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Is Spain’s Number 1 also Spain’s Best Goalkeeper?

February 8, 2012 45 comments

Looking back over the years you would find it difficult to recall when was the last time that Real Madrid and Spain captain Iker Casillas was not “number 1” whenever he’s been available for selection. Since making his club debut in 1999, he’s effectively been first choice at Real Madrid, from the tender age of 18. He went on to make his international debut only a few days after representing Real Madrid in the successful 2000 Champions League Final, having just 19 years of age. It would be the summer of 2002 that he would be promoted to first choice in the national side, starting off at the World Cup in Japan/Korea. He hasn’t looked back since. He’s set himself up as a constant in the ever-evolving institution at Real Madrid.

At international level, though, a few talented keepers have been around the team over the years, including Santiago Canizarez, the man who he’d displaced, Diego Lopez, Pepe Reina, and Victor Valdes, Barcelona’s number one. Valdes only began getting called up to the national side, when contrary to popular belief, also known as speculation in the Madrid press, it was proven that he would not be a bad influence in the dressing room of the national side even when he knew he would rarely get a start, just like Pepe Reina had accepted before him. Valdes, like Reina, has gone on to improve team harmony and add to the spirit that exists between the team-mates, although it must be said that the national side players, namely the Barcelona and Real Madrid contingent have yet to share three or four weeks together in tournament mode since Jose Mourinho arrived in Spain to take the competitive nature of “El Clasico” to another level.

Now, only 30 years old, Casillas, practically a baby in goalkeeper years, has amassed over 600 matches for Real Madrid and 127 caps for Spain. He’s also won every major club and international trophy before he turned 30. His clean cut image in the media as well as his undoubted ability and talent in goal has meant that he’s virtually never had any competition in the Real Madrid goal.

Valdes is a talented keeper in his own right, with some believing that in recent years he’s played at a higher, more consistent, level than Casillas. Whilst this may be tantamount to blasphemy in Spain, we’ve found the holy ground where we could analyze this assertion without the fear for our lives. Before comparing the respective keepers performances over the past three seasons, you’d be forgiven if you had forgotten that VV, as he’s know in some quarters, has been around for almost as long as Casillas. A product of La Masia, Valdes made his debut under Raddy Antic during the 2002/3 season at the age of 21. He would go on to displace Roberto Bonano (remember him?), and establish himself as regular first choice by the start of the next season. He would win the league title by the age of 23, Barcelona’s first in 6 years. He’s also won every club trophy that there is on offer before the age of 30. He’s won the World Cup in 2010 but is yet to pick up the European Championships trophy, although he may well change that this summer.

Victor has also won more Zamora trophies than his counterpart Iker. For those of you who don’t know, the Zamora is an award given to the goalkeeper in La Liga with the lowest goals to games ratio. VV has picked it up 4 times as opposed to the solitary success of Casillas. Valdes, however, has always fallen short in international recognition and plaudits when compared to Iker. Be it reputation, popularity, the memory of early promise, or a stronger, more influential press behind him, Iker Casillas excels on that front. It was as late as last season, in the midst of Arsenal’s Champions League clash with Barcelona, when sections of the broadcast British media highlighted Victor Valdes as a weak link and an average keeper who Arsenal can take advantage of. It was obvious they hadn’t watched VV closely since his floppy-hair years.

Voices from Barcelona have been saying for a while now that Victor Valdes deserves to be Spain’s first choice goalkeeper. It’s our purpose here to highlight and compare the performances of both keepers largely over the last 2 and a half seasons, including the on-going campaign, in order to draw certain conclusions and not to express a matter of opinion. We will compare and contrast both keepers performances, across a range of categories including shot stopping, passing skills, types of goals conceded, clean sheets as well as having a brief look at their respective records in the Champions League, in the hope of making concrete assertions in answering the question at hand.

Shot Stopping

It’s widely accepted that both goalkeepers are excellent shot stoppers, possibly outside England, where Iker Casillas was once called a “lucky goalkeeper who is always in the right position” by Ron Atkinson. Regardless, statistics prove that both keepers are among the best in Europe and have been for a long time. It has probably taken VV a little longer to receive acknowledgement for his ability though. Valdes has really emerged with a reputation under Pep Guardiola’s reign where he has become an integral part of the way Barcelona play in his position of sweeper keeper, a role from the Dutch Total Football philosophy.

When it comes to pure shot stopping, both keepers have saved over 75% of the shots taken against them through out their La Liga careers. With close to 750 matches between them, it proves a level of consistency and longevity beyond their years. Casillas has saved a staggering 80%-plus in 3 of his seasons including his breakthrough year in 1999/2000, however the last of which had been in 2007/8. VV, on the other hand, has achieved an 80%-plus save ratio twice, but once as recently as last season. Valdes has only averaged more than a goal a game against a season once in his career and that was in his debut season. Casillas, on the other hand, has averaged less than a goal a game against a season only 5 times during his 12 full seasons. A staggering difference, but arguably inconclusive, as Casillas has been “blessed” with less than adept defences over the years. If anything, though, it brought out the best in him, as he was peppered with shots against. Last season, Iker had the least amount of shots against him over his career. Between the two of them, they’ve had close to 300 clean sheets with VV edging it despite having played significantly less matches.

Since 2009/10, VV has gone on from strength to strength, just as his club has, and has a save ratio of at least 77%, winning two Zamoras (with the current season on-going, although VV currently leads again), Casillas has seen his save ratio drop year by year, currently standing at 70% this season. One last interesting fact is that Valdes has never had more than 147 shots against him in a league campaign, whilst Casillas has had at least 159 shots against him in 8 of his 12 campaigns and has definitely been the busier of the two during his career. On the flip side, as most goalkeepers will tell you, remaining switched on and being focused when you have less to do is sometimes more difficult than being busy for 90 minutes when you are not allowed to switch off for a second.

Comparison of Casillas and Valdes goalkeeping stats in 2009/10 League Season

Comparison of Casillas and Valdes goalkeeping stats in 2010/11 League Season

Comparison of Casillas and Valdes goalkeeping stats in 2010/11 League Season

Comparison of Casillas and Valdes goalkeeping stats in Current League Season

Passing/Footwork

“You give the ball to me”. That’s simply what Victor Valdes is suggested to say in the infamous Youtube video circulated all over the Internet last year. He is considered by some to be among the best if not the best keeper in the world when it comes to passing a football. Barcelona would probably not look much weaker if VV turned up somewhere in the outfield for them. That is why his momentary lapse at the Santiago Bernabéu inside the first minute of the game when he gave the ball away to be punished by Karim Benzema to the fullest extent was such a surprise. His composure and confidence to keep on attempting to play the short pass subsequently was praiseworthy. VV has had the most successful passes by a goalkeeper in Spain in recent seasons (823 and 617 complete passes in the last two seasons). After 21 games during the current campaign he’s had 447 successful passes and is on route to potentially breaking his own pass record. What is more telling is that his success ratio is something a central midfielder would be proud of. He has averaged 82.3%, 86.4% and 86.5% respectively during the last two full seasons as well as the on-going campaign. He has not hit more than 23 long passes in a single season during any of that time either. That is an extraordinary feat. Just to put it in context, 257 out of the 368 passes Joe Hart has made this season have been long passes.

Iker Casillas, has hit 580, 474 and 318 successful passes over the past two and a half campaigns. His pass success ratio stands at 68.1%, 75% and 76.4% over that period. It is clear that his passing has “improved” under Jose Mourinho. However, it may be more explanatory that under Mourinho, Real Madrid tend to pass the ball out of the back far more than previously when long goal kicks and long passes from deep were far more profound. In 2009/10 when VV attempted 23 long passes, Casillas had attempted 102, but had better success at it with 24 reaching its destination as opposed to only 3 by VV. In fact, VV has not had more than 3 successful long passes during any of the past two and a half seasons. This season, Casillas has had 49 long passes attempted with 12 reaching their target. In terms of long goal kicks, VV only attempts less than half the amount of times Casillas decides to go long, with only 85 attempts from 2010/11 onwards to Iker’s 224, again indicative of the style each prefers.

Domination of Penalty Area and Beyond

As an extension of their shot-stopping skills, both keepers possess a great domination of their penalty areas especially off set plays. Casillas has not conceded a goal off a corner kick from 2010/11 onwards. Valdes has conceded a solitary goal during each of the last campaign and the current one. When it comes to shots from 6 yards out both save more than they let in. Casillas has improved his goalkeeping from long range shots too, having now only conceded 2 off 30 shots this season, as opposed to a combined 8 goals from 76 shots during the past two league seasons. VV has conceded 7 goals from 94 long range shots since 2009/10, thus providing slightly more secure hands behind the gloves from distance.

Both keepers are on their toes constantly and there is little to choose from when it comes to clearing the ball from danger, usually getting there before the attacker. In 2010/11, Iker cleared the ball 115 times to VV’s 100 times, whilst this season, VV has done so 72 times to Iker’s 67.

Blanking the Opposition

Ask any keeper and they will tell you that the most important thing for them is the clean sheet, whether they have any work to do or not. Championships are won based on good defences. When it comes to keeping a clean sheet, Victor Valdes is in a league of his own in La Liga. With a career total of 150 clean sheets in only 316 games, he has 10 more clean sheets than Casillas, having played 125 less matches. He’s had at least 15 clean sheets in a full league campaign in 6 of the 8 seasons which he has started. Casillas has only done so 3 times out of the 12 full league campaigns he’s been a part of.

The Holy Grail AKA Champions League

Europe’s elite competition is probably revered as highly as the World Cup and European Championships when it comes to quality of football on offer. It has taken football to the next level. Players who dominate their respective league competitions may fall short on Europe’s Tuesday and Wednesday nights and thus create question marks over whether they actually are as good as they had been billed previously. Today, its difficult to label someone as “world class” unless they’ve shown their qualities in the Champions League.

Casillas & Valdes Overall Champions League Records

Once again, Victor Valdes has a better ratio when it comes to goals conceded per game, just as he has had in La Liga. Interestingly, he has also won more Champions League medals than his counterpart too. He also has more clean sheets despite playing less matches and has a better career save ratio too.

The Bottom Line

As illustrated above, Iker Casillas and Victor Valdes have the track record and caliber to back their reputations, although VV probably does not get the credit which his performances and ability deserve, especially outside Spain. He has broken numerous records at domestic level, including a record number of consecutive shut outs at home and is tied first for most Zamora trophies. He is on route to potentially breaking Andoni Zubizaretta’s record of clean sheets if he continues performing at his level. He broke his club’s record for the longest amount of minutes without conceding a goal when he went 896 minutes without conceding earlier this season.

Casillas’ individual and collective honors are impressive enough even if he retires today. He’s surely Real Madrid and Spain’s most successful goalkeeper in history. He’s recently become his nation’s most capped player too. Considering his larger than life reputation, it’s not surprising that he escapes criticism or open comparison with pretenders to his thrown. Victor Valdes may surpass Casillas in many departments, with performances and statistics over the years certainly backing that argument, but he is unfortunate that his counterpart has such an established persona and reputation in world football.

With thanks to the good people at Opta Spain for their unconditional help in providing in-depth statistics that were used in compiling this article. A special thanks also for Aaron Nielsen for his help in providing statistics tracking back into the 1990’s. You can follow him on twitter @enbsports

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What do the Americans Know About Sports?

December 20, 2011 6 comments

A lot, in fact, for us to learn from. The Americans and their sporting culture have been a constant target of ridicule from the European shores for years, never more so than when they actually began to take giant strides in the world of football, or soccer, as they like to call it. You can’t blame the Europeans for feeling protective over a sport which they feel that they’ve earned the right to lead the way in, when it comes to the laws and norms of the game. However, it would be foolish not to look over those shores and learn a thing or two from the Americans. They know what they’re doing and it works too. Now, no one is advising cheerleaders at half-time, even though girls in tight shorts may not be something Sepp Blatter would be against, nor are we suggesting breaking a game of football into quarters, or giving time-outs to teams. Although it would be worth considering that all of the above-mentioned elements of their sports are largely geared towards raising advertising revenue, and hence create money for the networks and teams, something which is a driving motivation for FIFA and UEFA when it comes to making changes to the beautiful game. It is questionable if our football would be better off if any of those revolutionary changes, when a little bit of goal-line technology talk has been the object of resistance by FIFA, over the years, even though it is safe to agree that not only will it not slow down the match in progress, but it would be beneficial in helping to ensure Fair Play, one of the guiding principles that FIFA stands for. Today, we aren’t here to discuss changing our soccer to their football. That’s a debate for another time and place. Today the question is why don’t we analyze our beautiful game as comprehensively as they do their sports?

Sports data and statistics have been a cornerstone of American sporting culture since the very first games of Basketball and Baseball. In fact, supporters test each others knowledge of their sports by reciting seasonal batting averages in baseball, triple-double stats in Basketball (that’s when a player gets double figures in 3 facets of a basketball game, usually points, rebounds and assists), or rushing yards in the NFL. That’s just one set of statistics from each of their three big sports, with no disrespect to Ice Hockey. Their trading cards, similar to Panini sticker albums on these shores, highlight full player statistics on the back-side of the cards, and fans as young as 9 or 10 years old trade and exchange cards simply based upon the players performances in certain statistics. Its embedded into their sporting system from such a young age. How many football supporters would know how much a player ran in the previous match, or how many times a player intercepts the ball in the season or who gives the ball away the most in their side? It’s highly unlikely that many would. But that’s largely through no fault of the supporters. The information has never been available on these shores. That begs a question of why? Sportsmen and women on the North American shores are heavily scrutinized by facts born out of their statistics week in, week out. These stats are available on a multitude of places including the respective leagues official websites among others. But in Europe, this scrutiny is largely based upon “match ratings” given by newspapers or reporters, without really going into much depth of what went into devising those ratings other than the opinion of one person. Pundits on TV also give their opinions but quite a lot of the time, it’s based on a few minutes worth of highlights that has been watched and one or two key incidents during the game.

The range of stats regularly present on the back of a baseball trading card

Today, things are beginning to change, Pro Zone and other similar programs that compile in-depth stats are used by many clubs as a modern tool in analyzing performances. The info is not readily available to the public. Opta joined the public fore and it has helped supporters get closer to the game with the in-depth statistics that it releases, although full access to all its data is not available to the public at any one given time. Most recently, WhoScored joined the fore and they must be commended for providing access to the most in-depth data to the public ever. Anyone, at any time, can access their database and find out random, but integral information, such as who wins the most aerial duels, who has the worst shots on target percentage, and who gives the ball away the most in their side. This has been a giant stride in the right direction for the public, in terms of proper analysis of football. Commentators, pundits and so-called experts would do themselves and their audiences justice by actually referring to this sort of data when they’re undertaking their critiques or commendations, just as their American counterparts do.

Whilst we look forward to more strides being taken in this regard by those who will facilitate the availability of such information, in order to provide better in-depth coverage of fact and opinion in any media of football, we can also confidently state that huge steps have been taken in the last five years in this regard, due to some of the groups mentioned above.

Now, just to make things interesting, with the help of our friends at WhoScored who provide the sort of data needed to compile the below statistics and conclusions, we’ve decided to present to you some lesser known facts, about which players have stood out within in-depth categories and which ones have not in the European season so far, with an American twist. So as they say on those shores, let’s get ready to rumble.

Players playing in Europe’s “Big 5” leagues of England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France (UEFA Rankings) are only considered (All figures are per game):

The Denilson Award for Most Dribbles
Gokhan Tore (Hamburg) 6.1
Leo Messi (Barcelona) 5.4
Ribery (FC Bayern) 4.4

Seven of the top ten dribblers in Europe play in the Bundesliga, who on the back of breaking league attendance records recently and winning an extra Champions League spot from Italy this season, is definitely a league on the up. The Premier League only has one representative in the top 10 and that is Blackburn Rovers Junior Hoilett who averages 3.1 dribbles a game.

Guilty as Inzaghi when it comes to Offsides Award
Di Natale (Udinese) 2.7
Papiss Cisse(Freiburg) 2.6
Calaio (Siena) 2.4

The Premier League, Serie A and Bundesliga each have three men in the top ten of Europe’s most caught offside players. La Liga only has one representative in the top twenty and that is Real Zaragoza’s Portuguese international Helder Postiga (5th overall). Ligue 1’s most impressive striker, Oliver Giroud is also its most caught offside one and he is the only representative of his league in the top twenty.

Most Turnovers (Passing the ball to the opposition)
Adebayor (Tottenham) 3.8
Wright-Phillips(QPR) 3.8
Mouloungui (Nice) 3.4

The tempo of the French and English leagues plays a role in this as 16 of the top twenty players come from these two leagues with Ligue 1 edging it with 9 players. Only one Serie A player makes the top twenty, and that is Mirko Vucinic of Juventus who commits 2.6 turnovers.

Key Passes
Ibrahimovic (Milan) 3.3
Nene (PSG) 3.3
Valbuena (Marseille) 3.1

Some of Europe’s top passers rarely give the ball away, but sometimes they are criticized for playing the ball side-ways or backwards. Whilst it retains possession, it does not penetrate the opposition unlike the top 3 key passers in Europe. However, there will be persistent passers who eventually break down the opposition as they pick and choose when to send across what can be deemed a key pass more carefully. Leo Messi comes in 22nd, Andrea Pirlo comes in 23rd whilst Xavi comes in 27th in the category. Usually, players like these, especially the latter two pull off the key passes when they decide to go for them and the success ratio is higher even though stats are not available as of now to corroborate this. The more direct nature of the Premier League is exhibited by the fact that eight of the top twenty players represent it. Leighton Baines is the only defender in the top 20 with 2.7 key passes per game. It would be worth looking at the number of assists some of those key passes have been converted to. Ibrahimovic has 2 assists all season long, Nene 2, Valbuena 8, Messi 8, Pirlo 4, Xavi 5 and Baines 1.

The Hog the Ball Award for Most Passes
Xavi (Barcelona) 106.7
Xabi Alonso (Real Madrid) 85.9
Schweinsteiger (FC Bayern) 80.6

This was probably the most expected result of any category out there. Barcelona have 4 representatives in the top 20 but it might be news to you that there is a club that has more players in the top twenty, and that club is FC Bayern, with 5. Lahm, Rafinha (FC Bayern)and Dani Alves exhibit the fact that full backs are integral to the modern game with each of them being comfortably placed in the top 20, with the first two averaging just under 80 passes a game. Only four players from the Premier League are found in the top twenty. Not surprisingly, two of them play at Arsenal. Arteta averages 78.7 passes a game is 5th overall, whilst Ramsey and Ashley Williams (Swansea), two Welshmen each average 68.6 passes per game. Yaya Toure is 11th overall and is the 4th Premier League player, averaging just over 70 passes a game.

Most Accurate Passer
Britton (Swansea) 94.2%
Thiago (Barcelona) 93.9%
Xavi (Barcelona) 93.1%

This category coupled with the previous one probably illustrate a better picture when combined. In it, we only considered players who succeed with at least 50 passes a game. Britton leads in the category but he only makes 57.8 passes a game, whilst Thiago achieves 15 more passes a game. Xavi has already been discussed in the previous category. Busquets, Mascherano and Abidal all have pass ratios over 90% and are in the top twenty, whilst succeeding with at least 62 passes per game. The top twenty is dominated by the Premier League and La Liga and interestingly Swansea City have 3 players in it, confirming them as a side that likes to retain possession and pass the ball.

Best Crosser Award
Larsson (Sunderland) 2.8
Cossu (Cagliari) 2.8
Tiffert (Kaiserslautern) 2.6

Seven Premier League players make the top twenty in a league which has traditionally been known to target crosses towards a traditional number 9 playing as center forward. Six Ligue 1 players also find themselves in the top twenty. Interestingly, no La Liga player is in it, as not a single player there makes 2 crosses per game.

Quarterback Award for Most Successful Long Balls
Ter Stegen (Gladbach) 14.1
Hennessy (Wolves) 12.8
Begovic (Stoke) 11.8

As evidenced by the top 3 in this category, goalkeepers largely play the role of the quarterback if you’re looking at long balls completed per game. The highest placed outfield player is Mark van Bommel, in 4th place, with 11.2 long balls per game. Thiago Silva and Pirlo are the next two highest placed outfield players. All in all, six goalkeepers find themselves in the top twenty. Only two La Liga players and 1 Ligue player find themselves there.

Nigel De Jong Award for Best Tackler
Lucas Leiva (Liverpool) 5.7
Hetemaj (Chievo) 5.3
Behrami (Fiorentin) 5.2

Tackling is an art as old as goal-scoring even though it is somewhat not given the exposure or coverage that it deserves. Surprisingly, eight of the top twenty placed tacklers in Europe play in La Liga. 5 play in the Serie A although only one of those players is Italian, Udinese’s Pinzi who is in 10th place with 4.8 tackles per game. Nigel De Jong, the man whose name lies on the award does not even make the top 100 although he hasn’t had enough minutes this season.

Most Interceptions Per Game
Javi Fuego(Rayo) 7.3
Chico (Mallorca) 6.6
Bruno (Villareal)6

This is a category dominated by La Liga who take the top 16 spots and 31 of the top 40. The highest Premier League based player is Stilian Petrov of Aston Villa with 3.5 interceptions, who finds himself in 74th place.

The Hoof the Ball Clear Old-School English Style Award for Most Clearances
Shawcross (Stoke) 12.8
Peybernes (Sochaux) 11.6
Gabbidon (Swansea) 11.3

As tradition would have it, the Premier League is home to the most no nonsense defenders in Europe. The fans love them as much as they love their goalscorers. Four of the top five and seven of the top ten players play in the Premier League. Be it weaker defending or the fact that La Liga is considered to be the most technical league out there at the moment, the league has no player in the top 100 of the category.

The Terry Butcher Award for Bravery AKA Throw your Body in the Way and Block Shots
S. Taylor (Newcaslte 2
Cahill (Bolton) 1.5
A. Williams (Swansea) 1.5

Unsurprisingly, the Premier League provides 10 out of the top twenty in this category, and all of the representatives are British players.

Hang-time 50-50 Award for Most Aerial Duels Won
Crouch (Stoke) 4.7
Pelle (Parma) 4.5
Kabouo (Spurs) 4.5

Unsurprisingly, one of the tallest players in Europe wins the most aerial duels. Even though Peter Crouch has been criticized for being soft in some quarters, he almost always comes out on top when it comes to a 50-50 in the air. Credit must go to Heidar Helguson of QPR who is the only player under 1’85 in the top 10. In fact he is only 1’78 but wins 4.2 aerial duels per game and finishes in 4th spot.

Now onto the most interesting category of the season so far, an All-Defensive Team, a cornerstone of the end of season awards when it comes to the NBA. Usually, an all-star team of the season, gives precedence to the players who shone when it comes to the biggest games, and sometimes reputations win over performances. Attacking stats would definitely be favored in the selection of teams of the season, whichever league they are picked from. This team, however, includes players from every position who guarantee the undertaking of their defensive duties and back it up with the performance stats to prove it (Tackles, Interceptions, Clearanaces, Blocked Shots, Offsides Won, among other criteria). The members of the Defensive Team of the Season, selected from Europe’s top 5 leagues at the half-way mark of the season are as follows:

Line-up: Hart (Man City), Javi Venta (Levante), Lucio (Inter), Mascherano (Barcelona), Campagnaro (Napoli), Fernando Navarro (Sevilla) - Stindl (Hannover), Toulalan (Malaga), Mudingayi (Bologna), Arda Turan (Atletico) - Menez (PSG)

The above players have excelled when it comes to performing their defensive duties, in some cases right from the top of the team. In goal, Joe Hart’s save percentage, as well as shots to goals ratio, goals conceded and clean sheets make him one of the best keepers in Europe. Javi Venta has been instrumental to Levante’s meteoric, if shocking, rise to the top echelon of Spanish football, whilst Mascherano has had an excellent season as a center back. Hugo Campagnaro forms an integral part of Napoli’s back-3, whilst Lars Stindl and Arda Turan have better defensive numbers than many defenders. Jeremy Menez may be criticized for not having the final pass or finish mastered in his repertoire yet, but he puts in a shift and a half when it comes to working hard for his side. Honorable mentions must be made for Lucas Leiva who would have surely made the team had his season not been cut short by injury. Didac and Efrain Juarez of Espanyol and Real Zaragoza respectively also came close to breaking in at full back positions, while Santi Cazorla pushed himself close on either wing. Arsenal’s Laurent Koscielny was also close to breaking into the starting line-up at center back and must surely be considered as one of Europe’s most improved player if such an award existed.