The Last Line of Defence, the First Line of Attack

By: Kevin Chroust | February 14, 2018

Ederson and Alisson are said to be transforming goalkeeping, often without even handling the ball. Here we assess the distribution of the Brazilian duo with STATS Playing Styles, Ball Movement Points and Tier 6+ data, which might lead us to question which of the two is doing more to ambitiously deliver the ball to their teammates’ feet. It also might lead us to consider a lesser-known name or two in their own leagues.

 

Ederson says he could play midfield if Manchester City lose any more players to injury. Alisson was recently referred to as the Messi of goalkeepers.

Both are known for, among other traits, their distributive quality, and much of that appreciation is heaped upon the Manchester City man after Pep Guardiola paid a substantial fee to pry him from Portugal. But how can we measure this beyond the eye test of Ederson lofting a precise ball over an opposing player in a high position to Leroy Sané’s boots? How do we do so meaningfully in a way that goes beyond successful passes? How can we reward ambition? And if we can do that, how do we do it objectively and in ways clubs like Roma can use to properly valuate Alisson as demand rises? And, conversely, how can clubs rumoured to be interested, such as Liverpool, use it to properly go about player recruitment?

In STATS Playing Styles, we have our ways. Is Ederson really reinventing the position? Or is he drawing more attention than a compatriot who does his job similarly but without quite as much flair?

We’ll start by saying, yes, Ederson is an exceptional distributor, and we’ll show you the proof in a moment. World-class keepers such as David De Gea and Jan Oblak aren’t going to match the specific passing accuracy and ambition you’re about to see that validates what Guardiola saw in the former Benfica man.

But he might not be one of a kind on the level he’s often talked about. In fact, he might not even be Brazil’s best distributing keeper. Few will bother contending Ederson is of Alisson’s quality in the traditional sense between the sticks, and we’re going to see here that Alisson might also hold certain advantages with his feet.

We’ll start with the basics, where Ederson shows some slight advantages.

(Graphics by Stephan van Niekerk)

You see here that Ederson completes a higher percentage of his overall and forward passes, but as we go up the pitch, that’ll change. That said, both of these guys are exceptional with their feet. For a little context, no other starting Premier League keeper completes more than 66.9 percent of forward passes (Tottenham’s Hugo Lloris). No other Serie A keeper tops 73.6 (Inter’s Samir Handanovic).

Checking in on other world-class keepers, Bayern Munich’s Manuel Neuer has been injured this season but came in at 70.5 percent last season. Atlético Madrid’s Jan Oblak is only completing 31 percent of forward passes this season, down from 44.4 in 2016/17, but he tends not to play short balls, which transitions us into a new level of specificity with our two main subjects.

At least some of Ederson’s success, it turns out, probably has something to do with the distance he attempts.

We see here that, despite Ederson attempting more passes into the final third, Alisson distinguishes himself notably more up the pitch. He attempts more long passes (beyond 34 metres) and is considerably more successful with them. For context, Oblak has attempted 340 long passes but only connected on 34.1 percent with 49 toward the final third at 14.3 percent. In the Premier League, De Gea frequently sends the ball long (435 attempts) but more often than not misses (40.5 percent success), and there’s a similar trend with him going toward the final third (98 attempts, 20.4 percent). AC Milan’s Gianluigi Donnarumma, the emerging benchmark for the next generation of Italian goalkeeping, attempts fewer long passes (281) and completes 51.2 percent while connecting on 27.3 percent of 22 attempts to the final third.

So the Brazilians in question tend to be judicious with distribution, and they convert a higher rate of long passes – often far higher. We’ll see below how this results in a higher net oBMP, a key category in STATS Ball Movement Points.

BMP considers ball movement made by an individual player from a start zone to an end zone and assigns value based on past results from massive amounts of league data. These scores accumulate during a match or across a season to indicate the value of a player’s ball distribution. BMP considers every involvement a player has to credit or discredit decisions with the ball and reward creativity. It’s what football minds could always see but never calculate. It goes beyond expected assists by looking at the full chain of passes, weighing the probability of that pass leading to a shot later in the play. Passing points generate expected shot points, so if a player generates one BMP, he has generated passes to lead to or defend one shot. It expresses the level of threat or wastefulness that can be attributed to a player. It’s broken down into categories of offensive and defensive as well as positive and negative (oBMP+, oBMP-, dBMP+, dBMP-) with net values telling the more conclusive story.

We’ll get back to BMP momentarily. First, one last chart to get us there.

Let’s start at the end with team points earned, where each is contributing at a higher rate than is expected. But if we look into straight goalkeeping for a moment, Alisson distinguishes himself as the clear-cut No. 1 for Brazil heading into that important tournament they’ve got in Russia this summer. Both keepers have been in goal for all of their club’s league goals and faced all of their club’s league shots this season. Ederson has allowed 20 goals with Man City’s expected goals against coming in at 19.9, so with him in goal, they’re right at what’s expected of a league average. Alisson has Roma conceding far fewer than expected, which corroborates the traditional keeper value he’s perceived to hold over Ederson.

As for the subtle things both keepers do very well, the counter attack is interesting to consider when properly contextualised. Only Jordan Pickford (1,374.8 metres) leads Ederson in the Premier League in counter distance passed. He leads by a significant margin, which initially seems interesting from Pickford’s perspective because STATS Playing Styles shows us Everton counter considerably less (minus-9 percent of the league average) than City (plus-23 percent). But Pickford goes long with the ball 70.9 percent of the time, and not very effectively. He’s attempted 619 long passes at a 35.4 percent success rate.

Alisson leads Serie A keepers in counter distance passed while only one other keeper has reached the 600-metre mark, which probably speaks to the differences between the varieties of football typically played in Italy and England. But this shared ability of Ederson and Alisson to get a counter started means they’re frequently sparking transition play, which in Playing Styles is differentiated from direct play with various distinctions.

Another interesting keeper to consider here is Kasper Schmeichel, who leads us back into BMP. At first glance, his 46.9 percent forward-pass success seems horrible. But his long balls (642 attempts) account for 71.7 percent of his passes, and he’s been better at it (42.1 percent success) than Pickford and De Gea. That contributes to the Premier League’s third-best oBMP for a keeper (0.39). It’s still not at the level of Alisson and Ederson, who are among the most dangerous keepers in the world in terms of creative threat.

Schmeichel also leads the top-five European leagues with a 1.29 dBMP, and by no small margin, meaning he’s disrupting attacks more than any keeper.

With Ederson second in the Premier League in oBMP, who’s first?

Burnley’s Nick Pope (0.53).

It’ll make sense after addressing the numbers all the way though. He completes only 42.9 percent of his passes, but he goes long 82.1 percent of the time (633 attempts). He completes those long balls at a rate of just 34 percent, but he’s sent 329 toward the final third at a rate of 33.1. In other words, his success rate entering that area of attack is on Ederson’s level with roughly nine times the attempts. He’s connecting ambitious passes in dangerous areas on the pitch. That’s resulted in four first assists to shots – three more than Ederson and Alisson combined – and two second assists to shots.

He leads Europe’s top five leagues in oBMP as one of three keepers with marks ahead of Alisson. Compared to Alisson and Ederson, he may take a different route to getting involved in the attack, but he has a considerably different 10 outfield players in front of him, so it’s often the only way for him to contribute as a forward-thinking keeper.

Any club considering Pope will also want to know how he fares with short and medium passes. He’s completed 116 of 123 inside that range, and he plays for a team that’s consistently under more pressure in those defensive areas than clubs such as Manchester City and Roma. That’s 94.3 percent, which puts him ahead of Pickford (93.8), a well-respected keeper Everton paid plenty for over the summer. It makes you wonder what kind of distributor Pope would be if he had the luxury Ederson has of being judicious with his long balls.

Pope’s also been strong between the sticks in the traditional sense. Burnley have conceded 24 goals, which is a Premier League-leading -24.2 of expected. Everton? -4.2. In terms of expected goals, Burnley with Pope in goal are, this season anyway, above even Manchester United’s level this season with De Gea (-20.0).

This is all supported by player points, where Pope (3.9) ranks just ahead of Ederson and only behind De Gea (4.1) in the Premier League.

So from a recruitment perspective, a club like Liverpool may well be set on the emerging greatness of Alisson as an all-around keeper. But so might a number of other clubs, especially if he has a strong showing on the world’s stage come June. The great thing about deep data when assessing a deal is it allows a club to walk away or in a different direction rather than getting carried away.

Ederson’s been strong, both with that subjective eye test he frequently passes and the objective data we’ve considered here. Alisson might be even better. But those clubs this summer looking to follow the emerging trend and attack from the back might save a few pounds by digging even deeper.