Is Szczesny the best goalkeeper in the Premier League?
In short, yes.
This season for Arsenal has been a story of resurgence: Aaron Ramsey overcoming injury and calumny to be leading candidate for player of the year, Giroud leading the line for Arsenal, Arsenal breaking the club record to sign Mesut Ozil, the team playing with much more assurance in defence, and of course the club’s resurgence to the top of the table.
So it doesn’t surprise me that with all those headlines swirling around the club that the resurgence of Wojciech Szczesny has gone largely unnoticed.
With Arsenal’s new defensive system, Szczesny has been asked to work harder than ever before and he has risen to the occasion. Szczesny commands his area better than at any time in his career, is showing greater confidence in his long kicks, and he has made several crucial saves this season to keep Arsenal in title contention.
First, let me remind you of how Szczesny compared to the top keepers (and Pepe Reina) from last season:
In 2012/13, Szczesny played 25 league matches (all these stats are for league appearances only) and was making about 1.68 saves per game while allowing 0.96 goals per game. He was also making 1.76 high claims per game and a punch just about every other match. In my article last season, I proposed a metric for measuring how often a keeper was being worked by adding up saves, claims, and punches (SCP) and dividing that by the number of matches the keeper played. Szczesny had exactly four of those actions per game last season.
I then divided that number by the number of goals, errors, and failed claims that the keeper made, Szczesny had 29. This gave me a ratio of “good” actions to “bad” and last season Szczesny’s ratio was 3.45. In short, Szczesny didn’t have much to do and when he was called upon to do something, he was somewhat underwhelming.
This season, however, Szczesny has already been worked about as much as he was last season and he’s been superb - he’s already made as many saves in the first 12 games this season (40) as he did in the 25 matches last season (42). And, crucially, he’s let in only 10 goals, whereas in 2012/13 he let in 24.
Pundits credit Arsenal’s midfield for the team’s excellent defensive form this season. They point out that Ramsey, Flamini, and Arteta work hard to close space and harass the opposition. To some extent that is true, however, somewhat counter-intuitively, Arsenal are letting in more shots (per game) than last season yet are not conceding anywhere near as many goals per shot as they had in the past.
If the midfield was really working hard to keep the opposition quiet I would expect that Szczesny would see fewer shots, like Artur Boruc has faced for Southampton, and not more shots as we have seen with Arsenal. No, the fact is that you have to give a lot of credit for Arsenal’s defensive form to the reflexes of Szczesny.
Szczesny is making a lot more saves this year compared to last, up from 1.68 saves per game to 3.33, nearly twice as many. That indicates to me that while we might credit the Arsenal midfield for allowing the opposition fewer clear-cut chances, they are still getting shots and Szczesny is coming up with a lot of saves, a lot of great saves as I will discuss in a moment.
If we look at the ratio of “good” actions to “bad” again we see a remarkable turnaround from last season. Where Szczesny’s SCP/GEF ratio was 3.45 last year it’s now approaching seven. That’s nearly on par with the likes of Manuel Neuer, who is arguably the best goalkeeper in the world.
Again, this isn’t a case of the opposition not getting shots or crosses in - Szczesny already has 89 saves, claims, and punches where last year in 25 matches he had 100. This is simply the case that Szczesny is playing remarkably well - saving 80 per cent of shots faced this year compared to 62 per cent last.
"Numbers don’t tell the whole story. The whole story is that Szczesny is also making crucial saves at key moments to help Arsenal win games"
Szczesny has also historically struggled with his kicking and again the young man has matured greatly in his career over the last few seasons, going from 2.1 successful long passes per game in 2010/11 to 6.25 this season.
To those of you wondering whether Giroud has had an impact in this regard, the answer is “probably”. Giroud has won 61/115 aerial duels this season. That’s 53 per cent, which is pretty good.
Last year Giroud was 131/232 which is an even better 56 per cent - but you might have noticed something. Giroud is winning more aerials per game than he was last season, which correlates to the fact that Szczesny is trying more long kicks* per game. Watching him play, the young Pole seems much more confident in his long passes than ever before and thus more willing to try a long outlet to Giroud or Sagna.
So, numerically, Szczesny has been outstanding both in terms of the saves and claims he’s making and also in terms of his distribution. In fact, he’s peerless among the other top keepers in the Premier League. But as many folks like to point out, numbers don’t tell the whole story. The whole story is that Szczesny is also making crucial saves at key moments to help Arsenal win games. Let me just recount a few for you.
Against Southampton, Arsenal are up 1-0 and the Saints are marching on goal. In the 39th minute, Szczesny produced one of the finest saves of the season - an acrobatic leap to keep out Ward-Prowse’s karate-kick dipping volley. Replays showed the Pole was unsighted.
Against Liverpool, Arsenal are up 2-0 in the 82nd minute. Liverpool are piling on the pressure and suddenly Suarez, Coutinho, and Sturridge combine to play the Englishman in, but before he can settle, Szczesny is off his line and smothers the shot from point-blank range. Arsenal fail to maintain possession on the clearance and Liverpool again work the ball to the exact same spot, this time to Coutinho, and again, Szczesny smothers.
Against West Brom, scoreline 0-0, Berahino’s shot from distance takes a wicked deflection off Flamini, Szczesny was originally going left to stop the shot but switches direction and gets down well to his right to save the goal.
Against Tottenham, Arsenal up 1-0, 75th minute and a shot comes from distance, Koscielny deflects the shot and again, like West Brom, Szczesny is going the wrong way to start but shifts back and gets low to save. Who doesn’t love a great save at a crucial moment to keep a clean sheet against a big rival?
And against Fulham, again Arsenal up 1-0, this time the team look tired after the punishing match against Fener, Szczesny makes a killer double-save in the rain, first off a shot from distance and then the follow-up - a thunderstruck shot saved when Szczesny sacrifices his body.
And of, course, against Crystal Palace, Szczesny won the Man of the Match for his outstanding overall performance. A performance which included a fine save with Arsenal up 1-0: Jedinak fired a wicked curling volley which Szczesny palmed over the bar.
Szczesny has been outstanding for Arsenal this season and it’s a testament to the faith and patience Arsene Wenger has paid him over the last few years. There were moments when that patience might have wavered a bit and Szczesny was dropped but when great players are dropped they come back stronger and hungrier and that’s exactly what Szczesny has done this season.
Szczesny is now the crucial man in the heart of a resurgent Arsenal defence and it was no surprise when Arsenal rewarded him with an improved contract. In fact, if Szczesny keeps playing at the level he has been playing he might even push Aaron Ramsey for player of the year.
* Prior to Giroud playing for Arsenal, Sagna was actually Arsenal’s leading target man, winning 2.7 aerials per game (57/81). This was because Robin van Persie is not good in the air and won just 28/95 aerials in his one good season with Arsenal.