Regular readers will know I have a genuine love of football statistics. How many hours have I spent wondering what percentage of Mesut Özil’s left-footed passes, hit in from the right side of the pitch on an angle of 42.6° to the left flank, have led to goals.
I blame the Premier League. Everyone else does, why should I be any different. George Osborne will be blaming Arsenal for a rise in the illiteracy rates as most supporters think that there is but one letter in the alphabet – ‘W’ – thanks to recent results.
The truth is that football has long been a home for the obsessive. Hands up amongst you who could name the cup winners for previous two decades when you were a kid? I could. And the losing finalists as well. Frighteningly, I think I can still name the finals from about 1960 to 1980 without batting an eyelid and probably make a decent fist of the scores, throwing in the League champions for good measure.
It comes as some surprise that statistics never really played much of a role in supporters lives until relatively recently. Yes, we knew who the leading scorers were, what numbers occupied the ‘W/D/L’ columns and to a certain extent, how many clean sheets a particular goalkeeper kept. The truth is nobody really cared.
That is, until Fantasy Football arrived. And then how the number of assists was lapped up. As an aside, I read somewhere that Don Howe developed the definition of an assist. It wouldn’t surprise if it were true, it strikes me as the sort of thing he would know about and be acutely aware of.
And this is before we even get into the statistics clubs use.
Of course the flip side is the rise of the ultimately useless statistic. There’s been a huge number of these, mainly focussing on Arsenal being calendar year champions and currently holding the highest points per game ratio in 2015. Trophies ahoy. Even they though hold more purpose than knowing that David Ospina has the highest win percentage of any Premier League player who has played ten or more games.
Think about that for a moment. Not that he has the best clean sheet ratio or the finest percentage saves of left-footed headers in top flight football. Ever. In a team game, one man’s win percentage is held talismanically in the air. You can take your lucky underpants or your holey socks and bow down at the altar of the one-man win ratio. In a team sport.
But the stat raises an interesting point. All the talk of Petr Cech, even ignoring the unlikely scenario of Mourinho selling to Arsenal, seems ever so slightly pointless. Is signing the Czech Cech, who is 33 this May, really the solution to Szczesny’s loss of form or Ospina’s loss of only two games?
The question for me is what purpose does signing Cech serve? Is he better than Ospina? I’m not sure, certainly his age makes that a debatable point. Like any outstanding goalkeeper, reputation counts for a lot and Cech merited his standing in the game but you have to bear in mind that he isn’t Chelsea’s first choice any more. Courtois is a good young ‘keeper, there’s no doubt about that, but that doesn’t come into the equation. If we’re honest, Chelsea probably have the best goalkeeper in the English game at the moment. Not being first holds no shame.
My concern is that whilst goalkeepers have greater longevity than outfield players, age does catch up with them quickly. David Seaman probably serves notice of that. He became an outstanding goalkeeper but when age caught up, he recognised that quickly. How long before Cech realises the same? What then? Who do we sign then?
For me, there is too much criticism of the two goalkeepers Arsenal currently have. As Seaman himself noted yesterday, Szczesny was in the best form of his career last season. A loss of confidence, mistakes followed and he lost out. Typically in the Premier League age, the Pole reportedly demanded talks about his future with Arsène. Away from the cameras and tape recorders, he has quietly got on with regaining his form.
Ospina’s height seems to be an issue for some; Peter Shilton was not tall yet it didn’t stop him being regarded as one of the best in the world and to be honest, height doesn’t stop goalkeepers being lobbed from the halfway line. And to be brutal, he would not have won half-a-century of international caps if he was that bad. Not unless there was a Colombian goalkeeping crisis.
The issue for me is, in this instance, a dearth of world-class goalkeepers. We’ve been spoiled in the past; Seaman and Lehmann in the Wenger-era, before that Jennings and Wilson – some will go back to Kelsey – but we have more of a history of excellent goalkeepers, not the Number One. And let’s not forget, it’s one position in the back line. A good goalkeeper is said to be worth ten points a season which tells you just how bad Stoke and Leicester must have been whilst they had Banks and Shilton in their ranks.
It’s too soon to discard Ospina, especially when he has done well since coming into the side. Yes, there have been some nervous moments but the same is true of those whose fees were ten times that of his paltry £3m. Because of Szczesny’s poor form and his demotion, it is easy to cast goalkeeping as a problem to be addressed in the summer. For me, it is not the most demanding issue we face. Others such as continuing the transformation of the age of the squad in the defensive midfield roles as well as competition and back up for the likes of Giroud.
A new goalkeeper? Not an urgent requirement.
Anyway, that’s it for today; the final word comes courtesy of yesterday’s Guardian:
I wanted to be a soccer player, and I became the best of the best, the number one, better than Maradona, better than Pelé, and even better than Messi – but only at night, night time, during my dreams. When I woke up, I realised that I have wooden legs and that I’m doomed to be a writer – Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan author who died yesterday. Change the job and it’s all of us…