Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Ospina the mean man

In the age of the internet, it’s become harder to have a nuanced view of footballers. They become viewed through a binary prism of good or bad, and that’s that. So when a player who has received some criticism does something good, people use this as evidence to say “everything you said before must be wrong”!

Which brings me nicely to the case of David Ospina, the ultimate reliably six out of ten player, who is neither terrible, nor brilliant. Certainly, the case for Ospina is compelling: Arsenal conceded 36 goals in the Premier League this season, the fewest since the last time the club seriously challenged for the League title all season (07-08). What’s more, of those 36, just 11 were conceded since Ospina came into the team after the defeat at Southampton away.

But this overlooks a few things. First, the numbers do lie: there is enough historical data to say with a high degree of certainty that Ospina’s 80% save percentage is unsustainable. Second, he’s had relatively few shots to save: partly as a result of bad shooting, partly as a result of better defending from Arsenal, teams have had fewer shots on target giving whoever would have been in goal less to do. And rhose shots which have been on target have often been long-range pot-shots, rather than the sort of shots any decent keeper might struggle with. Most importantly though, just watch the games: I’m all for the use of statistics to evaluate players, but not without actually watching the matches. Ospina was lucky against West Brom to not concede a howler, the guy does not command his box effectively (as McAuley’s goal demonstrated) and his display against Monaco was absolutely wretched, but fortunately for him, doesn’t count towards his Premier League statistics.

Clearly, even were Ospina to regress to the mean a bit, he would not become a rubbish goalkeeper overnight. But this is the way the internet pendulum swings, where players are either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and there’s nowhere in between. The truth is that Ospina is an average to good player, but not good enough to play for a team which harbours ambitions of winning either the Premier or Champions League.

And that’s without even mentioning things which are useful for goalkeepers, but not regarded as absolutely essential, such as good distribution and good communication. One of the things I’ve been banging on about to anybody who would listen recently is about how Arsenal should be working to build a system where the team can play to having a false nine as the striker, be it Theo Walcott or more likely Alexis Sanchez. To play a system like that, Arsenal need a goalkeeper who is confident on the ball, because they’re not just going to hoof it to the big striker every time, but can calmly pass it, kick it short or long and spot good runs off the ball. That player is not Ospina.

But it very well could be Wojciech Szczesny, and this is what’s so depressing about Ospina’s lucky run. Because Ospina hasn’t made any truly glaring mistakes (Monaco aside, perhaps), Szczesny hasn’t had the chance to come back into the team and prove himself. In the meantime, people talk about his performance against Southampton as if it were emblematic of every Szczesny appearance ever. Quite aside from the point that he was most certainly not the only person at fault for either of the Southampton goals, Szczesny was having an okay season up to that point. Not brilliant by any means, but not bad. And he has a history of keeping exceptionally for Arsenal not very long ago.

As it stands, I reckon Szczesny is close to the top ten goalkeepers in world football. But more importantly, he’s just turned 25. Arsenal didn’t even sign David Seaman until he was 27. I accept that right now a goalkeeper like Petr Cech may be better than Szczesny. Personally, I don’t agree but evaluations of goalkeepers are much more subjective than any other position. But the crucial point about Szczesny is that his ceiling is incredibly high - he has shown in the past glimpses of how he could become the best goalkeeper in the world, and if he does, there’s most of his career still to come.

There’s two keepers who I think are objectively just better than him at the moment: Manuel Neuer and Thibaut Courtois. Most people would add David De Gea to that list and I’ll give you Gigi Buffon as well. Of those four, there is no chance of Arsenal signing any of them. I also think it’s unlikely Chelsea will sell Arsenal Cech but it’s something of a moot point. Getting rid of Szczesny would be disastrous not least because it would be difficult for Arsenal to find somebody even close to his level. Unfortunately, judging by all press indications, Szczesny will be sold. Just pray it’s not Ospina still in goal come August.

Keep the faith.