Don't let the errors fool you, Bernd Leno has delivered on expectations
On February 3, 2019, Arsenal visited Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium for their 25th match of the 2018/2019 Premier League season. The Gunners had failed to win their last five away Premier League games up until that meeting, and considering they were playing against the reigning league champions, their chances at coming out winners that day were slim to none.
Unsurprisingly, Arsenal lost by a 3-1 scoreline.
It was very much a flat effort by the visitors. The offence only registered four total shots on Manchester City's goal (eight less than the Citizens managed to get on target), and the defence was dispossessed nine times.
One Gunner who could've left the game happy with his performance was Bernd Leno. Despite conceding three goals, the 26-year old German made nine saves; the most he's ever accomplished in a single game with Arsenal. This included a fine low diving stop on a Kevin De Bruyne effort in the second half.
But while Leno's performance should've drawn plaudits from supporters, his role in Manchester City's third goal seemed to leave a more negative taste in the mouth of some viewers.
Personally, I disagree that the third goal is on Leno. But criticism of the German hasn't been uncommon. He's been on the hot seat since he was first linked with the Gunners, and there's yet to be a game that's gone by in which he hasn't received some form of critique from somewhere. This probably isn't helped by the fact that no Premier League player has conceded more errors leading to a goal this season, according to WhoScored.
Question, though. How many of these criticisms can be deemed legitimate? As I alluded to, I don't believe some viewers' critique of Leno's role in the third City goal are substantial, and I question how much of Leno's performance has been overshadowed by some of the "mistakes" he has committed. Don't get me wrong, he has had his issues. But has Leno really been the under-performer some have made him out to be?
The short answer to me is no.
When Unai Emery was appointed as the new head coach of Arsenal in May 2018, a lot of nervous heads looked towards Petr Čech. The Czech goalkeeper is often criticized for his poor ball-playing skills and unassertive distribution, and considering that Emery likes to have his teams play out from the back starting with the goalkeeper, Čech's inabilities were an imperfect match.
This is ultimately why Arsenal paid Bayer Leverkusen just over £19 million for the services of Bernd Leno, a goalkeeper well-accustomed to a distribution-oriented style. And while some may feel that he hasn't done his job clean sheet-wise (he's only kept two clean sheets in 19 Premier League starts), it's clear that Arsenal got their money's worth on the distribution end.
According to WhoScored's website, Bernd Leno has among the Premier League's highest passing stats. He's averaged the third-most total passes per 90 minutes among all Premier League goalkeepers with 10 or more starts (31.5), behind only Huddersfield's Jonas Lössl (34.3) and Tottenham's Hugo Lloris (32.3). This includes an average of 17.3 accurate short passes per 90 minutes. Only Chelsea's Kepa Arrizabalaga (19.7) and Manchester City's Ederson (17.8) have bested him in that regard. Leno boasts a total pass success rate of about 71.1%, much better than David De Gea (59.3%) and slightly less than Hugo Lloris (72.8%). He's also completed the fifth-most accurate short passes among all Premier League goalkeepers (311).
These stats have translated successfully for Leno and Arsenal on the pitch. Due to his composure on the ball and Emery's insistence on playing out from the back with short passes, Leno has had a hand in some of Arsenal's goals. Leno has been an available outlet for his defenders when they're under pressure, and he keeps his cool when challenged by an oncoming opponent.
Statistically, Bernd Leno is also making his mark save-wise. According to the Premier League's official website, Leno has made the third-most saves by a starting top six goalkeeper (+10 appearances). His 58 saves were only bested by David De Gea's 90 saves and Hugo Lloris' 64 saves. Considering that De Gea's numbers are more of an outlier and Leno has started slightly less games than Lloris (19 to 21), it's safe to assume that Leno's totals could've been higher with a couple more starts.
Leno's position as a good saver is also reinforced by more detailed stats. Per WhoScored's website, only one starting goalkeeper from the Premier League's top 10 averages more saves per 90 minutes than Leno (3.0)—David De Gea, who makes an average of 3.6 saves per 90 minutes. Leno's average of 3.0 saves per 90 minutes is equal to a few other top ten goalkeepers (Tottenham's Hugo Lloris, Watford's Ben Foster, and Wolverhampton's Rui Patricio), but keep in mind that the 26-year old has started at least two less games than any of those four (Lloris has 21 starts, De Gea, Foster, and Patricio have 25 starts),
Going deeper still, Leno's average of 3.0 saves includes 1.7 saves per 90 minutes from penalty area attempts (joint-third most among the league's top 10 starting goalkeepers) and 1.3 saves per 90 minutes from long shots (joint-second most among the league's top 10 starting goalkeepers).
Does this mean that Bernd Leno has been flawless? Am I proposing that Leno has been one of the Premier League's top goalkeepers this season? Not really. There's no denying that Leno has experienced some growing pains in his debut Premier League season. His handling of crosses has been awkward—his reliance on parrying over catching high balls has put Arsenal into problematic situations—and his rebound control has not been the best. He's still behind the likes of Alisson (79%) and Ederson (83%) when it comes to successful passes, and his save percentage (68.7%) is still significantly less than that of Alisson (76.6%), Lloris (74.7%), and De Gea (72.0%).
But to suggest that Leno has performed sub-par to expectations would be an overreaction to a few (expected) errors. Leno has fit Unai Emery's passing system almost flawlessly, and although he won't be challenging for the league's Golden Glove, his save numbers put him above the league's average, statistically-speaking.
Too early to tell
On the day Bernd Leno's signing was confirmed, I offered a few words of advice regarding his transfer.
Given the situation Arsenal are in (new manager for the first time since 1996, no top four finish since 2016, no league title since 2004, etc.), it's understandable for supporters to be 'jumpy' regarding the circumstances. To this day though, I stand by my words. I believe Leno has the potential to be a respectable goalkeeper in the Premier League, but his debut season should act as a grace period for him to get accustomed to his latest surroundings. It's not easy for any player to join a new club in a new country with new expectations. That move is made even tougher for a footballer like Leno, who is still building his game and improving upon some of his younger mistakes.
This is a story we've seen before. David De Gea entered the Premier League in 2011 and had a debut season to forget. De Gea immediately felt the presence of some of Manchester United's more vocal fans due to some soft mistakes, and the pressure of under-performing with the Red Devils haunted the Spaniard to the point that he considered leaving the Red Devils after just one season. Ultimately, De Gea remained at United and, thanks to the early influence of head coach Sir Alex Ferguson and goalkeeper coach Eric Steele, developed the skills necessary to become one of the Premier League's top 'keepers. And while Leno's situation is not as copy-paste as De Gea's (the former entered the Premier League as a 26-year old and the latter as a 20-year old), due to the late development of most goalkeepers compared to outfielders, we could make the case that Leno is yet to fully hit his prime.
In the end, Leno's overall numbers do not reflect that of an underachieving goalkeeper, and his errors should not be used as evidence for a failing Premier League career. Leno has delivered on his promise as a ball-playing 'keeper and his stats are not a cause for long-term concern. Leno's first season is more of a chance for him to adapt to the style of the Premier League, and I think we'll have a clearer idea of what the German can provide Arsenal on a game-to-game basis when his sophomore year rolls around.