The Premier League has been as crazy a season ever. Even more so for Newcastle United. After Rafa Benitez left and was replaced by Steve Bruce, many pundits tipped the magpies for the drop. It was also a decision that the fans did not favour, losing favourite Benitez for the less likeable Steve Bruce and his tactics. The season has had its ups and downs for Newcastle, with their form seemingly switching from a string of losses to a purple patch thanks to goalkeeper Martin Dubravka. Even with the topsy-turvy nature of their season, Newcastle are currently two points closer to the possible European places than 16th place, and look all but safe. Although, using tactical analysis, there seems to have been an element of luck. Or in Newcastle’s case, an element of Martin Dubravka. This scout report will look as to why Martin Dubravka is making such a difference.
Before diving into the scout report, we must look at Newcastle. Newcastle rank the lowest for expected points with 21.88. This is extremely low especially after 29 games, only averaging a measly 0.75 xPTS per game. This is mainly down to the lack of xG. Looking at the analysis, Newcastle also ranks the lowest in terms of xG with only 25.92. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that 0.89 xG per game is by no means good. Safe to say they haven’t had the best attacking threat in the league. Gone are the days of Kevin Keegan’s ‘we’re going to score one more than you’ all-out attacking philosophy. Because of this poor xG, Newcastle’s NPxG difference is also the lowest in the league at -27.18.
The biggest gulf has been the style of Newcastle’s pressing. Newcastle averaged 19.16 PPDA per game, with one game against Sheffield United at 60 PPDA. In true Newcastle style, they won the game 2-0 away from home, even with the lower xG (0.53 v 1.09). Newcastle are very much the outlier in terms of pressing. The median average of the rest of the league is 10.8 meaning other teams allow almost half of the passes that Newcastle allow. The range of the rest of the league is 8.02-13.16, clearly illustrating Newcastle as the outsider.
So Newcastle have arguably the worst attacking threat, and they invite an awful lot of pressure from the opposition. So how is it that Newcastle could be so safe, aiming for a top half finish? After looking into a few different things, the answer seems to be Martin Dubravka.
Looking at those specific goalkeeping statistics, not only are Premier League goalkeepers performing well, Dubravka is within the top 6 goalkeepers in the league this season (along with Liverpool’s Allison, Schmeichel, Arsenal’s Leno, Henderson and Guaita). Dubravka has made more saves than anyone in the league at 111. This is mainly down to Newcaste’s deep pressing style, although saves still have to be made by goalkeepers. His save percentage is ranked sixth in the league at 73% which is impressive as Dubravka has faced the most shots on target with 152. He also has the fifth most clean sheets with nine, two behind leader Pope’s 11.
On the defensive side, Newcastle seem to be outperforming the xGA. According to xGA, Newcastle should have conceded 11.33 more goals than they have. However this counts shots off target, which has nothing to do with Dubravka. We can look at PSxG (post shot xG) only factors in shots on target. Also, it looks into the speed and trajectory of the ball, as well as which position the ball would enter the goalmouth. The difference for Dubravka this season is +8.7. This stat is loosely saying that given the quality of shots on target from the opposition, Dubravka has stopped 8.7 goals. Given that Newcastle have won eight games by a one goal margin, Dubravka could still be outperforming his PSxG with Newcastle bottom of the table on 19 points, eight points from safety.
Looking at some different goalkeeper radars, we can get a better look into not only Dubravka’s performances, but also his style.
Radar showing Dubravka (blue) and Man City’s Ederson (orange) during the 2019/2020 season. Stats show save percentage, PSxG, SoT faced/90, High Claims/90, Outside Penalty Area actions/90, Saves/Goals, Clean Sheet % and GA/90.
It’s quite easy to see that even though Ederson keeps more clean sheets and concedes less, Dubravka is making a massive impact in terms of shot stopping. The radar helps illustrate the different influence each goalkeeper has on their team. It also shows how busy Dubravka has been in contrast to Ederson. The low OPA/90 shows just how conservative both Dubravka and Newcastle have been. This can even be seen on a goalkeeper distribution radar.
Radar showing Leno’s (orange) and Dubravka’s (blue) distribution in the 2019/2020 season. Stats include short pass tendency, short GK tendency, passes per 90, long pass accuracy, throwing tendency and xGChain.
Leno is playing in a very different style of team although it is easy to see the distribution differences between the two players. Leno uses long throws more than any other goalkeeper in the premier league and Dubravka usually opts for a longer ball. Of course players like Allison and Ederson have an even bigger radar. Leno, Allison and Ederson are quite obviously different styles of goalkeepers in comparison to Dubravka, but this season Dubravka has contrasted with other goalkeepers.
In this radar, there again is a clear contrast in goalkeeping style. Even disregarding the distribution, the radar shows Pope has a clear aggressive method when claiming crosses. Pope also likes to venture outside of his area much more than Dubravka does. This has changed for Dubravka this season but he seems to be more of a traditional goalkeeper.
Radar showing traditional goalkeeping for Ederson and Dubravka in the 2019/2020 season. Stats show save percentage, saves/goals, saves/90, PSxG difference, Corners conceded/90 and high claim %.
Dubravka has been a phenomenal shot stopper this season. He is almost playing an entirely different role to Ederson. This is clearly shown in the sweeper keeper radar below.
Sweeper keeper radar showing Ederson and Dubravka’s 2019/2020 season. Stats include actions outside of the area/90, average distance of action, passes/90, short pass tendency, throwing tendency and xGChain.
Dubravka is clearly a shot stopper and not a ball retainer. His shot stopping has not just helped in the one goal margin wins, but also in other games.
Dubravka In Action
Wolves 1-1 Newcastle (xG 2.05 – 0.18)
A good result for Newcastle who came into the game with a long injury list and added Dummet and Gayle to it. Newcastle got a little lucky as their xPTS were only 0.12 for this game. The game was very much the Wolves show with Longstaff clearing a Doherty effort off the line as well as two fantastic Dubravka saves. The first save came in the first half, after Adama Traore came inside and crossed on his left foot in towards Jimenez. Due to the placement of the header, the xG for the shot was 0.6.
Jiminez just drifts in the blind side to free himself and powers the close range header down. Dubravka opts to stay close to his line, allowing maximum time to react to any upcoming shot. Dubravka also correctly assesses the trajectory of the ball. Anticipating that Jiminez will meet the ball near the back post, Dubravka uses his footwork to cut down the shooting lane.
Dubravka’s positioning and reflexes allow him to get his left foot to the ball. His shift to his right is well timed, keeping on his toes, meaning his reflexes are given the best possible chance. Dubravka opts for a modern De Gea-esque foot-to-the-ball technique, which is proven to be more effective in close range shot stopping. This can only happen because of Dubravka’s key positioning prior to the header.
The second save came deep into the second half, again from an Adama Traore cross, denying Pedro Neto from point blank range.
Dubravka’s positioning is quite aggressive from the cross, leaving a lot of the goal for Pedro Neto. Dubravka’s footwork is fantastic here, shimmying across to cover a large portion of the goal. This is especially integral as the header is completely free and extremely close to goal. Dubravka also stays on his toes, timing the header against him so he can increase his own reaction time.
Dubravka gets two hands behind the header, pushing it out wide. The picture shows a relatively simple save, one that is only possible because of his footwork in the last picture. Dubravka uses a two-handed technique that helps with the handling of the ball post-shot. If for instance he uses a one-handed technique, the probability of an immediate second shot is increased drastically.
Sheffield United 0-2 Newcastle (xG 1.09 v 0.53)
This game was covered in VAR controversy, with Shelvey scoring after the flag had been raised but the referee’s whistle had not been blown. As well as losing the xG battle, Newcastle had 60 PPDA, being a caricature of themselves. However, there was a clear man of the match in Martin Dubravka.
Dubravka tips this deflected effort around the post showing great reactions after a complete change in momentum. Not shown in the picture is Dubravka’s change in motion. The attacker initially fired in a low cross, which Dubravka responded to by moving more centrally. After the deflection, Dubravka had to perform a complete change in momentum to get to the save. Even with his great footwork, he is also at full stretch illustrating the difficulty of the save.
Dubravka gets a strong hand to McBurnie’s 0.37 xG effort. Here you can see Dubravka on his toes, allowing him to dive to his left. Dubravka is at full stretch for this fingertip save, and you could argue that a goalkeeper with slightly less positioning proficiency would not have made the save.
Newcastle 0-0 Norwich (xG 0.9 – 2.4)
Norwich were much the better side and Newcastle had a PPDA of 23 a home to bottom of the league but it did end a stalemate thanks to Dubravka.
Dubravka stays on his line as the corner comes in. This is something he has done a low more this season (much more aggressive in the last two seasons). He gives himself as much time as possible from the header being taken to reaching him, allowing more time for him to react.
Dubravka’s positioning makes for a simple save. The picture doesn’t quite show the sheer power of the header, and if Dubravka’s positioning was slightly out, the ball could have found its way into Newcastle’s goal. His two-handed technique was also crucial here, given that 6 Norwich players are within 10 metres of him.
Dubravka chose to stay quite close to his line and he made a terrific save from a Pukki 1v1. In goalkeeping, the probability of a goal is much higher when the ball is 2m-7m away from the goalkeeper when struck. Dubravka chose to stay as far away from Pukki as possible, meaning statistically it was less likely to go in. Dubravka’s reluctance to leave his line also allows defenders to track back on Pukki, who is not particularly known for his pace. Pukki also has to make decisions. He would like to turn onto his favoured right foot, but there are defenders tracking there. Dubravka is remaining as big as possible and far away, meaning the aerial option is not available. Dubravka’s positioning also means that the near post shot is incredibly unlikely to result in a goal. Overall, Dubravka interprets the issue perfectly, giving him the best possible chance of a missed shot.
All of the images above show Dubravka’s immense shot stopping ability. Throughout the three games looked at he performed to a high standard, with the xG conceded difference being 4.54 in Newcastle’s favour.
Areas for improvement
The stats show that Dubravka has been great for Newcastle this season. Newcastle fans have sometimes been left frustrated by him. However, there does seem to be a clear area for improvement. Dubravka can be caught out with crosses. Dubravka has made four errors leading to a goal. That’s the most in the league. Dubravka has conceded nine goals from corners so far this season, only bottom of the league Tim Krul has conceded more with 10. He is usually conservative, allowing for the header/shot to be taken instead of opting for an aerial claim. This is slightly worrying as Dubravka and Pope have faced the most crosses this season (212 and 213 respectively). However, Pope claims 14.6% of his crosses compared with Dubravka’s 7.1%. Dubravka rarely completes defensive actions outside of the area, averaging 0.38 per game, the third lowest in the league. Also, Dubravka’s average position of defensive action is 12.4m, the fourth lowest in the league. His new conservative approach goes some way in explaining why more xG is created against Newcastle.
Even in comparison to his former self, Dubravka seems to have changed style this year. Last season, Dubravka stopped the most crosses in the league with 30. This has halved this season. His high claims have also fallen from 42 to 12 (albeit less games for both stats). In 2017/18 he claimed a league high 15.9% of his crosses. As mentioned before, this season sits at 7.1%. He still has the same goalkeeping coach in Simon Smith (although Steve Harper arrived recently). Is it the change from Rafa to Bruce? Their PPDA has changed from 13.38 and 13.99 up to 19.16 now. Has Bruce told all of his players to be more conservative?
In this game vs Wolves, there is a relatively safe situation with Dubravka well positioned. There is an argument that Dubravka could be positioned more aggressively. At the moment, the player has an extremely low probability of scoring from there. If Dubravka was to be more proactive and position himself away from his line, Dubravka has a good chance to eliminate a better scoring opportunity. Strikers are told to take shots from better locations, and whilst it’s usually the defenders job to figure out ways to prevent the good locations, goalkeepers can definitely do their bit.
Dubravka tries to claim the cross with one hand, and you can see his footing is far from textbook technique. This is mainly because of his reluctance to leave his line on crosses. If Dubravka positions himself 2m higher in his box, he could still position himself back on his line if the ball is delivered away from him whilst giving him the opportunity to remove a big chance from Wolves. Dubravka then adopts a save like technique with one hand, increasing the chance of the inevitable fumble.
Against Burnley, Dubravka seemingly comes out and forwards for a back post cross. After realising his mistake, he attempts to make it back to his safe place (firmly on the line). By this point, Dubravka loses his footing and ends up covering 0% of the goal, leaving him useless to Chris Wood’s header.
Back to the Sheffield United game, Dubravka’s claim is weak and the ball is then won by Sheffield United. This is especially poor as the cross was floated in quite slowly and also the position of the ball is relatively close to the goalkeepers line. It’s worth noting that the physical challenge he faced was not even close to being a foul.
It’s safe to say that Dubravka could reposition himself differently. His record on conceding corners is quite poor and could do with some improvement. Dubravka seems to be “amazing under difficult circumstances” when he could go some way remove the severity of the ‘difficult circumstances’.
Dubravka is a fantastic shot-stopper. The statistics clearly show that. It’s impressive that his team could be up to 16 points worse off with him still playing above average. He’s an extremely busy keeper who has helped his team throughout the season to an immeasurable amount. His recent injury could have been a big turning point for Newcastle although now he is also due to be back before the restart of the season. As mentioned, Dubravka has work to do aerially, maybe even just to tweak his positioning and tendency to claim crosses. There is no doubt he suits Newcastle’s deep pressing and Newcastle fans will be hoping he continues to maintain his great form.