In American sports, the Rookie of the Year award is highly prestigious. Almost every major sport across the pond has the award, from basketball and American football to motor racing and ice hockey. The main criteria for a player to be eligible for the award is that it is their first season in the ‘major’ leagues. For example, in the NBA, Luka Dončić of the Dallas Mavericks was awarded the most recent Rookie of the Year award despite previously being named the league MVP whilst playing for Real Madrid in the Euro Leagues prior to joining the NBA.
This award hasn’t really translated into European sports, particularly in football. There are countless awards handed out for players below a certain age threshold, but nothing in particular for league rookies. I feel like rewarding a player for their performance in their rookie season is an interesting concept and as such, decided to collate all of the Premier League rookies and with the help of some data analysis, drew up a list of the top rookies in this season’s Premier League.
In the first part of this series, I will be looking at goalkeepers.
Unsurprisingly, the list of goalkeepers playing in their rookie season in the Premier League is short. In order to fit into my own criteria for what I deem to be a player worthy of winning an ‘of the year’ award, these goalkeepers must have played a minimum of 1000 minutes. Once I had excluded goalkeepers with less than 1000 minutes of Premier League action I was left with just two rookies.
Dean Henderson, Sheffield United (23)
Aaron Ramsdale, Bournemouth (21)
Interestingly, both of these players on paper seem to be fairly similar – both being young, English, and playing for ‘smaller’ Premier League sides. Both players’ first experience of first-team football came in the leagues below the Premier League. Dean Henderson had a number of loan spells away from his current parent club at Stockport County, Grimsby Town, and Shrewsbury Town before finding his home away from home at Sheffield United. Ramsdale, on the other hand, was poached from Sheffield United at a young age by Bournemouth before loan spells at Chesterfield and AFC Wimbledon.
It was without question that Henderson was ready for the step up to the Premier League following a superb season in Sheffield’s United 2018/19 promotion campaign. Ramsdale, on the other hand, was more of an unknown prior to usurping household names like Artur Boruc and Asmir Begović to claim the number one spot on the South Coast.
How do Ramsdale and Henderson use the ball when it’s at their feet?
The modern goalkeeper is often required to be much more than simply a shot-stopper. This means they are used as an integral cog in a team’s build-up play with short passes to his teammates, or perhaps he is required to play long searching balls in order to assert positional dominance for his side deep into the opposition’s defensive third.
Firstly, I will look at the general pass completion rates of the Premier goalkeepers. Here we can see Dean Henderson has the lowest pass completion percentage in the league at just below 40%. Aaron Ramsdale’s percentage is slightly higher at just below 60%. Both keepers fall below the league average, but this does not indicate anything necessarily about their passing ability.
When analysing how Premier League goalkeepers distribute the ball when it is at their feet, we begin to see a correlation between pass completion percentages and the number of long passes attempted. Dean Henderson appears in the top left of the graph, indicating a preference for longer balls over shorter passes. He is also one of the leaders in the volume of passes played to the final third alongside England teammates and competitors Jordan Pickford and Nick Pope.
Henderson’s preference for long balls over short passes indicates Sheffield United’s desire to play football inside of the opposition half which gives them the best opportunity to assert their style of play on a game, most notably allowing their now infamous central defenders to overlap in the final third. Something that is potentially worth noting looking to the future is the difference in styles of distribution between Henderson and David De Gea. Many people have tipped Henderson to take over as Manchester United‘s number one once De Gea moves on and if that is the case, then Henderson may be required to alter his distribution style quite drastically to fit in with United’s style of build-up.
Aaron Ramsdale appears in the top right quadrant of the graph having attempted marginally more than the average amount of long passes and also marginally above the average amount of medium length passes. He has still played over double the number of long passes compared to shorter passes, but it’s indicated that he isn’t necessarily confined to distributing the ball in one specific manner. Despite this, 69% of his passes are still long whereas Dean Henderson plays 90% of his passes long.
Sweeper keeper? Or glued to his line?
Another prominent aspect of modern goalkeeping is the ability and awareness to move out of the box and intercept or challenge for the ball, eliminating any potential danger.
By looking at defensive actions outside of the penalty area, we can see that both Ramsdale and Henderson fall almost exactly on the average for Premier League goalkeepers. Obviously the amount of work that a goalkeeper is required to do outside of his area can be very dependent on the defensive style of the rest of the team. Does the manager like to operate with an offside trap by pushing his defensive line high, or does he prefer to operate with a low block and defend his penalty area with numbers?
Away from Ramsdale and Henderson, what’s interesting when looking at this graph is that the number of defensive actions outside the penalty area by each goalkeeper doesn’t necessarily equate to team quality. We see the usual suspects of Alisson and Ederson towards the top of the list but also the perhaps unlikely names of Nick Pope and Ben Foster. Whereas on the other hand, towards the bottom of the list we have Hugo Lloris, David De Gea, and Rui Patricio who play for some of the stronger sides in the league. One question that arises is whether the likes of Henderson and Ramsdale would be able to take on more responsibility outside the box if asked to, whether that be internationally or for another team. We can see that fellow England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford appears to be much more active outside his penalty area, which may be something Gareth Southgate favours highly.
Dealing with crosses
Whilst the previous two data points I’ve presented deal more with goalkeeper styles of play and less so much of an indication of quality or ability, the final two data points can help us evaluate performance a little better. Crossing is a core aspect of many sides’ attacking play.
This season in the Premier League, Liverpool’s Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold have torn most teams apart with their impressive crossing ability. Arguably the league’s leading performer Kevin De Bruyne has been praised endlessly for his pinpoint crossing from the right-hand side. Goalkeepers moving off their line to either gather the ball or punch it to safety can provide an effective counter to dangerous opposition crosses.
In the above image, we can see the total number of opposition crosses into the penalty area and what percentage of those crosses were stopped by the goalkeeper. Looking at our two rookies again, Dean Henderson sits just above average when it comes to the percentage of crosses he has stopped, whilst his team have faced a below-average number of crosses. On the other hand, Aaron Ramsdale has the inverse. The stats suggest that Ramsdale is slightly more reluctant or perhaps less capable than Henderson when it comes to stopping crosses into his penalty area.
It is worth noting that as always, these stats must be considered in context. For example, how many of these crosses were in areas where the goalkeeper should be expected to stop them? This would require further analysis.
Post-shot xG is probably the best publically available metric for evaluating shot quality based on the fact the shot was on target. Given the fact that post-shot xG is based on shots on target, this indicates that the shot is either a goal or must be saved, and as such we can begin to evaluate the shot-stopping ability of goalkeepers.
The above graph shows post-shot xG minus total goals allowed for Premier League goalkeepers. This stat gives an indication of potential under or overperformance by goalkeepers. If a keeper has a positive PSxG minus goals figure, then this could suggest that he has either more luck or an above-average ability to stop shots.
Dean Henderson’s shot-stopping ability has been highly praised this season. A memorable game at Bramhall Lane comes to mind this season where, had it not been for Henderson, City could’ve run riot. This praise appears to be well warranted with Henderson sitting 4th amongst goalkeepers in the Premier League, overperforming PSxG by 6.5. Aaron Ramsdale has also overperformed PSxG, but by a marginally lower 2.7. Both keepers can be pleased with their shot-stopping statistics this season having both saved their teams a number of goals respectively.
Considering that this was both Henderson’s and Ramsdale’s rookie season in the Premier League, both have looked more than capable at this level and with both being just 21 and 23 years old respectively, their futures are very exciting.
Ramsdale, whilst unspectacular, performed at a very competent level throughout the season for a team who struggled for the most part. A young English goalkeeper is always a hot commodity, and Bournemouth have shown their commitment to Ramsdale and him to the club with the signing of a long-term contract in October. Should he stick with Bournemouth, I’m sure that he will be their number one for many years to come.
Out of the two, however, Dean Henderson has certainly been the stand-out goalkeeper. He has been an integral part of Sheffield United’s incredible season thus far and is worthy of all the admiration coming his way. Henderson rightly earned his first call-up to the England senior squad in October and perhaps given Jordan Pickford’s indifferent form for Everton, he could soon oust him as England’s number one. Sheffield United will be desperate to keep a hold of him, but with David De Gea looking more and more past his best at parent club Manchester United, that option may be taken out of their hands.