On Thursday morning, James Benge wrote a piece in Football.London arguing that Arsenal goalkeeper Bernd Leno is among the Premier League’s elite. While the German is a superb shot-stopper, there is one skill that he must first master to be truly elite: distribution.
When Pep Guardiola turfed out Joe Hart because the goalkeeper was not capable enough with the ball at his feet, I, and many others, thought he was mad. ‘Why does a goalkeeper need to be good with his feet?’ we quizzically asked a manager who knew far more about the tactical evolution and trajectory of the sport.
While Manchester City’s first post-Hart season saw Claudio Bravo fold his way to goalkeeping infamy, committing several criminal, high-level mistakes, Guardiola’s point was hammered home: a goalkeeper is needed in build-up play. Within two years, every team that wanted to play out from the back needed a goalkeeper who could partake in the build-up.
Arsenal went through the same process. Two years ago, they signed German goalkeeper Bernd Leno to replace Petr Cech. Cech was nearing the end of his career and would retire a year later, but the prominent logic at the time as the desire to have a goalkeeper comfortable in possession, which Cech very much wasn’t.
More from Pain in the Arsenal
Leno was built in the modern mould. He had developed in the Bundesliga, a league featuring the best sweeper-keeper of the era, Manuel Neuer. The ability to pass the ball accurately, even when under pressure, was demanded of him from a young age, and he developed his skill set accordingly, something that Cech never had to do.
The German’s performances for Arsenal have improved with every passing month. He replaced Cech early in the 2018/19 season as the starter, struggled for form initially, making several errors that led directly to goals, only to settle into his role as the campaign meandered. By the end of the season, he was at his best, routinely rescuing a hapless defence in front of him.
This year, Leno has produced much of the same. Per Opta, he has committed only two errors that have led to goals, down from a league-leading five last term, and has established himself as one of the premier shot-stoppers in the Premier League. In fact, on Thursday morning, James Benge of football.london argued that Leno ‘now ranks among the finest goalkeepers in the top flight’, surpassing even David de Gea and rivalling Alisson Becker and Ederson.
There is a statistical argument to be made. As Benge highlights, quoting StatsBomb data, in the 2018/19 season, Leno’s post-shot-expected-goals minus his actual goals conceded per 90 minutes is +0.22.
In simpler terms, StatsBomb determines how many goals Leno should have conceded per 90 minutes, based on a tremendous number of factors including the shot quality and location, the distance from goal, whether it is a header or shot, first-time or after taking a touch, from a cross or a through ball, and many other elements. They then take the difference between that number and the number of goals he has actually conceded per 90 minutes. This produces a number that tells us he has saved 0.22 more goals than he would be expected to.
His figure for this current season is +0.24. Over the two years, per Statsbomb, he has saved Arsenal more goals per 90 minutes, +0.46, than de Gea, +0.04, Ederson, +0.06, and Alisson, +0.35. Based on shots saved alone, he is among the very best in the Premier League. However, there is still one skill that Leno is yet to master that prevents him from being truly elite, and ironically, it is one of the foundational qualities that Arsenal invested in: his kicking.
Leno is a poor distributor, especially over longer distances. His short passing is perfectly adequate, completing 16.5 short passes per 90 minutes, which ranks fifth in the league excluding small sample sizes. He also plays only 0.1 misplaced short passes per 90, fewer than both Alisson and Ederson.
Where he struggles is his long-range passing. Leno plays only 2.6 accurate long passes per 90. Of all goalkeepers to have played any minutes this season, only three have played fewer, and two of those — Michael McGovern and Mark Travers — featured in just one game each.
Now, you might argue that is because he does not play many long passes, so thereby he does not play many accurate long passes. And to some extent, you would be right. Certainly, in comparison to goalkeepers who play in teams that tend to kick the ball long, there is a fair argument to be made. But Leno ranks highly in inaccurate long passes.
Leno plays 7.4 inaccurate long passes per 90. That ranks 14th in the Premier League, again excluding for small sample sizes. Rui Patricio of Wolves plays the same number of inaccurate long passes as Leno, 7.4 per 90. But he plays almost three times as many accurate long passes, 7.1 per 90.
In fact, Leno attempts 10 long passes per 90 minutes and completes only 26% of them. Patricio completes just under half. Alisson is just under half, too, while Manchester City’s pair, Ederson and Bravo, both complete 57% of their long passes. Leno is not even in the same stratosphere. Even the likes of de Gea and Hugo Lloris, two keepers criticised for their distribution, complete far more long passes than Leno.
Leno is not an accurate passer, and it has shown up when Arsenal play. While City and Liverpool are launching fast-paced counter-attacks as their goalkeepers instigate free-flowing moves with accurate, direct passes forward, Arsenal have to work hard to progress the play or Leno cannot quite find his target or the move breaks down because he is only confident at short-range passes.
Leno is an excellent goalkeeper, among the best in the Premier League, as Benge rightly highlights. But he is not elite, and he won’t be until his kicking improves.