It was a mixed weekend for high-profile goalkeepers in the Premier League. Although Thibaut Courtois made a number of fine saves and David De Gea made a startling block from Kevin Mirallas, both Claudio Bravo and Loris Karius were partly responsible for their defeats.
With Bravo, of course, this is part of an ongoing narrative. He is a very un-English style of goalkeeper. He is not the stolid, unflappable, reliable figure English football has historically revered. He is not a Shilton or a Seaman. He is flamboyant, takes risks and passes like an outfielder in the model Johan Cruyff always demanded. Cruyff himself, when he was 17, played in goal for the Ajax third team while making his way as a forward for the firsts, something that conditioned his insistence that the keeper should play as high up the pitch as possible, initiating attacks.
His theory was always that it didn’t matter if his keeper was lobbed once in a while, however embarrassing it may appear, because it was outweighed by the overall benefit of having an additional outfielder. Which is all very well, and perhaps explains some of the suspicion that has surrounded Bravo since he replaced Joe Hart in August, but it does not explain the utter lack of authority Bravo exudes. With each of the three goals that Chelsea scored, there was a sense of inevitability that the ball was going in long before it hit the net. For the second, Bravo was still skipping into his set position as the ball went past him.
Karius, meanwhile, although he hasn’t faced the invidious task of replacing the England number one, has had to labour with the sense that, as the Irish journalist Ken Early put it, with his floppy blond hair he looks like the prince at the start of a Disney film who you know will turn out to be a wrong’un. Before the Bournemouth game, there had been a feeling that he didn’t save all that much, and so perhaps wasn’t much of a step up on Simon Mignolet. That game seemed to confirm all the fears as he made two terrible errors that cost goals, reacting late to a Ryan Fraser shot that slipped under his body and then spilling Steve Cook’s strike to gift Nathan Ake the winner.
But is it actually true, or is there an element of confirmation bias going on, that doubts have been raised over Bravo and Karius and so their errors receive more attention? Goalkeeping is extremely difficult to measure statistically because it’s such a reactive field, but looking at the percentage of shots saved does give some indication of a goalkeeper’s shot-stopping capacity.
Burnley’s Tom Heaton has made the most saves of any goalkeeper this season, followed by Sunderland’s Jordan Pickford – and he made another excellent late block on Saturday – but they have faced the most and second most shots. Looking only at those keepers who’ve played a minimum of seven matches – that is, half the league season – Lee Grant has the best ratio, having saved 87.1% of shots he’s faced. Then comes Kaspar Schmeichel with 76.1% then Heaton on 75.6%, then Petr Cech, Foster and Pickford.
Bravo, though, isn’t too far behind, having saved 66.7% of shots on target he has faced, the ninth-best record, with Karius in tenth on 65.5%. Both, intriguingly, are ahead of De Gea. Worst is Fraser Forster with 54.3%. Bravo, meanwhile, has the best pass completion rate of any goalkeeper in the league, although his 73.3% is significantly down on the 84.3% he achieved at Barcelona last season.
But that’s only part of the story. Liverpool have faced just 7.9 shots per game this season and City 8.6, the two lowest figures in the league. Yet Liverpool have let in 18 goals and City 15. To put that another way, every 6.2 shots Liverpool face results in a goal, and every 8.0 shots City face. If Hull, who have leaked the most shots this season, conceded at the same rate as Liverpool, they’d have let in 42 this season; as it is, they’ve leaked 28.
Whether it’s the goalkeeper or not, something is going wrong in the Liverpool and City defences.