05 February 2014

Why Wojciech is the best keeper in the Prem. Period.

I was going to qualify that statement by including the term "young" both in deference to Petr Cech's reputation, longevity, and statistics until I took a closer look at them. Simply put, without making grandiose statements meant to be handed down through the ages, Wojciech Szczesny is the Prem's best keeper 2013-14. With fourteen matches left to be played, things can change, but at the moment, no team owes as much to its keeper as Arsenal does to Szcz.

We'll get a quick statistic overview out of the way. As you can see from the chart below, I've looked at six of the Prem's best-performing keepers to date. A few notable exceptions include Newcastle's Tim Krul, whose goals-conceded average of 1.29 knocks him out, and Tottenham's Hugo Lloris, whose average is even worse at 1.34. What stands out? Szczesny has claimed a clean sheet in almost half of his Prem matches—11 of 24—and he's done so while facing more PKs than anyone except Tim Everton's five. Other candidates, such as Cech or Boruc (the only keepers with superior goals-conceded averages), haven't faced any PKs at all and face far-fewer shots per game than does Szczesny. Therefore, whereas Szczesny's goals-against average is third-best, he's kept it that low while facing more shots per game than anyone except de Gea and Mignolet, and their goals-against averages are the worst of anyone I thought to include.  Sorry, Hugo and all the rest.
Player
Games
Clean Sheets
Conceded
Conceded (avg.)
Shots (avg.)
PKs
faced
Whoscored
Rating
Szczesny
24
11
21
0.88
11.5
4
7.09
Cech
24
10
20
0.83
10.3
0
6.72
De Gea
24
7
29
1.21
11.75
0
6.61
Howard
23
10
23
1.00
11.13
    5     
6.77
Hart
17
5
20
1.18
10.2
0
6.61
Mignolet
24
7
29
1.21
13
1
6.72
Boruc
17
8
12
0.71
8.89
0
6.74

After all, at the end of a match, a keeper's job is to keep the ball out of the net. The more often he does so, as a ratio of shots faced to goals conceded, the better he is at his job. By this standard, it's hard to make a case for anyone being superior to Szczesny at this point of the season. His Polish compatriot, Artur Boruc, for example, sports an impressive 0.71 goals-conceded average, but does so thanks in part to facing the lost number of shots per game among the keepers considered. Joe Hart has conceded fewer goals but has played seven fewer matches. Cech has conceded one less goal but also has one less clean sheet and hasn't faced any penalty-kicks. Could he face four PKs and save all of them to preserve that goals-against average? If the small-bore stats don't support my case, the ace up my sleeve is records, and of course, without trumpeting it from the hilltops, no one has a better record than does Sczcesny. We are, after all, top of the table, thanks in no small parts to his efforts.

Statistics, even the team's overall record, only tell part of the story, and the rest of the story is a more personal one. Even at the still-tender age of 23, Szcz has emerged as a far-more confident, consistent, and astute player. That first quality, his confidence, has been both a blessing and a curse; it propels him to attempt audacious plays, charging off his line or making lighting-quick reflex saves, but it has all too often seen him forgo the simple or technically sound, resulting in a goal for the opposition. Confidence is, of course, key to any player's performance, but Szczesny has had to learn, and is still learning, how to temper that confidence before it becomes hubris. Thus far, he seems to have done that, distilling that confidence into concentration and consistency. Of course, he is still capable of a breath-taking and game-saving stop. One of many differences between this year and last comes from that consistency. Aside from the parody of a match that was Man City, there has been only three matches in which he's conceded more than one goal—Aston Villa, Dortmund, and Southampton away. That's an impressive record.

Concentration, consistency, attitude. In past seasons, a goal conceded would result in Szczesny quietly retrieving the ball, a look of rueful regret on his face. This year, however, he seems far-more assertive in communicating with his defenders despite being far and away the youngest player in the area. He's barking instructions, calling out players, making sure players are marked and lanes filled. When teams have scored, it's usually been because of letting an opponent run into the box unmarked or failing to track back to cover the weak-side on a counter-attack, and Szczesny has been left in the crosshairs of an opponent with little to do but slot or blast home. Even then, remarkably, he has come up with stop after stop after stop.  You can see for yourself in this highlight-video, which shows some of Szczesny's best saves.



Of course, you can put together a highlight-video that proves anything, even that Tottenham are good. However, in this case, the converse is almost impossible—you'd be hard-pressed to put together a lowlight-video of Szczesny's performance this season That's a testament to his growth, to his commitment, and to his potential; it's also testament to Arsène's vision as Szczesny has been with Arsenal since he was 16 and has come up through the reserves and making his first first-team appearance in 2009.

His ongoing development and maturation, especially in the last 12 months since his demotion, have been remarkable. It's been enough, along with the slow, almost imperceptible ebbing of older keepers like Boruc, Howard, and Cech, and along with the growing pains of other younger keepers like Hart, de Gea, and Mignolet, to let Szczesny stand atop the heap of keepers, best in the Prem. Even more exciting is the idea that he's still beginning to scratch the surface of the potential borne of his youth, just beginning to plumb the depths of wisdom that come from experience.