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Reader Poll: Best EPL Goalkeeper 2019-20

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The English Premier League is blessed with many top-shelf net-minders. But who is the best?

Alisson Becker-BALLON D’OR-2019-Liverpool FC - Premier League
Last year Alisson Becker won the Yachine trophy — essentially the Ballon d’Or for goalkeepers. Which GK has been the EPL’s best this season?
Photo by FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images

No player on the pitch is saddled with more responsibility than the goalkeeper. Many players in a side are tasked with scoring, and many are tasked with defending. But the job of making saves belongs to only one player, and that’s the goalie. And although it can be embarrassing for an attacker to sky a shot into the stands, scuff it wide, or whiff it altogether, there is no mistake more humiliating than a howler by the GK.

As amusing as goalie errors can be, the penalty for these failures is often severe. When a striker misses a sitter, the crowd simply groans and the game rolls on. The consequences of a keeper’s mistake, however, are instantly tangible: The scoreboard changes. And sometimes the ramifications are devastating.

As an example, Liverpool fans will painfully recall this catastrophic performance from Loris Karius in the 2018 Champions League final against Real Madrid (said later to be influenced by an unrecognized concussion sustained earlier in the game).

A tearful apology to the club’s supporters for “losing the team the final” wasn’t enough to prevent the German from receiving online death threats, and two months later Liverpool paid a record transfer fee to bring in Alisson Becker, exiling Karius to Turkey on loan. I told you the stakes are high for goalies!

Clearly then, no team can be successful without a competent netminder between the sticks. But some are definitely better than others. Let’s see if we can divine which has been the EPL’s best this season.

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Wins

I’ve already argued that no single position has more potential to influence the outcome of a game than the goalie. Therefore, one measure of a keeper’s skill is his number of wins. Here are the league’s top four in that category for the 2019-20 season:

Wins

Goalkeeper Wins
Goalkeeper Wins
Alisson 18
Ederson 16
Schmeichel 16
Kepa 13

But the shortcomings of using wins as a metric become clear when you consider the clubs for which the two winningest keepers play. Few would dispute that Liverpool and Manchester City boast more overall quality and talent than any of the other clubs in the EPL. That can make it hard to distinguish Alisson’s or Ederson’s contributions to their teams’ success from the contributions of the all-star casts that surround them. After all, to win a team merely needs to score more goals than it concedes. That means we could be misled into overestimating the skill of a mediocre GK if he played for a team full of prolific scorers. We’ll need to dig deeper for a better assessment tool.

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Clean Sheets

To eliminate the confounding effect of a potent offense on our assessment of the quality of a team’s keeper, we can narrow our focus to clean sheets rather than wins. The top four for that metric are as follows:

Clean Sheets

Goalkeeper Clean Sheets
Goalkeeper Clean Sheets
Pope 11
Alisson 10
Henderson 10
Schmeichel 10

This table demonstrates the utility of using clean sheets instead of wins as a yardstick of a keeper’s talent. Manchester City has the league’s most prolific offense, a blessing that has helped them accrue more wins than any other team bar Liverpool. But if we strip City’s attack out of the equation by examining clean sheets instead of wins, Ederson tumbles right out of the top four.

Similarly, Sheffield United and Burnley have scored fewer goals than any other teams in the top half of the table, and only two teams in the upper half have won fewer games. But if we eliminate the influence of their relatively weak offenses by looking at clean sheets instead of wins, suddenly Nick Pope appears as #1, and Dean Henderson as joint-second.

Alas, the flaw in this metric is pretty obvious: It doesn’t account for the number of games a GK has played. A #1 who spent 2019 recovering from injury before returning to the starting lineup on New Year’s Day 2020 would only have played 8 or 9 games so far. Even if he were the best goalie in the world, how could we possibly expect him to make the cut for a table that requires 10 clean sheets for entry? Once again, we’ll have to drill deeper.

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Clean Sheet Percentage

To adjust for the number of games played, we can consider clean sheet percentage. This metric is derived by simply dividing the number of clean sheets by the number of games played. When we refine our look at clean sheets this way, we get this result:

Clean Sheet %

Goalkeeper Clean Sheet %
Goalkeeper Clean Sheet %
Alisson 50
Pope 37.9
Henderson 37
Ederson 36

Making this adjustment to our assessment of clean sheets knocks Kasper Schmeichel out of the table and brings Ederson back in. Why? Because even though Schmeichel kept one more clean sheet than Ederson, he played five more games than the Brazilian.

Yet although this metric is substantially more nuanced and informative than raw clean sheets alone, it is still not perfect. Just as it was important to strip out the effect of a team’s offense on its wins, we also need to eliminate the effect of a team’s defense on its clean sheets. If we truly want to evaluate a keeper on his own merits, then we’ve got to isolate him from the influence of the players who help him protect his net.

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Saves

Earlier in the article I said that only one player is tasked with making saves. Consequently, using saves as a yardstick of a keeper’s performance might be a good way to subtract out the confounding effect of the keeper’s defense on his clean sheet stats. Here are this season’s top four for saves:

Saves

Goalkeeper Saves
Goalkeeper Saves
Dubravka 111
Leno 102
Ramsdale 97
Ryan 92

The fact that this table generates four brand new names suggests that it is measuring goalkeepers in a way that is distinctly different from any method we have examined previously. This table avoids awarding undeserved credit to goalies who enjoy the benefit of playing for high-scoring sides, or sides with tight defenses. By shifting our focus away from wins and clean sheets, we have landed on an attribute that more specifically reflects individual goalkeeping prowess.

Unfortunately, although using saves as a metric does control for a tight defense, it also tends to favor goalkeepers who play for sides with defenses that allow a lot of shots on target. Is Aaron Ramsdale really a better GK than Alisson, or does Bournemouth’s weaker defense simply hand Ramsdale the opportunity to stop more shots than the Brazilian is forced to face?

Moreover, a GK’s save total is also highly dependent on his minutes. Netminders who have avoided injury or who have not been subject to tournament rotation will be afforded an unfair advantage by this measure. Sticking with our example of Ramsdale and Alisson, the Englishman has started eight more games than the Brazilian, and played nearly 800 more minutes. It’s no wonder Ramsdale has made more saves then, right? Once again, we’ll need to refine our metric to arrive at a more meaningful yardstick of a goalie’s shot-stopping ability.

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Save Percentage

As we did with clean sheets, we can index a keeper’s saves against his opportunities to make them. If we divide a goalie’s saves by the number of shots on target he has faced, we arrive at his save percentage. This stat controls for shot volume, and therefore adjusts for the effect of a leaky defensive corps as well as for minutes played. Here are the league’s leaders for 2019-20:

Save %

Goalkeeper Save %
Goalkeeper Save %
Alisson 0.84
Schmeichel 0.779
Leno 0.772
Henderson 0.758

Here we see that after adjusting the number of saves for shot-volume, only Bernd Leno remains in the top four. He is joined by three names that have appeared frequently throughout this article: Alisson, Kasper Schmeichel, and Dean Henderson. Statistically-speaking, then, these four men have been the best pure shot-stoppers in the Prem this season.

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Distribution

But does that make them the best goalkeepers? In the modern game, it is not enough for a goalie to merely make saves; he must also function as an eleventh outfielder. The ever-increasing trend of building play out of the back — 50% more short passes were played by EPL GKs this season vs. five years ago (skysports.com) — means that, like his teammates, the contemporary keeper must be able to play the ball with his feet.

While Ederson does not qualify for the EPL’s top four as a shot-stopper, his skill at distribution and building play out of the back is considered to be among the best in world football. Last season over 76% over the Brazilian’s passes were short, the highest proportion of any keeper in the Prem (skysports.com). And US Men’s National Team goalie (and new Citizen) Zack Steffen says that Ederson “is like f......g Messi with his feet” (espn.com).

But Ederson can also hit the long ball. In the following video you’ll see that while there was still plenty left for Sergio Agüero to do, Ederson’s 85-yard laser from a goal kick to the opposite penalty box is an assist that few midfielders are capable of pulling off:

Clearly then, distribution has become a huge part of a keeper’s skillset. Once in possession, whether it be from a back-pass, a save, or a goal kick, today’s GK is expected to initiate his team’s counterattack. Ederson’s exceptional ball-playing ability thrusts him squarely into the center of any discussion of the EPL’s best goalkeepers, regardless of whether or not he makes the cut as an elite shot-stopper. And his Brazilian compatriot Alisson is no slouch in that department either:

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So of all the candidates we’ve considered in this article, which goalkeeper is the Premier League’s best? Well, unlike with sports such as power-lifting or swimming, where ability can be neatly quantified with a single straightforward metric such as weight or time, the assessment of skill in football will always involve at least some element of subjectivity.

But at least for me, Alisson edges out Ederson for the honor of best GK in the Prem. Ederson has a magical left foot and an amazing talent for reflex saves, but Alisson is only slightly less adept with the ball at his feet, and his hands are the surest in the league. Brazil national team manager Tite seems to agree with my assessment: Alisson starts ahead of Ederson for the Selecao. (How blessed is Tite to have both of these men in his side?)

And just look at the litany of accolades Alisson earned last year: the Yachine Trophy, FIFA Goalkeeper of the Year, Champions League Goalkeeper of the Season, and Premier League and Copa America Golden Gloves. In my view, he is not only the Prem’s best, but also arguably the best and most complete goalkeeper in all of world football.

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I’ve shared my opinion; now tell us who gets your vote for best GK in the Prem!

Also, did you notice that Dean Henderson’s name appears in three of this article’s tables, and Nick Pope’s in two, while Jordan Pickford failed to make the cut for any of the metrics we looked at? Is the wrong man currently wearing the #1 jersey for the Three Lions?

Similarly, none of the yardsticks we used to identify the EPL’s top keepers generated the name “David De Gea.” Should Henderson be starting at Old Trafford next season instead of the Spaniard? Kasper Schmeichel’s dad says no, but what do you think?

Cast your vote in the polls, and then share your thoughts in the Comments below.

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All statistics sourced from fbref.com unless otherwise noted.

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Poll

Who is the Premier League’s best goalkeeper?

This poll is closed

  • 80%
    Alisson
    (12 votes)
  • 0%
    Ederson
    (0 votes)
  • 6%
    Nick Pope
    (1 vote)
  • 6%
    Kasper Schmeichel
    (1 vote)
  • 6%
    Dean Henderson
    (1 vote)
  • 0%
    Other (please name in Comments)
    (0 votes)
15 votes total Vote Now

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Poll

Who should be England’s No. 1?

This poll is closed

  • 0%
    Jordan Pickford
    (0 votes)
  • 61%
    Dean Henderson
    (8 votes)
  • 38%
    Nick Pope
    (5 votes)
13 votes total Vote Now

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Poll

Who should start for Manchester United next season?

This poll is closed

  • 50%
    David De Gea
    (6 votes)
  • 50%
    Dean Henderson
    (6 votes)
12 votes total Vote Now

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