Saturday, October 1, 2022

Manu Zinsberger’s Improvement: Behind the Numbers

Austrian goalkeeper Manu Zinsberger has been conspicuous by her absence as the garlands are handed out for the season just passed. She was awarded the WSL’s Golden Gloves award due to a statistical fact- she had kept more clean sheets in the league than any other goalie. There is no subjective element to that award, much like the Golden Boot.

Absent from the various iterations of ‘team of the year’, Zinsberger was also unfortunate not to make the podium for the Arsenal.com player of the season award, with Miedema and Williamson bridesmaids to the overwhelming winner Beth Mead. Arsenal fans have noticed the improvement in Zinsberger, just look at the responses and QTs on this particular tweet.

In women’s football it can take time for reputations to shift since the number of full-time women’s football beat journalists is still quite low and the coverage is still developing- it is unrealistic to expect individuals to be across every single nuance in every single team. The same is true when the performance levels of big players dip too, they often find themselves voted into contention for awards on the back of average or even poor seasons.

For Arsenal fans, however, the improvement in Zinsberger has been there for all to see. Let’s see how the data bears that out (all taken from FBRef). We can see from the below that the basic data is very much in her favour. She is conceding far fewer goals without an enormous deviation in the number of shots on target faced, her save percentage and her clean sheet percentages are all on the rise over a three-season clip.

 Goals against p90Shots on target against p90Save percentageClean sheet percentage
2019-200.922.5864.5%50.0%
2020-210.772.8573.0%30.8%
2021-220.502.5080.0%65.0%

When Joe Montemurro recruited Zinsberger in 2019, it was clear that her security in possession was a big attraction of her play. Her passing statistics remain absurdly good. Her short pass (passes of 15 yards or fewer) average completion rate over three seasons is 100%. Her medium pass average (passes of 15-40 yards) is at a slightly more modest 99.2%. She is as sure-footed as a mountain goat in possession terms.

However, at times it felt like she was as much a footballer as a goalkeeper. While being a good footballer is an absolute requirement at a club like Arsenal (even more so for a coach like Joe Montemurro) her goalkeeping fundamentals weren’t always as strong. One aspect of her game that she has really worked on this season is her footwork, which made her vulnerable to shots from range.

Her close-range instinctive work was always solid but from range she was often caught by low shots that required her to shift her feet- those little microsteps goalies have to take before flinging themselves across goal. My best guess would be that coaches Sebastien Barton and Leanne Hall (who is also a qualified goalkeeping coach) have worked on this with Manu. She is caught out far less by this type of shot.

Let’s look at the data a little more in-depth. Post-shot XG is a stat that essentially looks at how many goals you would expect a goalkeeper to concede based on the XG value of the shots they have faced. The table below shows that Manu has improved drastically in this respect over a three-season period. In her first season, she conceded 1.5 goals more than one would expect, last season she added value to the tune of 0.9 goals. In 2021-22 her value shot up to +3 goals. Few players did more in a literal sense to close the gap to Chelsea in the table.

 Post shot XGGoals conceded+/-
2019-209.511.0-1.5
2020-219.99.0+0.9
2021-2213.010.0+3.0

Not unrelated is the extent to which she has been used by Jonas Eidevall. Joe Montemurro employed a rotation policy with his goalkeepers. I asked Jonas Eidevall about his philosophy with goalkeeper usage back in September and he was fairly unequivocal. “For me, if you are in a position like the goalkeeper, I think, firstly, it’s important not to feel like you will be rotated if you make a mistake because it’s a very vulnerable position. You need to feel confident when you are playing in that position.”

In 2021-22 she started 20 of the 22 WSL games and six of the eight games in the UWCL. She started 12 WSL games in her debut season, followed by 13 in 2020-21. That translated into 2,250 minutes in all competitions (including for her country) compared to 1,170 minutes in 2020-21. That continuity has probably been a factor in her improved form. Another intangible has been the presence of the experienced Lydia Williams on the training ground.

Goalkeepers train together every day and often form strong friendships. The competition is far more intense too due to paucity- you can only play one of them! Williams has understudied Zinsberger but I think the presence of a 34-year-old seasoned international has been beneficial for the 26-year-old Zinsberger. Williams and Zinsberger are similarly extroverted characters too.

I interviewed Manu shortly before her Arsenal debut and she told me, “I will be very loud! I want to coach the team and show them that I am there and that I can help them and the defence. I am not quiet (laughs).” There are few goalkeepers in women’s football who can hold a candle to Williams when it comes to using the voicebox as a tool on the field.

I revisited the topic with Zinsberger last year, “Lydia is loud! She is an unbelievable leader and you can see that when she is communicating with her defenders and I really look up to her and I am trying to learn from her, because that’s the way I want to be loud.” It will be interesting to see what happens with the back-up goalkeeper situation next season, whether Williams stays (her contract is up) and if, as I would expect, she does not, who Eidevall brings in.

Another curiosity about Zinsberger’s role this season has been the reduction in her involvement in the passing sense. Under Montemurro, Zinsberger almost became a third centre-half at times. Arsenal were instructed to keep the ball at all costs, even if it meant going all the way back to Manu and building attacks again from the start in an attempt to tempt the opponent out of their area.

Under Eidevall, the modus operandi has altered a little. The team are encouraged to go forward and not to worry about coughing up possession to the same extent. Losing possession in the final third just gives you the opportunity to counterpress and try to win it back. We see from the table below that Manu had fewer touches in 2021-22 as a result.

 Passes over 40 yards completed p90Touches p90Passes attempted p90Touches in the middle third p90
2019-2036.647.445.30.17
2020-2141.953.851.70.38
2021-2251.140.938.70.80

The only figure that rose related to the number of touches was in the middle third. In a more front-footed, pressing style, the defensive line is higher and that means that the goalkeeper is required to be proactive from the goal line to sweep up long balls. The signing of Rafaelle at centre-half was made with precisely this tactic in mind, a centre-half who is strong in duels and agile enough to turn and run back towards her own goal.

While Zinsberger’s short passing has always been beyond reproach, her long passing has required greater work. Montemurro liked rotating his goalkeepers on this basis- Pauline Peyraud-Magnin and Williams were felt to be superior long distributors. Manu is trending in the right direction in this respect, with a big uptick in long passes completed but there is still further room for growth here.

I think she can still develop when it comes to claiming crosses. The proportion of crosses she claimed last season dropped on the season before and there has been a marked decline since her maiden season. I imagine that is at least partially down to instruction, that she is being asked not to be as proactive in claiming crosses.

 Crosses attempted by opponent p90Crosses stopped %
2019-206.1712.2%
2020-216.237.4%
2021-225.556.3%

Overall, Manu’s improvement has passed the eye test and it passes the numbers test too. At the age of 26, there is still plenty of time for further growth and she has already got a lot of experience at major European clubs like Bayern Munich and Arsenal and is approaching 80 Austria caps, on the precipice of a second major international tournament.

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Peter Story Teller

Felt from the moment Manu arrived she is a confidence player and a good shot stopper if the ball was within reach. Many of the goals she conceeded early on were because she seemed reluctant to move her feet. As pointed out here these two issues have really been worked on this season. A more consistent run in the team plus the new contract has boosted confidence and better coaching has her moving across the goal line better so that she now reaches the shots that would have beated her previously. Maling some good saves also boosts her confidence. Next… Read more »

Goonersince55

Arsenal fans have really come to appreciate her. She was the one bright spot in that dismal FA Cup final. And we what a fantastic record when facing penalties!

Goonersince55

“we what”? My fingers are too big!

Fun Gunner

Love these individual player analyses, Tim! It was very soon clear that Zins had improved. My overall sense was of a calmer and more focussed player, quicker to react to transitions. Interesting observation about JE reducing in her involvement in play. I felt that previously she was too often caught on the ball or pressured into mistakes due to nerves or indecisiveness, so being in that situation less often can only have helped her confidence. She has some way to go to become one of the greats, but deserves so much credit for the huge improvements she has made thus… Read more »

Meep meep

And she’s still young for a keeper,let’s hope she keeps improving & stays with us

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