Evaluating Illan Meslier’s Shot-Stopping in 2020/21

In this piece, Elle Barker takes a look at the numbers behind Leeds United’s number one who excelled in the Premier League last season.

(Note: all data in this article is from StatsBomb via fbref.com)

At just 21 years of age, Illan Meslier has already played 76 games of first-team football — 35 of which came last season, his first in the top flight. While those numbers pale in comparison to the once-in-a-lifetime goalkeeping prodigy Gianluigi Donnarumma, I think it’s safe to say that the Leeds United keeper has established himself as one of the most promising prospects in his position in Europe.

Having initially joined Leeds on a loan deal, the club signed him permanently at the start of the 2020/21 season for a fee reported to be around £5m from French side Lorient. That fee seemed low then and now looks like pocket change in comparison to his value after a record-breaking season at Elland Road. What had once been a problem position for Leeds has now become a strength.

While Meslier’s distribution has come in for particular praise from the media — he ranks fifth in the league for the percentage of long passes completed while also attempting more passes than anyone else — it’s his all-round play that has stood out. The youngest goalkeeper in the Premier League was also one of the best at the meat-and-potatoes part of the game that is usually the mark of a much more experienced player, coming in second for percentage of crosses stopped, fourth for percentage of shots saved, and sixth for total clean sheets in the league.

However, those statistics don’t tell the whole story of how much value he adds to the team as a pure shot-stopper.

Keeping the Ball out of the Net

When a team gives up that many chances it’s reasonable to expect that they would also concede a lot of goals and Leeds did. The 54 goals allowed (GA) by the Peacocks (52 of which were with Meslier in goal, not discounting two own goals) was the seventh most in the league and the table for expected goals against (xGA) was even less flattering, with only West Brom faring worse.

Curiously, Leeds didn’t really start overperforming their xGA until the run in and I think it’s worth assessing how much of that is down to wayward finishing from the opposition and how much is down to Meslier stepping up to dig the side out.

Now xGA next to ‘goals conceded’ isn’t really the best marker of a goalkeeper’s ability to save shots between the posts. As much as it might inform us of the quality of the chances faced, it doesn’t tell us anything about the quality of the finishing. Fortunately, there is a stat for that: post-shot expected goals (PSxG).

What is Post-Shot Expected Goals?

If you subtract goals allowed from PSxG (note: own goals are discounted), the three best keepers in the league last season per 90 minutes were Fulham’s Alphonse Areola, Aston Villa’s Emiliano Martinez, and Liverpool’s Alisson Becker. Each averaged between +0.21 and +0.18 PSxG-GA per 90, meaning that over the course of a 38 game season they would keep out seven or eight more goals than the average shot-stopper. Those goals not conceded can add up to points not dropped and a higher finish in the table (not that Areola’s heroics were enough to save Fulham last season).

As you might have noticed from the chart above, Meslier was one of the better shot-stoppers in the league out of the goalkeepers that started regularly for their club, with a PSxG-GA per 90 of +0.15. Surprisingly, Kiko Casilla ranks as the best in the league if you take away the condition of having to have played at least ten games. His PSxG-GA per 90 of +0.77 comes with the caveat that he only played three league games for the club last season, a small enough sample size to write his form off as being a bit of a fluke; the former Real Madrid player had in previous seasons been pretty average at keeping the ball out of his net.

Overall, Meslier’s contributions in goal added up to a total PSxG-GA of +5.3 from the 35 league games in which he played, enough to suggest that he played a role in Leeds overperforming their xGA.

After a relatively uneven first half of the season where he let in one goal or more above what would be expected based on finishing on four occasions (Fulham at home, Crystal Palace away, Manchester United away, Tottenham away), the Leeds keeper settled and only had one other notably poor shot-stopping performance against Arsenal at the Emirates in February.

That improvement in consistency meant that Meslier went from being decent between the posts in the first half of the season — with a PSxG-GA per 90 of +0.08 in his first 18 games — to having an elite PSxG-GA per 90 of +0.22 in the latter half. That form picked up considerably in the run-in, averaging a PSxG-GA per 90 of +0.35 over the last ten games.

Meslier’s upswing in performances coincided with Leeds’ overperformance in xGA towards the end of the season, and while it’s clear that the Whites were aided by some poor finishing (which could be attributed to variance), the Frenchman still did well to dig Leeds out and help them outdo their xGA by an even higher margin than they would have done with an average shot-stopper in goal.

Conclusion

For the sake of comparison, Alisson only had one game across all competitions in which he let in at least a goal above PSxG, while the Leeds keeper had five in the league alone. There’s no guarantee that the xG gods will be on our side again next season and Meslier’s performances will be key in our aspirations to improve upon the 9th place finish we achieved in 2020/21.

It is worth remembering that Meslier did come into this season as a rookie in the top-flight and his inexperience at this level likely played a part in his inconsistency over the first few months of the season. If he continues to improve and keep those performances out of his game, Leeds will quickly find that they have one of the better goalkeepers in Europe in their team.

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