The esteem in which Leicester City are currently held by fans and pundits of all stripes has probably never been higher. The incredible unlikeliness of their surge to the upper echelons of the Premier League is particularly well captured by the massive gulf in the betting markets’ predictions for the Foxes’ final points tally at the start of the season (39) as compared with the present (72).
Leicester’s stellar season has resulted in heaps of praise for everyone involved, with Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kante reaping the bulk of the plaudits. Kasper Schmeichel’s stock has also skyrocketed. Indeed, recent tweets even point to a perception amongst fans that Schmeichel might be, if still a considerable distance from being World XI quality, worthy of a place on a ‘top goalkeepers’ longlist.
It is of course fair to say that all kinds of bizarre claims can be found amongst the tweets of random fans. Consulting various media narratives, however, yields a similar impression. In the January transfer window, for example, numerous newspapers peddled transfer rumours that linked the Dane with more traditionally high quality sides.
And in recent weeks, Sky Sports news held a poll in which 16% of voters considered him a superior option to Cech, Lloris or Hart. Regardless of your love for Schmeichel II, that is a HUGE call.
Schmeichel has not always been privy to such heady reputational heights. 3 games into the season, Squawka ranked him as the league’s 13 finest goalkeeper – a ranking right on the trendline of goalkeeping analyses often seeming to be based on little more than the quality of the rest of the team for which a given keeper turns out. Before Leicester’s 2014 promotion, meanwhile, Schmeichel had spent half a decade doing his thing in the backwaters of the Football League.
Leicester will no doubt be extremely keen to sensibly re-invest the windfall that will come with them gaining a league position far higher than anticipated. The goal, presumably, is to build a squad equipped for a decent showing in next season’s Champions League alongside another title challenge. It is accordingly important for Leicester to know whether all their players, including Schmeichel, are up to the task, as any who are not should instantly become prime candidates for replacement. This being a goalkeeping blog, and this specific post the result of my Twitter followers requesting that I write a piece on Schmeichel, let’s forget about the rest of Leicester’s starting XI for the time being.
The question: Does Schmeichel seem like the real deal worthy of keeping goal in a Champions League encounter? Or is he a weak-link for the Foxes better suited to life back in the Football League?
With the cat let out of the bag in the title, it’s already evident that I’m inclined towards the latter. So what is this based on? First of all, it is important to note that a goalkeeper has many responsibilities. Alongside saving shots, as I’ve often written in blog posts and waffled on about on podcasts, the ideal, all-round super-keeper would be additionally adept at dealing with crosses, marshalling their defence, and distributing the ball.
I’ve posted previously on how ill-matched Schmeichel’s passing accuracy seems to be to Leicester’s needs. To cut a repetitive story short, I analysed goalkeepers’ passing in the first 16 games of the Bundesliga, the Premier League and La Liga this season, and Schmeichel was one of the worst keepers at long-passing in Europe, despite Leicester’s reliance on a long-ball strategy. Whilst Schmeichel clearly, to the eye, has a booming boot, it seems his precision is lacking. Since discovering this trend, I’ve been interested to watch more than a few of Schmeichel’s goal kicks scuffed out for throw-ins. Anecdotal evidence, certainly. When actually watched game footage matches the findings of a new metric, however, the conclusions that may be drawn from such data analyses can increasingly begin to be believed.
I will stress here, however, that this study looked only at the accuracy of passes, as defined at Statszone, so it does not pretend to capture the entirety of a goalkeeper’s distribution. This is important, as questions pertaining to the time between distributions and the creation of chances are not considered, and throws are overlooked entirely. Schmeichel’s long-passing ability (his short-passing didn’t come out much better), however, seemingly remains of a dubious quality.
The next question I hear you ask is why have you only considered the first 16 matches of the season when looking at passing when that’s just the same as the January article? It’s a fair point. It’s certainly possible that Schmeichel has passed long with the accuracy of an Olympic archer in the intervening period. The reason for the lapsed passing analysis owes to OptaPro’s Analytics Forum that was being held on the 10th February that I was lucky enough to be selected to present at, so from the middle of December I was sifting through spreadsheets ahead of that!
At the Forum I introduced a new metric with the aim of determining a goalkeeper’s ability at dealing with crosses. A keeper was said to deal ‘well’ with crosses if they had a higher likelihood to attempt to deal with a given ball into the box (aggression), and then a higher likelihood of catching rather than punching or fumbling those balls that they attempted to deal with (claim proficiency). I was able to plot these two factors against each other for 88 keepers in Europe’s Top 4 leagues, and it is certainly fair to say that in 2014/15 (the season of data I worked with), Schmeichel was far from the sharp end. Perhaps sensing this reticence to claim the few crosses for which he apparently tends to come, Arsenal put in more crosses in their game against Leicester the other week than in any other league match this season.
So far, then, we have a keeper seemingly poor at passing, and poor at dealing with crosses. What about shot-stopping? The first, and most important, thing to note regarding shot-stopping is how difficult it is to quantify the skill. Over one, and even 2 seasons of data, Save% offers very very little insight into a goalkeeper’s shotstopping skill, so we can forget about attempting to judge Schmeichel based on that. Paul Riley (@footballfactman) and Thom Lawrence (@deepxg) have both worked on assessing keepers according to how many saves they make ‘above’ the expected goals they face. Again, such statistics don’t offer a great deal of insight into a keeper’s true shotstopping ability based on one season of data. If, however, Schmeichel performed consistently well, or badly, on such a measure a few seasons in a row then maybe we could begin to deduce some shotstopping prowess. Whilst Riley has Schmeichel towards the top end of the pack in 2015/16, Lawrence reckons that in the last two seasons, including the current one, Schmeichel was below average. The jury, then, probably has to remain out given the apparent discrepancy between Riley and Lawrence regarding Schmeichel’s shotstopping this season. It’s probably unlikely, however, that a truly top-quality shotstopper would ever weigh-in as a below average keeper twice in a row as per Lawrence’s metric. That really would be bad luck. We can probably tentatively suggest, then, that Schmeichel’s shotstopping isn’t really of a high enough standard for the elite demands of Leicester’s 2016/17 campaign.
So finally we move on to defensive organisation and communication. How such an attribute could be specifically quantified within football, I’m not really sure. To be fair to Schmeichel, as Leicester’s Captain, it is possible that his reading of the game, communication with his defence, and inspirational qualities are of a mightily impressive standard. They might not be, but it’s probably unlikely that a goalkeeper would be awarded the captaincy without them being in possession of these ‘mental’ traits in copious quantities.
This, then, remains the one real question-mark over Schmeichel. He seems below average at dealing with crosses, passing and shotstopping. Maybe he really is an incredible communicator to render these apparent flaws obsolete. It’s possible. To entirely outweigh such poor statistics in the other aspects of goalkeeping herein analysed, however, he’d have to be off the charts at the mental side of the game. With Leicester surely wanting to improve their team for 2016/17, then I certainly think they could do a lot worse than to shunt Schmeichel onto the bench and seek out a more impressively rounded keeper with an aptitude for passing, dealing with crosses, and stopping shots.
Alternatively, if Liverpool and Manchester United et al. really are interested in making a bid as the press have suggested, then Leicester should probably take the money and run!