Who is the best goalkeeper in the Premier League? The most accurate answer is a nuanced one because it depends on the role of the goalkeeper in that particular team.
Liverpool’s Alisson is ideal for a side playing a high line because he is a master in one-on-one situations. Ederson’s ability to pass short and long is essential at Manchester City. Nick Pope’s willingness to claim crosses made him crucial for Burnley when defending deep.
It is the wide variety of roles and the different skillsets that are demanded of a goalkeeper that help to explain why 32-year-old Jason Steele is finally shining in the Premier League. He might just be the best goalkeeper for this Brighton team right now.
It is a curious situation. Robert Sanchez, the erstwhile No 1 for Roberto De Zerbi’s side, won his second international cap for Spain in November. Until the start of last month, that was more games than Steele had played in five Premier League seasons for Brighton.
He seemed to understand his place. “My role in the squad has not changed over the last couple of years,” he said in a summer interview in which he described Sanchez’s natural ability as ridiculous. He looked set for another season as the back-up goalkeeper.
That all changed when a series of encouraging performances in the FA Cup coincided with Sanchez struggling. A costly error against Crystal Palace tested the patience and when Brighton lost at home to Fulham, De Zerbi was persuaded to make the change.
It has been vindicated in ways small and large, most spectacularly when Steele provided an assist for Kaoru Mitoma to score against Brentford. An assist for a goalkeeper is a rare occurrence but it is less rare for Steele than it is for most other goalkeepers.
Indeed, Steele provided three such assists in a period of 19 games as a young player at boyhood club Middlesbrough. Since 2010, he has produced six Championship assists in total – double that of any other goalkeeper in the competition in that period.
His inclusion was always about the impact that he could make with his feet as well as his gloves. That includes every pass, not just those directly leading to goals. “Jason now is playing better than Robert,” said De Zerbi. “He is closer than Robert to my style.”
It was an ominous line from Sanchez’s perspective because it is more fundamental than mere form. Steele is better suited to the football that the Brighton boss wants to play – passing out from the back and provoking the opposition press by drawing them in.
Second Spectrum data allows us to know the number of passes that a goalkeeper makes when under pressure by an opponent. Steele makes more of these passes per 90 minutes than any other goalkeeper in the Premier League. It is a demanding game to play.
De Zerbi does not just want his goalkeeper to be comfortable in possession but he wants them to be able to pick out the central midfielders with accurate passes once the centre-backs have split. It is central to how Brighton build-up play from the back.
Crucially, the statistical evidence reveals that Steele does not just play more of these pressured passes than other goalkeepers.
He is better at it too.
By combining tracking data and event data, we can know how many passes a player might reasonably have been expected to complete based on the options available. Steele is outperforming his expected completion rate by more percentage points than his peers.
Tellingly, Sanchez is at the other end of the spectrum, a reflection of the difficulty that he has had in playing through the opposition press under De Zerbi. It is a neat explanation – in one statistic – of why the coach made a call that seemed surprising from the outside.
There is no guarantee that Steele will retain his place for long. A fumble here and an error there could see the decision reversed in an instant. But, for now, a switch to the superior ball-playing goalkeeper has been justified and a career set on a different path.
One wonders how many other talents may be lying dormant because they do not have the right club, the right coach, for their specific skills. De Zerbi found Steele on his bench. What bargains might be found in the market because he would deploy them differently?
Who is the best goalkeeper in the Premier League?
The answer might not be as straightforward as it seems.