In football, the goalkeeper has one of the most dangerous roles and is consequently crucial to the functioning of a team. The profile of the shot-stopper determines what playing style a manager is likely to adopt. If, for instance, he is as good on his feet as his peers, then he will likely be useful in a possession-heavy team.
Marc-Andre ter Stegen is precisely this breed of goalkeeper. The German is one of the best passers of the ball from his position, and this has been integral to how well Barcelona have been able to play their football.
There is, however, a problem that arises, this having to do with his competence as a keeper at this level of football. The Barça number one’s level has rapidly deteriorated in recent years, and there is much doubt within the fanbase about whether or not he should stay any longer.
In this article, Barça Universal discusses ter Stegen’s failings as a goalkeeper, after several consecutive years of disappointment.
A statistical failure
An evolution of statistics and metrics has meant that goalkeepers’ actions are now more and more quantifiable. Progress in a plethora of statistics has aided scouts in picking out their preferred shot-stoppers, rapidly evolving the game and easing their own adaptation.
Ter Stegen, from a statistical point of view, is a failure for someone in a club as big as Barcelona. The German was once at the top of the world and now can do nothing more than watch the rest of it flourish while he is stuck in the pits of hell.
In the 2017/18 season, despite only conceding 29 goals, Barcelona were much worse defensively than they seemed. Their xGA was at a staggering 41.6 according to Understat.
The sole reason that they did not concede as many as they should have, or were in other words expected to, was thanks to the immaculate performances of a certain ter Stegen week in, week out.
To adequately quantify how important he was to that specific side, it is imperative that one use the metric Post Shot Expected Goals (PSxG for short). The difference between this and normal xG is that it quantifies the probability of shots on target going in. Like xG, it varies from 0.01 to 0.99, as no shot on target has a 0%, or 100% chance of going in.
A general rule is that the farther from the centre of the goalmouth that a shot is, the higher a chance one has of scoring. Strikes headed towards the corners of the post have a higher chance of going in than one taken at mid-height to the middle of the goal.
This is useful in quantifying goalkeepers’ performances as it shows who manages to keep out shots on target best; as well as for attackers to see who takes the best quality shots.
In that 2017/18 season in the top 5 leagues, ter Stegen led Europe with a PSxG difference (PSxG minus goals against) of 8.9.
This essentially means that over the course of the season, he conceded roughly nine goals less than he was expected to, thanks to his own technical agility. The season after, despite being less brilliant, the German still was impressive, conceding around four goals less than he was expected to.
Since then, it has been nothing but a downhill spiral. In 2019/20, he conceded 1.2 goals more than expected, last season one goal more than one could have anticipated, and this season, he is already at 1.5, his statistically worst season yet.
If he continues on the same path at the same level of torrid consistency, then by season’s end, he will have conceded roughly 2.2 goals above his PSxG in La Liga.
When taking a look at his performances in Europe, then the German looks far worse. He has already conceded 3.3 goals more than his PSxG would suggest.
In and of itself, the 3.3 goal deficit might not seem like too much, but when put into comparison with the rest of Europe, then the cracks begin to show. His PSxG difference per 90 of -0.17 means that his shot-stopping ability is worse than 82% of goalkeepers in Europe’s top five leagues.
It is interesting to what extent he pales in comparison to the rest of his peers in La Liga. Elche goalkeeper Edgar Badia has a PSxG difference of +4.2, meaning that despite his leaky defence, which is indubitably worse than Barcelona’s, he has kept out four more goals than he perhaps should have conceded.
This, when controlled for games played amounts to a possible 7.2. Thibaut Courtois has a positive difference of exactly two goals while having played three games more.
The statistics have adequately demonstrated to what extent ter Stegen pales in comparison to his peers in Europe’s top five leagues, and even within La Liga, both in the top and bottom half of the table. We will now explore the individually poor aspects of his performances.
The intricacies of ter Stegen’s problems
MAtS, as he is colloquially known, stands out for one thing: his passing ability. From close range, his passing is some of the best in any goalkeeper in Europe, and this is pivotal to how every manager since Quique Setien has played.
While this is important, the German’s passing ability is not the main reason he is there. If it were, then it would be more sensible to play Riqui Puig in goal for his more precise and dynamic passing.
The main role of a goalkeeper in any team is to keep the ball out of the net. Passing is, of course, necessary, but if a keeper is not doing the bare minimum, then his position must be put into question. A goalie is, above all, the last line of defence between the ball and the net.
Ter Stegen has evolved from being Barcelona’s wall to just another one of the cracks bringing it down. His statistical blueprint is woeful and so too many of the things he does to make it as such.
One of the common arguments used in favour of the German is the fact that Barcelona’s defence perpetually lets him down. The problem is, while this may or may not be true, is that not why goalkeepers exist, to begin with?
They are on the pitch with special privileges precisely because their defences might let them down. Their agility, reflexes and positioning are what define them.
Granted, a defence can leak chances, a goalkeeper has to be at his individual best to ensure that said chances are not converted into goals. Barça’s defence is not the most glamorous on the planet, but that is no excuse as to why ter Stegen should be this poor.
He himself puts the team in precarious situations as a result of his own woeful decision making. One of the core traits of modern-day goalkeepers, especially in teams that deploy high lines, is the sweeping technique.
Manuel Neuer is one of the best examples of a ‘sweeper keeper,’ with his sensational timing and anticipation to prevent chances from existing in the first place.
With ter Stegen, he is always caught between two worlds: staying in his goal and making a sweeping move. The Barça number one never fully commits to his challenges.
His runs are always half baked, with last-second hesitations which put the team in positions of weakness. This technique requires confidence, which the German seems completely void of.
His conservative nature in the face of opposition, such as against Juventus last season or Napoli, Espanyol and Real Madrid in this, results in his rivals getting the upper hand and scoring.
Statistically, ter Stegen’s seven defensive actions outside his penalty area this season have him ranked in the 25th percentile of goalkeepers in Europe.
This is entirely unlike him, as just three years ago he had consecutive seasons averaging 27 sweeping actions. If he continues at his current rate then by the end of the campaign he will have made only ten.
It is not only in sweeping where he lacks, but he also has enormous problems pertaining to his reliability against shots coming in on the near post.
In the emphatic 2-3 victory in the Santiago Bernabeu in 2017, the German-made four saves on his near post. Commentator Rob Palmer said, subsequent to his save against Marco Asensio, that “the rule number one of keeping, [is] never conceding at your near post.”
It has been almost five years since that enthralling match in Madrid, yet for all his experience since, it is as though the German has become worse at defending his near post. This is something which, with positioning, the German should have become better at, yet he is still quite mediocre at it for someone at this level.
By this point, it is almost a meme that ter Stegen will rush, almost attempting to sweep for the ball, be rooted to the spot not knowing what to do, then concede a nimbly saveable goal on his near post.
This happened against Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup against Vinicius Jr, against Napoli away from home, versus Benfica in Portugal, and against Celta de Vigo away; where he additionally mishandled the ball to concede the first of three goals in the second half.
Not to forget a shot from Jose Gaya from outside the box that ter Stegen swatted into his net from the near post. Thankfully, it was ruled out as offside.
Conceding goals at one’s near post is entirely a matter of positioning, a facet ter Stegen has never been one to boast. He often leaves gaps in the goal that are way too large, granting opposing forwards the perfect chances to catch him by surprise.
Juxtaposing his near post worries is the sheer number of unforced errors he makes leading to a goal.
Ter Stegen conceded an easily avoidable shot against Bayern away because of a horribly mistimed save, fumbled the ball for Iago Aspas to begin the remontada in the 3-3 draw in Balaidos, and against Valencia, he essentially had Carlos Soler score through the silhouette of where his body should have been standing in Barcelona’s 4-1 win.
All these mistakes have in common a disparity between the decisions he should be making, and the ones he inevitably does. The German is entirely lacking in the charity of thought, incapable of completely committing to one decision he wants to make.
This results in actions when he is stuck in two minds, abysmal positioning, and cheap mistakes, all of which in one way or another lead to his own net bulging.
Barcelona need to act quick, lest this becomes a problem for the long term.
No more excuses for ter Stegen
Are there genuine reasons as to why Marc Andre ter Stegen is failing as much as he is? Most certainly, yes. The German has suffered a great deal with Barcelona in Europe, conceding a combined total of 27 goals in each of the last six seasons in Champions League rounds in which Barcelona have been knocked out.
Confidence is an issue that is guaranteed to affect performances.
Furthermore, the injury sustained to his knee is something that has significantly pegged down his routines. Goalkeepers need to dive to make saves, and if at every instance in which he wants to dive, he is afraid of harming himself, then it makes sense why he is hesitant to rush for the ball and risk damage to his knee.
These reasons are genuinely understandable, but at the end of the day, they turn him into a liability for the team. If he cannot get over his injury, or potential self-esteem issues, then he will continue to detract from the team.
Football clubs are not charities for players. If someone is a starter in any given team, earning millions a year, it is because they know they are ready to perform week in week out.
For someone like ter Stegen, a player vying for a spot in the German national team, and one who does not want to cede his spot to someone else at club level, there cannot be any such excuses. If he wants to start, then he might as well justify why he is there.
The Confederations Cup winner is so erroneous in his play that even the most average of saves now is worthy of praise.
Just this weekend, he conceded a cheap, easily avoidable goal, and on the mere basis that he made two saves, he received praise. A match in which one concedes a goal from one PSxG is not one worthy of praise. That is the least he could do for his team, and for three years now, he has done less than the bare minimum.
Chelsea suffered under the mistakes of Kepa Arrizabalaga in goal for nearly two seasons. Did the Spaniard have potential? Most certainly, yes, however, given he was perpetually a source of torment for his team, then replacing him with someone more competent was the way to go.
They supplanted him with Edouard Mendy, who is statistically and visually among the world’s best goalkeepers. In part, large or small, thanks to that one change in goal, the Blues were able to win the continental double as well as the FIFA Club World Cup.
If Barcelona are keeping ter Stegen on the premise that he is somehow irreplaceable, then that is far from the truth. His passing ability can be replicated by tens of goalkeepers in more attack-minded leagues such as the Bundesliga, and the saves he lacks can easily be compensated for by someone such as Edgar Badia.
The solution is simple: the German either has to let go of whatever it is that is tying him down and step up or allow it to consume him while stepping out. A club of Barcelona’s stature cannot settle for his mistakes, as allowing what he individually is doing to last any longer is only going to keep Barcelona down for longer.