29 April 2014

Who knew that Woj had such exquisite, milky-white hands?

Amid all of the brouhaha around a 19th consecutive St. Totteringham's Day, we very nearly overlooked another very real trophy on offer, this one available to a player in the squad rather than to the squad itself, although it is a tribute to said squad. I speak of course of one Wojciech Szczesny and the chance he has at winning the Prem's Golden Glove award, given out each year to the goalie who has kept the most clean-sheets on the season. After Monday's clean-sheet, Szczesny now has 15 clean sheets. With two matches to play, he'd need two clean sheets to surpass the current leader and two-time winner, Petr Cech and his 16 clean-sheets. Along the way, though, he has to outpace Tim Howard, who has kept 15 clean sheets of his own.

At first blush, the idea seems ludicrous. In a season that saw him concede six goals twice and five goals once, how could he be a contender for the Golden Glove? Well, it rewards clean-sheets, not goals conceded, and by that score, Szczesny is right in the thick of the race. Say what you will about what this suggests about the nature of the award or of statistics, I see it as a confirmation of the idea that we have in Szczesny one of the best keepers in the Prem. We can drop the modifier 'young' for the moment. Cech and Howard, after all, are both the other side of 30, and Szczesny is competing directly with them, not just for this award but for the deeper respect that lies beyond. Set aside those three horrific outings, and Szczesny has a goals-conceded tally that matches Cech's. Of course, we can't just ignore those three, but when the wheels come off as they did, it's a bit churlish to lay all of the blame at the keeper's feet. Or hands, as it were.

We'll come back to that in minute. First, let's sort out how the Golden Glove gets awarded. It goes to one player, unlike the Golden Boot, which can get shared. The keeper who keeps the most clean sheets wins it. The number of goals he concedes elsewhere doesn't matter. Keep 20 clean sheeets but concede four goals per game in the other 18, and you'll probably win it anyway. With the three contenders so close to each other on that score, it's worth considering the tie-break: ratio of clean-sheets to games played. It's here that Szczesny's near-perfect attendance may count against him. With Cech possibly missing Chelsea's last four matches due to injury, and with Howard having missed a match due to a red-card suspension, they might each emerge with ratios superior to Szczesny's. The only way for him to win the award, then, is to keep clean sheets in our remaining two matches while hoping that Howard fails to do the same. Cech is locked in at 16 clean sheets in 34 appearances, a ratio of .47. For Szczesny to reach 16 clean sheets, he'll have to play a 37th match, finishing with a ratio of .43. Advantage: Cech.

Cech's disadvantage, of course, is that he may not get a chance to add to his number of clean-sheets if his dislocated shoulder has in fact ended his season. He may have to watch on as Howard and Szczesny duke it out. With Everton about to face a Man City squad with eyes on getting level with Liverpool, it's hard to see Howard keeping a clean sheet there. They've scored in 13 consecutive Prem matches, and I don't see that changing any time soon, not when they might need goal-differentials to win the league. After that, Everton face Hull, who should be safe from relegation by then. Beyond that, Hull might be focusing on the FA Cup final. Each of these, not to mention Hull's somewhat toothless offense, suggest that Howard will get his 16th clean sheet (if not his 17th).

It's all in Szczesny's hands, then. Keep clean sheets against West Brom and Norwich, and that Golden Glove is his. Let one goal slip, and the Golden Glove falls through his fingers to Howard or Cech.It may lack the history or character of the Golden Boot, but it would still testify to the winner's quality in much the same way. As with so many individual honors, it is a credit to the entire squad, especially those in front of the keeper, when so many clean-sheets are claimed. Without disrespecting Cech in any way, though, I do think that Howard and Szczesny merit special recognition, as they don't play for managers who will park the bus as stubbornly as Mourinho does. That said, where would Szczesny be without a careless, stray goal conceded here or there? Even if he doesn't quite claim this Golden Glove, Szczesny's season has been a remarkable one, one that announces his arrival as one of the best keepers in the Prem. He's 24. For Howard or for Cech, the award would mark a pinnacle of sorts. For Szczesny, it would announce an arrival.

There was a moment against Newcastle when Szczesny came off his line a bit too casually, risking the kind of howler that we've seen just a bit too often from our keepers. The moment passed without incident, but it was enough to remind us that, for as good (and, at times, great) as he's been, there is still some growing to do. Last season, that was a criticism against the lad. This season and next, though, that's a challenge to the man.