As Leicester City’s bewildering season continues, Champions League qualification is now beginning look like a very real possibility. Interest in the club’s recruitment set-up, and in their signing of the likes of Jamie Vardy from non-League Fleetwood Town and Riyad Mahrez from Le Havre for a paltry £400,000, has gone through the roof. Steve Walsh, the club’s chief scout, has impressed in all of this, and, for his troubles, has been linked with a move to Arsenal – a club Rory Smith recently pointed out as being at the forefront of the analytical game.
It is more than likely that many clubs will be sniffing around the Foxes once the January transfer window is cast open, though Claudio Ranieri has already made moves to distance the suitors/drive prices up. Within the online community of analytics bloggers, much has been written on Leicester’s transfer policy, with Chad Murphy prominent in recommending the sale of Vardy, before changing his view in a refreshing and remarkably Bayesian manner.
To my knowledge, however, little has been written on potential transfer targets for the Premier League table-toppers. Leicester’s performances have propelled Ranieri into the all-time Top 10 coaches according to clubelo.com, and the Italian’s tactics have, from Kasper Schmeichel forward, been incredibly direct.
An analysis of goalkeeper passing styles (methodology here) reveals that the Dane – do not call him Peter’s son, whatever you do – typically passes longer than any other Premier League keeper. Indeed, only Darmstadt’s Christian Mathenia prefers to pass longer than Schmeichel when keepers in the Bundesliga and La Liga are added to the comparison to create a 58-strong pool.
Schmeichel’s pass accuracy, using my Goalkeeper Passing Index (GPI) metric (originally known as RPI but changed owing to this already being an acronym in existence in sports analytics, methodology here), is, however, far below average. His long-passing (balls into sectors 5,6,7,8,9) GPI is -4.1%, weak enough to render him the 11th poorest long-passer of the 58.
With long-passing from the back an apparently central tenet of the Foxes’ direct strategy, it would seem that Leicester could certainly benefit from a keeper with excellent long-passing. So just who are the long-balling candidates that could replace Schmeichel as Leicester’s number 1? There are certainly worse shouts than Mathenia – the longest passer of the 58, and with the third best long-passing accuracy.
Of course goalkeeping is about far more than passing, with cross claiming and shot-stopping evidently of great importance. To add to this, Schmeichel is Leicester’s captain, and he may bring even more to the Foxes in inspiration and leadership than they lose through his apparently wayward passing.
On balance, however, and although GPI remains a very much provisional metric, it seems prudent for Walsh and his scouting team to at the very least take a look at some of the proficient long-passers identified in this piece. If the Foxes could improve on the accuracy of their direct play then that’s a scary prospect indeed. Might a Premier League title challenge be in the offing?!
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