his mistakes.
He doesn’t get his decision-making perfect 100% of the time – goodness knows none of us do, not even Dennis “God” Bergkamp – but ultimately, do you want a keeper who plays for his statistics, or a keeper who plays for trophies?
Of course, if you take a distant view and only look at the high profile errors you’re going to pick Ospina, but that completely discounts the hugely important and underrated work Szczesny does for the team by clearing up messes, in a completely unfussy and unheralded way.
Kicking the ball into the stands just before a striker gets there isn’t going to win you any Man of the Match awards, but if you’re not there, then the opposition have a one-on-one.
One of Szczesny’s greatest assets is his confidence bordering on arrogance which has been the hallmark of almost all the top class goalkeepers. It’s what helps him come off his line with such confidence whether it be to attack a high ball or to race out to meet an onrushing forward.
It is an integral part of how he plays.
However, since being sent off at his home European Championships in 2012, he has started just two games for Poland, and there has been a bit less swagger about him throughout the 2014/15 season. Wojciech needs to get that confidence back, so that he can go back to delivering the top level performances that he is certainly capable of.
He has a great chance to do so at the weekend, and it’s time for him to grab it with a big pair of safe hands.
Of course he still has work to do – his consistency has dipped in recent months and every keeper can always improve their decision making – but it’s easy to forget that he is still just 24, and has less top flight appearances (205) than either Courtois (225) or De Gea (272), whereas Ospina has 298.
He might not be perfect, but he’s certainly got the potential, and in my mind should be back in the team post-haste as we look to finish the season with a bang.
Besides, an Arsenal player who trolls Spurs following a victory by posting a Facebook video of a mocking “Oh when the Spurs go marching in” with “Regards from North London“?
Well he gets my vote every time. Prove me right, Wojciech.