Even since Kyle Letheren was introduced to the team, I have been making the case that he was not the cause of Plymouth Argyle’s upsurge in form. Granted, it was a neat explanation: he entered the team and they went on to win six of eleven as the rate at which Argyle conceded league goals was cut drastically from once every 50.8 minutes to once every 118.4.

Yet, I was never an adherent. Initially it was because Letheren’s first three performances were poor, but as he began to earn his place I still argued that he wasn’t the difference maker for two main reasons: firstly, it scapegoated Matt Macey as the problem area in the team when he had in fact been a net-positive influence throughout the season; second, it completely missed the huge impact that Ryan Edwards and Niall Canavan had made. In fact, of the six clean sheets Argyle have kept in the league this season, five have come in the fourteen matches the duo have played together at centre-back. Just one has come from the other twenty-two.

The latest of those came at home to free-scoring Luton Town as a Derek Adams tactical masterclass saw the Pilgrims become only the fifth side to prevent the Hatters from scoring in League One this season. Macey, derided ever since results turned around following his departure from the team, starred in the second-half, making the kinds of saves that have helped his competitor earn regular acclaim.

Therefore, with his performance having has injected nuance into a previously polarised debate, now is the perfect time to ask the question – who is better: Matt Macey or Kyle Letheren?

Shot stopping

Letheren did not have the best start in this regard. Aside from letting in two poor shots against Swindon earlier in the season, he made no saves of note against Burton, Oxford or Southend, and was beaten by this effort from beyond the half-way line:

Since that freak, one-off goal, Letheren’s shot stopping has bordered on impeccable, saving 80% of the one-versus-one situations he has found himself in. The technique he has displayed when confronted with these situations has been superb: his positioning and body-shape has been near flawless while his reflexes have been sharp. Against Coventry, the Welshman’s performance at his end of the pitch was equally as match-winning as Lameiras’ at the other.

When it comes to point-winning contributions, you also can’t look much further than his excellent save against Bradford, against whom he superbly held his body in mid-air and exactly judged the trajectory of the ball to deny a goal that would have had huge ramifications in the fight to avoid relegation.

Aside from saves for the highlight reels, you also can’t deny that Letheren has been remarkably consistent at dealing with shots from every angle. The once-in-a-career error against Southend aside, he has simply been consistent at preventing the ball from finding the back of the net. The only other goal that he could have done a better job of denying was Cook’s effort for Walsall from a narrow angle. And not only has his saving been consistent, he has rarely pushed the ball back out into the box; the only instance in which Letheren has unnecessarily spilled a shot came against Rochdale, only for the offside flag to spare his blushes.

However, as Letheren’s efforts to keep the ball out of the net gained ever more attention, so the myth grew that Macey’s saving was a weakness. This was a grossly unfair suggestion as, while Letheren has done enough to prove that he is the superior shot stopper, he is only marginally so.

Throughout the season, Macey has made some excellent, game-changing saves, the most notable of which came against Scunthorpe as they looked to overturn a two-goal half-time deficit:

This particular highlight did reveal a weakness in his saving technique however, as he pushed a shot directly into a dangerous area. Up to this point, this has not been a major issue, but it has been one that is more apparent in the Englishman than his rival. So far this season, Macey has faced eight rebound shots after he has made a save, though he can certainly be forgiven for three of them as two came from saved penalties and a third as part of this superb double-save against Doncaster:

While, Letheren is yet to face a rebound shot, Macey’s inability to guide the ball safely away from danger certainly cost Argyle two points in their 3-3 draw with Bradford earlier in the season. This weakness aside, there is not much difference between the two when it comes to keeping out shots.

Instead, the myth that Macey’s saving was a weakness stemmed from some amateur statistical work: the monumental decline in the rate at which goals were being conceded. The severely limited analysis of this statistic suggested that Letheren’s efforts between the posts had been the difference between a losing team and a winning one. Instead, we must consider the quality of shots faced.

First, Macey consistently faced better quality shots. Of course, there were the eight penalties – one roughly every four games – but also the much higher rate of one-versus-one situations he was exposed to. Until he was dropped, Macey faced one of these shots, on average, every 115.9 minutes, compared to one every 136.8 since Letheren’s entrance, a decrease in the rate of almost 20%.

Yet, even this does not fully represent the imbalance in the quality of shots Macey faced, as two of the eight such efforts that Letheren has saved came from tight angles. These situations are far easier to save from than against a striker charging straight at goal because the ‘keeper has a smaller area to defend and can make themselves proportionally bigger, as we saw against Sunderland:

When you only consider the 1-v-1 opportunities that came inside the box and within the width of the six-yard area (the danger zone), then you find that, on average, Macey has faced such shots every 158.6 minutes compared to every 214.2 minutes for Letheren, 35% less regularly.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that just over half of all the goals he has conceded were scored by unmarked players. Strip away these big goalscoring opportunities and Macey’s save success is 91.3%, only slightly shy of Letheren’s 94.4%.

You also have to consider the quality of the attacking players, as opposition strikers have been far more effective at hitting the target during different portions of the season. Consider the accuracy of the shots at each keeper from the different zones of the pitch:

 

Shot faced per 90 (accuracy) Matt Macey Kyle Letheren
Zone 1 75.0% 50.0%
Zone 2 47.1% 25.0%
Zone 3 45.5% 52.9%
Zone 4 44.9% 50.0%
Zone 5 86.7% 40.0%
Zone 6 50­.9% 53.9%

Shot matrix diagram

Part of this difference in finishing came from an inferior quality of defending, which allowed opponents more time and space to ensure their shots hit the target. However, it is also another demonstration of the chaotic nature of football. A chance that is finished one game:

Is missed in another:

Letheren has been fortunate at times: Burton wasted two excellent opportunities to score, Oxford’s Marcus Browne another. When one-on-one, Conor Chaplin fired straight at Letheren – who had made himself as big as possible but could not cover the near post – whereas the likes of Godden, Cummings or Collins all smashed efforts past the helpless Macey and into the corner of the net.

So, while Letheren’s saving technique has been consistently superior to Macey’s, the gap between the two has not been anywhere near as wide as has been portrayed. The quality of defending and shooting has defined the difference between the rate at which they concede goals, not the quality of their saving.

Handling

While Letheren comes out on top in the saving department, his ability to deal with crosses is another matter entirely. Indeed, this has been the weakest area of his game by some margin.

Raw numbers sum up his weakness in this department:

Handling Matt Macey Kyle Letheren
Catch % 70.3% 40.0%
Claim % 88.3% 60.0%
Catches per-90 3.31 1.14
Punches per-90 0.84 0.57
Drops per-90 0.36 0.28
Lost per-90 0.19 0.85

Macey had trouble with crosses early on, failing to deal with crosses against Millwall, Portsmouth and Charlton:

However, since the defeat at Oxford his catch success rate has climbed from an already strong 64.0% to 75.0%. Not only does Macey have a higher success rate when attacking crosses, he attacks far more crosses than Letheren (4.70 per-90 compared to 2.84).

Macey’s pro-activeness stems from a greater confidence when attacking crosses but also a better starting position. He positions himself further from his goal-line than Letheren, reducing the distance he needs to cover to attack a cross and therefore the time it will take him to reach the ball. By contrast, take this example from Argyle’s 1-0 defeat against Peterborough:

Despite Peterborough having only ten men, and the ball being more than forty yards from goal. Letheren was positioned on his line. This meant that when a delivery from deep entered the box, he was positioned too far from its trajectory to successfully attack it, allowing Toney a free header at the back-post. It was not only the best chance that Peterborough had all game, it was also the best chance of the match. Had he buried it at 0-0, the ten men would have probably taken home all the points.

The worst of his efforts when dealing with crosses came against Wycombe:

A ball right into the heart of his six-yard area, which was quite sparsely populated. He came, didn’t get anywhere near the ball, didn’t communicate that he was attacking the ball to his teammates, and the ball ultimately went in off Yann Songo’o.

Of all the core areas of goalkeeping, this is the one that Letheren needs to work on the most. Though he edges Macey at saving, when it comes to handling it isn’t even close. Quite frankly, Letheren is remarkably lucky to have not conceded at least three more goals from this weakness given the chances missed by Oxford, Walsall and Peterborough from crosses that Letheren should have attacked and claimed.

Distribution

Macey is also the better distributor of the pair, but only by a small margin; indeed, both should consider their kicking as a weakness in their games.

Yet, a key flaw in the way that I have measured the accuracy of goal-kicks this season has been that I broke it down into a binary yes-no. That is to say, did a goal-kick successfully connect with a teammate. This fails to consider the fact that the success of a goal-kick depends largely on the recipient. For example, against Luton, Macey completed just 5 of 23 kicks, but when Taylor replaced him he completed 4 of 6. Macey’s kicking was not poor, just Ladapo could not win headers against the duo of Bradley and Pearson.

This is summed up in the graph below: as the aerial duel success of the strikers on the pitch increases, so to does the kicking accuracy of the goalkeeper. Of course, not every kick is to a striker, nor every header won by a striker from a goal-kick, but the relationship is very much related.

A graph comparing goalkeeper kicking accuracy with the aerial duel success of strikers.

This season, Letheren’s kicking accuracy has been 25.7% compared to Macey’s 24.1%. However, Letheren’s accuracy has been artificially raised by Ladapo’s improvement in aerial technique. Between the victories against Southend (Letheren’s third match) and Luton, his aerial duel success climbed to 39.2% from 28.6% previously. Excluding the matches against Sunderland and Luton, in which he was constantly isolated and out-muscled, it climbed as high as 41.3%.

This genuine improvement in Ladapo’s ability to win headers skewed Letheren’s kicking accuracy above that of Macey’s. When you factor in the average aerial duel success of strikers, you find that the Welshman benefited from consistently greater aerial duel success because of it. Adjusting Macey’s kicking accuracy to replicate the same level of aerial duel success among strikers leaves him with a projected accuracy of 27.2%, slightly above Letheren.

Distribution Matt Macey Kyle Letheren
Kicking accuracy (%) 24.1% 25.7%
Average aerial duel success (%) 37.8% 42.7%
Projected accuracy (%) 27.2%

The main reason Letheren’s accuracy is below Macey’s projected accuracy is that he misplaces his kicks more consistently. Since he returned against Burton, 17.5% of his kicks have either gone straight out of play or failed to reach (or barely passed) the half-way line. Macey has had similar trouble – particularly between Charlton and Sunderland when his accuracy was as low as 13.4% and he routinely found touch in ways that would impress Owen Farrell – but has overall been more consistent in directing his kicks to a teammate.

Certainly, Macey is no master with the ball at his feet. However, he does have the edge over Letheren. Yet, quite how poor they both are with their distribution is summed up by the fact that Remi Matthews, kicking to Joel Grant and Graham Carey in the absence of target-man Ryan Taylor during the final five games of the season, recorded a kicking success rate of 30.6%, dwarfing their respective efforts.

Communication

The final consideration is that of communication. Communication is vital for goalkeepers as it enables the team to benefit from their unique view of the pitch to position their teammates in the most effective way possible. However, short of attaching microphones to the pair of them and recording the volume and content of their words during the match, it is impossible to quantify it.

People tend to throw around the communication argument a lot when it suits them for this very reason. It’s a classic case of presenting correlation as causation. The same idea has been suggested with regards to Letheren and Macey: the defence has improved therefore Letheren must be communicating better than Macey.

This wholly underestimates the impact of Edwards and Canavan as a defensive pairing. But it also probably overstates Letheren’s communication skills. Given the inability to quantify or measure their communication skills, the next best option is to watch how they interact with their teammates during a game.

Think back to that Wycombe goal: if Letheren was coming to attack the cross, why did Songo’o not pull out of the header or leave the ball? If Letheren was an effective communicator, as the argument goes, surely he would have shouted for the ball, ensuring no other teammates attacked it themselves.

Incidents like these have popped up all over the place since Letheren took over the gloves, starting from just the third minute of the match against Burton. Then, Sarcevic cleared the ball under no pressure – returning possession to Burton in the process – as Letheren came to pick up the ball, uncontested, at his feet. In the first five games – from which Argyle went unbeaten and picked up 13 points – there were a series of misunderstandings such as this, almost culminating in the most spectacular own-goal I’d have ever seen in person:

Letheren came and went, seemingly without communicating with Sawyer – who remained in control of the situation – and then mishandled the ball.

Ultimately, both ‘keepers appear to leave a lot to be desired on the communication front. Neither have really demonstrated much ability to lead the defence from the back. However, it should not be forgotten that this is the most subjective argument as there is little evidence to prove arguments one way or the other. Either, or both, could be spectacular communicators that have been unfairly characterised as ineffective.

The fairest assumption would probably be to suggest that both are weak communicators, though not to suggest one is better than the other. There simply isn’t enough evidence one way or the other.

Beyond 2018/19

Ultimately, Matt Macey and Kyle Letheren have a lot to prove before the end of the season. Both are lacking in key areas of their game and, if we were to rank all the goalkeepers in the division, would probably come in the bottom half as a result. There is little doubt that the goalkeeping department is one that Plymouth Argyle could improve upon next season without breaking the bank.

With Macey certainly out of contract, and Letheren likely to be, both could be competing for a contract at Home Park come July. Yet, given the chance, Adams ought to seek a new #1. That is unless either of these two truly emerge and demonstrate the quality required to start between the posts for a season in a team that should be aiming for a top-half finish at least.

Perhaps that is thinking too far ahead. After all, Argyle are still well and truly in a relegation scrap, sitting just three points above the drop-zone. It could well be that either of these duo will step up and become a hero in the final weeks of the season.

But, there is one firm conclusion that can be drawn not only from this analysis article, but the preceding consideration of the impact of Edwards and Canavan: to say that Letheren was the cause of Argyle’s improved results is wrong for one basic reason: it assumes that Macey was the team’s core problem. That simply wasn’t the case.

Author: Nick Saunders Smith

Read more articles by this author or follow them on Twitter for more stats and analysis.