Rise of ball-playing goalkeeper means Petr Cech’s days are numbered
In his spare time Petr Cech likes to play the drums. He has a YouTube channel with 46,000 subscribers where he periodically posts covers of songs by Nirvana, Stereophonics and Foo Fighters. He has even played with Roger Taylor of Queen. And in a way Cech’s choice of hobby feels strangely fitting for a man whose game is based on the percussive fundamentals of goalkeeping — he is an archetypal, old-school “shot-stopper” — but in the modern game, clubs are keen for their goalkeepers to be more than just blunt instruments. Increasingly they are expected to pull the strings.
In Arsenal’s first game of the season, against Manchester City, Cech looked like a man out of time. Unai Emery, the new Arsenal head coach, is attempting to impose a build-from-the-back style of play that is not a natural fit with Cech’s skillset. One moment in particular encapsulated his discomfort, and quickly went viral: receiving the ball from Mattéo Guendouzi deep in his six-yard box, Cech tried to play a left-footed pass to a team-mate but ended up miscuing the ball narrowly wide of his own goal.
Why does this matter? Surely a goalkeeper’s job is to save shots? Ultimately it all goes back to the culture of high pressing that has swept the Premier League in recent seasons. Where once teams were able to knock it around at the back under little or no pressure, now it has become more and more normal for teams to try to win the ball back as high up the pitch as possible, to the point of pressuring the goalkeeper and blocking the easy short pass to his defenders. Consequently the importance for goalkeepers of being comfortable with the ball at their feet and able to pick a pass has increased. The overall pass accuracy of Premier League goalkeepers has steadily risen from 42.4 per cent in 2009-10, the first season that Opta recorded that statistic, to 54.3 per cent last season. The “pure shot-stopper” who lacks those distribution skills is increasingly a predated species, preyed on by packs of mobile and aggressive forwards eager to force him to lump the ball upfield or harry him into a mistake.
Belatedly these subtle tectonic shifts in the way football is played are beginning to be reflected in the market. After years of undervaluing goalkeepers, the market boomeranged this summer, with two, Kepa Arrizabalaga and Alisson Becker, attracting the two highest fees paid by Premier League sides (£71.6 million and £65 million). Both fit the modern, ball-playing prototype. In signing them, Maurizio Sarri and Jürgen Klopp came to the same realisation that motivated Pep Guardiola to sanction the purchase of Ederson a year ago: that making a change at the goalkeeper position is not just about conceding fewer goals; it is also a chance to unlock the way you want to play.
Cech was the future once. Now he returns to the stadium where he made history looking increasingly like the past. On Saturday, Emery’s Arsenal visit Stamford Bridge to play Chelsea, the club where Cech won four Premier League titles, four FA Cups, three golden gloves, one Champions League and one Europa League. Perhaps, because Cech was never the most voluble or visible character in those Chelsea teams, his legend has been underestimated — only three non-British or Irish players, Mark Schwarzer, Sylvain Distin and Brad Friedel, have made more Premier League appearances, all with vastly less success. There have probably been greater imports than Cech, but arguably none who have been so excellent for so long.
It is interesting to recall that Cech was seen as so utterly dependable, such an innate winner, that when Arsenal signed him in 2015 it was greeted as a game-changer, perhaps even more so than the signing of Mesut Özil. Several pundits hailed the signing of Cech as the last jigsaw piece in predicting Arsenal to win the title. It did not quite work out like that, even if he did give Arsenal two seasons of above-average shot-stopping. Last season, however, his shot-stopping declined. For the first time in six years, he conceded more goals than the expected-goals value of the shots that he faced. Sam Jackson, a data analyst for the agency World in Motion, who specialises in goalkeeping, describes Cech’s shot-stopping last season as “only about average”, though he points out that Cech has always been good at shot prevention (stopping the opposition taking shots by claiming crosses, making interceptions etc).
Leno, a £19.3m signing, is certain to become Arsenal’s No1Leno, a £19.3m signing, is certain to become Arsenal’s No1
The other looming problem for Cech is the arrival at Arsenal of Bernd Leno, a £19.3 million summer signing from Bayer Leverkusen. Although he did not command the same sort of top-tier fee as Kepa or Alisson, Leno is still the eighth most expensive goalkeeper of all time, and unsurprisingly all the other members of the top ten are or were their team’s undisputed No 1s. Although Emery has publicly backed Cech as his starter for now, there is a suspicion that ultimately Leno will prove better suited to the demands of an Emery team.
The perception of Cech as a poor distributor is unfair, Jackson says. “He probably didn’t have his best game at the weekend, but he’s an above-average distributor. Something that is overlooked in terms of keepers’ distribution is throwing — it often does not make the highlights reel on Match of the Day, but Cech is one of the best in the game at that.” Among Premier League goalkeepers, Jackson says that he would rank Cech “sixth, seventh, eighth” for distribution.
There are two hefty caveats, though. The first is that one aspect where Cech is not so good is open-play distribution with his feet — a key skill for a goalkeeper in a build-from-the-back team who want to beat the press. “Open-play with his feet is probably Cech’s main weakness,” Jackson says. “He’s good enough, but it’s a relative weakness if you’re looking for top-four ability.” In 2009-10 Cech’s pass of 58.1 per cent compared favourably to an average of 52.7 per cent for goalkeepers at the big six clubs but the standard of goalkeeper distribution at the top clubs has shot up — last year, the big six goalkeeper pass- figure was 70.7 per cent, leaving Cech’s 65.4 per cent lagging behind.
The second caveat is that the man waiting in the wings is one of the silkiest distributors in the game. “Leno’s distribution is top, top-drawer,” Jackson says. “With his feet in open play he’s very, very good; he’s good at throwing it; he’s good at kicking it from hand; he’s comfortable on the ball and makes very few errors on the ball. Other than Ederson I’d say Leno would be in the discussion to be the best in the Premier League.”
There are, however, significant weaknesses in Leno’s shot-stopping: in fact, some models suggest he has underperformed in terms of expected goals for each of the past seven seasons. The interesting question is: is that a deal-breaker any more? Jackson points out that, according to his model, Ederson’s shot-stopping was below average last season. Some teams do not need their goalkeeper to be a shield so much as a scalpel. “I think that having a keeper who is so good at distribution can outweigh shot-stopping,” he says. “If your team believes that they can benefit from having more of the ball and using the ball better, and the opposition are going to have fewer shots as a result, then does it matter that your keeper is not as strong at shot-stopping?”
For now, Cech endures. In the medium term, his days are numbered: by his age, by Leno, and by the shifting sands of a game that no longer conceptualises the goalkeeper as a soloist, but as a fundamental part of the orchestra. The drums are about to fall silent.
How he was left behind by the modern passing game
Cech nearly embarrassed himself in last Sunday’s 2-0 defeat by Manchester City, attempting to pass sideways but almost putting the ball into his own net.
Over the past nine seasons in the Premier League Cech’s passing accuracy has gone from above average compared with his rivals to falling below them in the past two campaigns.
That is perhaps more of a reflection of the influence of City’s Pep Guardiola and Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp and their desire for possession football, rather than a suggestion of Cech’s ability declining. His accuracy last season was his second highest but 5 per cent behind the average of ‘Big Six’ rivals.