Monday Musings – Calamity and heroics add more volume to Albion’s goalkeeper debate

As was pointed out after the final whistle of Brighton’s 3rd round FA Cup tie with Newport on Sunday night by Opta Joe, Brighton goalkeeper Jason Steele made just one save in the 120 minutes preceding the penalty shootout and made an error that led to Newport’s 96th minute equaliser, but saved four penalties during the shootout. A story of personal redemption, but also one that highlights Albion’s ongoing goalkeeping issues.

Steele admitted it was his fault for the goal after the game. And fan site We are Brighton posted on Twitter in their usual deprecating way: “Would now be a good time to remind everyone that Graham Potter thinks Jason Steele is a better goalkeeper than Maty Ryan? 👀”.

It’s a fair point and I would add fellow Albion goalkeeper Christian Walton to the debate too. It’s a subject I discussed just last week and one I suspected that we haven’t heard the last of.

Nonetheless I’m gutted for Jason Steele for his mistake, but he’s shown over his career that he’s got that in his makeup. Anyone who watched him play for one of his previous club’s can confirm that. A fact most infamously demonstrated at Sunderland during a difficult period for Steele captured in the Netflix series “Sunderland Till I Die”.

But Steele has constantly shown more than enough stoicism in his career to pick himself up and keep coming back for more. So the fact that after the error for the Newport equaliser he managed to refocus on the task at hand in the shootout should come as no surprise either. Rather than losing his head like some others would in the circumstances, he refocused, remembered his research and followed it to the letter, saving four of Newport’s seven penalty kicks.

Andy Naylor stated in a recent piece for The Athletic: “The club believe a No 2 goalkeeper requires a different skill set. Steele is experienced and was signed as a back-up, which makes him more suited to a place on the bench than Ryan, who is accustomed to life as a No 1.”

It’s a fair point and suggests Graham Potter doesn’t necessarily think that Steele is better than Ryan as per We are Brighton’s tongue-in-cheek suggestion, but rather that he’s seen a good back up keeper to have around. Highlighted by how Robert Sanchez jumped Steele in the pecking order when Maty Ryan was dropped earlier in the season leaving him remaining to warm the bench alongside Albion’s other substitutes.

Steele was generous in his moment of glory after the game in praising Albion’s goalkeeper coach Ben Roberts. Who is credited with much of the improvement that’s been seen in many of Albion’s goalkeepers in recent years, including that of David Stockdale in Albion’s Championship promotion winning season.

In Steele’s defence, Goalkeepers often make mistakes after being exposed by their defence. In many cases where Steele has struggled in his career he’s been playing in a struggling teams, last night being no exception. For the equaliser, Albion should have stopped the cross from occurring in the first place. No cross, no error.

We can focus on Steele’s mistake, just like many did Dan Burn’s from the week before. But how did Albion even give Newport the chance to put a cross in the box from their left-hand side whilst defending a 1-goal lead in the dying moments of injury time, having had a throw in on their right-hand side at halfway less than 30 seconds before? As has been far too common this season, it was a case of naive play from Albion whilst in possession that again cost them a crucial lead.

Moreover, as one person on Twitter also pointed out to me, Albion had just switch their left back too, replacing match winner March for Bernardo. Something which adds to the Potter “over-tinkering” debate, but that’s another can of worms entirely.

Overall, a calamitous 30 seconds for Albion and a 5-minute period from scoring to conceding the equaliser that encompasses almost everything which Albion’s season has been about so far. As Graham Potter said after the game “Traumatic”.

Monday Musings – Albion’s search for safe hands

Saturday saw a further three goals conceded by Albion in a dramatic 3-3 draw with Wolves, leaving them having conceded a total of 28 goals this season. Not only is it the 5th highest goals conceded in the division so far this season, it’s the most the club have ever conceded at this point in a Premier League season.

Within those 28 conceded are 6 from penalties, 7 from set pieces and far too many examples of sloppy defending, which is not up to the club’s usual standards. Whilst the aftermath of the draw with Wolves has focused on Dan Burn’s mistakes, there is a bigger issue here that needs resolving.

Many of the defensive statistics are damming. For example Albion’s expected goals conceded based on the chances conceded is 20, 8 less than actual. Also despite having conceded the 5th highest number of goals this season, they have conceded the 3rd fewest shots.

From open play, Albion do tend of defend well. A fact backed up by conceding only 12 of their goals in that manner, the equal 8th fewest in the division. And having only made 1 mistake that led directly to a goal all season. Of course that doesn’t include all the poorly timed tackles that lead to penalties being conceded, like Burn’s on Traore on Saturday, or the poor marking at corners that has become all too common.

So it may seem odd that I don’t think the issue is the defence, but more an issue of discipline and concentration that stems from the insecurity over Albion’s goalkeeper.

It’s too simplistic to say it’s simply due to bad goalkeeping, after all we’ve seen plenty of examples of bad defending from the Albion defence, as mentioned above. But more striking than that is how Maty Ryan struggled before being dropped.

Despite the relatively few shots faced, his goals conceded per game was 1.7, the equal third highest in the division. Only less than Sam Johnstone of West Brom and Illan Meslier of Leeds, both of whom play for teams where they are left significantly more exposed by their defences. Furthermore, Ryan’s save percentage of 50% is one of the worst in the division this season and significantly down compared to the 68.3% he achieved last season.

In a recent interview with The World Game Ryan said he will fight for his place unless the right offer comes in after being told by Graham Potter that he is free to go in January.

Ryan’s place has been rumoured to be up for grabs for a while now and that seems to have affected his performances this season. The problem is the other options at Potter’s disposal are all young, inexperienced goalkeepers who probably aren’t quite good enough yet.

Yes, Ryan’s replacement Robert Sanchez has impressed with some good saves and performances, but he’s also made a few mistakes and is still very young. It may be too early for him to take the number one shirt just yet.

Solve the Goalkeeper issue and I think a lot of the panic and hesitation from Albion’s defenders that has led to the high number of goals conceded goes away.

The more I look at the stats and rewatch the highlights from this season, the more a new goalkeeper looks like the solution to a lot of Albion’s issues, much more so than a new striker. Albion are creating chances and despite widespread frustration have been taking a fair few of them. In contrast to goals conceded, the 21 goals scored is the highest at this point by the club in a Premier League season.

Te problems at the back have come from a consistent lack of discipline and concentration. A reliable goalkeeper usually leads to a better organised defence and also puts less pressure on the forwards to take every chance going. So don’t be surprised if Albion go looking for a new Goalkeeper in the January sales.

That said, like with Albion’s problems up top there is no “silver bullet”. And as with a potential new striker, I suspect Potter is happy to work with what he’s got, if so fine. But I don’t think a talented youngster is the solution for the goalkeeper position where experience is key, however good Sanchez has been or however promising Walton is.

Maty Ryan’s Australian national team assistant coach Rene Meulensteen said recently on Albion’s goalkeeper situation: “While Sanchez is very talented – he hasn’t had a run of games previously at this level, let alone high-pressure games. For me, Maty is too good not to be involved. Leaving him out is risky when you consider what he has to offer, especially in crunch matches. I’d like to know the reason he’s not in the team but from Maty’s perspective he hasn’t downed tools and is working away in the knowledge that things could quickly flip again in his favour.”

Personally I agree. I would not have dropped Ryan, he’s been fantastic for the majority of his three and a half years at the club and from the outside looking in, he appears to be a key figure in the dressing room too. But as Potter’s been more loyal to other players when out of form, (including starting Burn on Saturday) and given the surprising links with the club to other goalkeepers in the summer transfer window before Ryan had even lost his place, we can only assume Potter simply doesn’t fancy him.

Highlighting the team’s goalkeeper issue is not to absolve Dan Burn of his blame in Wolves three goals, nor any of his defensive counterparts for theirs this season. But more that it’s easier for them to do their job properly when playing in front of a settled and experienced goalkeeper that they can fully trust. Especially if they are a player coming into the side after a period on the side-lines or playing in a defensive position that they haven’t recently, something that has happened a lot under Potter’s management.