This season Dean Smith has used four goalkeepers in 28 Premier League games, more than any other club in the top-flight, with pesky injuries and extended cup runs the reason for heavy rotation.
It’s been a far from ideal situation for Smith who’s had to contend with season-ending blows to Wesley, Tom Heaton, Jed Steer and also the loss of key man John McGinn.
Nonetheless, having conceded a Premier League high 56 goals this season, Villa have more than player absences to excuse for some shoddy defending since August.
Making sense of the numbers
At AVILLAFAN.com we’ll examine Villa’s ranks, assessing individual seasons by statistics, making sense of the numbers and contextualising what they mean as Villa returned to the top-flight after a three-year exile. First up is goalkeepers, and since 2017, Villa have used six of them in all competitions.
Steer’s impact in Villa’s promotion rollercoaster last season was nothing short of heroic, and Tom Heaton’s first season at Villa Park solid. Orjan Nyland has found little in the way of league football but has since impressed in Villa’s Carabao Cup final run this year.
Pepe Reina’s loan capture in January has been questionable at times but with the limited availability of quality goalkeepers in the winter window, Smith was happy to sign his first target. Only last year did Villa fork out £6m for Lovre Kalinic – but have Villa got a bang for their buck this season?
Using various metrics we can gauge a better idea of the level of performance, strengths and weaknesses from Heaton, Nyland and Reina, with the absence of Steer due to his limited playing time, permitting the collection of enough data to paint an accurate picture in this regard.
Let’s start with the basics. Between Villa’s three goalkeepers, they’ve played an accumulation of 34 games in all competitions with Heaton making considerably more appearances than both Nyland and Reina.
Heaton has made 20 appearances this season before being carried off on a stretcher against former club Burnley, whilst Nyland has made eight, mostly in cup competitions. Reina has made six appearances since signing in January and has played every league game until the league’s Coronavirus suspension.
Heaton has kept four clean sheets in the Premier League against Everton, West Ham, Newcastle and Norwich earlier in the season, and whilst Villa haven’t managed to keep an away clean sheet away from Villa Park – clean sheets under Nyland and Reina have also been few and far between. Only Nyland has kept an opposition at bay apart from Heaton, albeit against Liverpool’s youngsters in a bizarre Carabao Cup quarter-final back in December.
Reina and Nyland have only walked out to the Holte End three times this season in the league, and clean sheets are therefore hardly the equal comparison. For the interest of a fair comparison, working with ‘per 90 minutes’ metrics balance out performance evaluations, and where necessary the comparison to other Premier League players can be useful.
Goals conceded per 90 minutes
By analysing ‘goals conceded per 90′ we can portray a greater meaning for the ‘expected goals’ (xG – the quality of an opportunity based on variables such as assist type, shot angle and distance from the goal) to be conceded when on the pitch per 90’. Heaton has the best goals conceded per 90 measurement of 1.07, whilst Reina’s 2.17 goals per 90 is likewise to Heaton’s, one of the worst in the Premier League, which is no surprise judging by the number of goals Villa have shipped this season.
It can be concluded that, with use of the ‘expected goals to be conceded when on-pitch per 90’ metric, Villa’s defensive frailties have indeed worsened through the season despite Smith’s various strategies to improve goals against. Reina is averaging an expected goals against of 2.15, 0.15 more than Heaton. Having played against fewer of the league’s side’s who boast a high xG, such as Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea, this would seemingly rate Heaton’s ability to simply prevent goals higher than Reina’s this term.
‘Post-shot expected goals minus goals allowed’ judges, in layman’s terms a goalkeeper’s ability to save a shot on goal, with a positive figure suggesting an above ability to stop such shots. Heaton once more reigns supreme, and by some distance, with a +0.9 figure significantly greater than Reina’s -1.3 and Nyland’s -3.0 in the Premier League – that is mainly due to Villa’s 6-1 drumming against Man City. For comparison, Heaton ranks amongst Bournemouth’s Aaron Ramsdale and West Ham’s Lucasz Fabianski for this measurement.
Whilst the above metrics have served the purpose of assessing the single most important attribute of a goalkeeper – keeping the ball out of the net – the advantage of using the eleventh player on the pitch in possession can be the difference in certain sequences of the game.
Reina, throughout his days at the top of elite football, playing in Champions League finals, and major international competitions has been renowned for his distribution and passing accuracy. His ability to get Villa on the move has also been proven successful at times this season.
In the six games Reina’s played this term, the Spaniard has completed 45 passes further than 40 yards, working at an accuracy of 47% with the 95 he’s attempted since deputising in January. His figures are superior to his compatriot’s David De Gea and Kepa Arrizabalaga, and Tottenham’s Hugo Lloris. Tom Heaton’s range is however considerably lower than Reina’s and even below Nyland’s 41% pass accuracy over 40 yards. Former Burnley stopper Heaton ranks amongst the league’s lowest accuracy rate of 33%, though he’s attempted more long passes than any Villa goalkeeper, and in fact, 58% of Heaton’s passing range has worked beyond 40 yards, with his accuracy here skewed by external variables such as the ability of an attacker to win a header, for instance.
It can be deduced that Reina’s successful numbers are due to greater awareness and composure with the ball at his feet. Former Liverpool ‘keeper Reina has passed the ball at an average 39 yards, compared to Heaton’s 46 yards, a difference that expresses Reina’s ability to use his defenders when in possession rather than a long ball upfield.
Reina has also produced more ‘throws per 90’ when compared to both Heaton and Nyland, again suggesting Reina’s ability to distribute effectively to create counter attacks and accurate passes to defenders and midfielders in defensive thirds.
A major source of Villa’s defensive frailties has been crosses from flanks as Villa have failed to organise effectively to clear danger inside their own box. This, combined with Villa’s inability to defend set plays – having conceded the most (14) of them in the Premier League – is demonstrated with Heaton and Reina’s lower cross prevention percentage. Only Aaron Ramsalde in the bottom six has claimed fewer crosses in the Premier League as exemplified by Heaton and Reina’s 7.5 and 7% successful preventions from wide crosses.
Once more this proves Villa haven’t improved defensively despite various alterations and system changes that Smith has implemented despite brief success on trips to Burnley and Leicester in the Carabao Cup.
Finally, Villa have, as a whole defensive unit conceded the most shots by source of individual errors (23) and unsurprisingly the most goals thereafter. Heaton’s rash challenge on Callum Wilson earlier in the season at home to Bournemouth was his first and last, but for Reina, in the space of six games, his eagerness to sniff out danger has cost Villa.
Per 90 minutes, Reina has made 1.17 defensive actions from outside his box and when compared to Heaton’s 0.40 this demonstrated Reina is firstly, confident enough to race out of goal, but secondly – as exemplified in two moments of madness against Southampton and most recently Leicester – an inability to communicate his whereabouts to defenders.
Ultimately, there’s no statistic that can measure Villa’s woeful defensive record better than the whole number of 56 goals against. Simply, conceding more goals at this point in a season than in the dreadful relegation campaign of 2015-16 is unacceptable, yet not solely due to Villa’s heavy rotation of goalkeepers.