With Kyle Letheren announcing his departure from Plymouth Argyle last week, the question on our minds was whether Argyle would have stayed in League One had he been first choice throughout the season. While there was uniform agreement that Letheren was overrated and his competitor – Matt Macey – was underrated and scapegoated to some extent, Adam Price and Sam Down disagreed over whether Argyle’s fate was sealed either way.

 

Adam: Letheren would have made no difference

Looking at all the available evidence, and keeping in mind that we can’t be certain about anything, it becomes clear that it is more likely than not that Argyle would have been relegated even if Letheren was the first-choice goalkeeper from day one. There is just not enough, in my mind, that can be presented to convince me that simply changing the goalkeeper would have been enough to turn Argyle’s doomed season around.

Let’s start with an obvious point. The goalkeeper was not the main deficiency Argyle faced across the season. Argyle had their opponents dominate them all too often across 2018/19, primarily due to Derek Adams’ flawed 4-2-3-1 formation. The midfield was far too easy to play through, and additional defensive errors meant that Argyle regularly found themselves under pressure. That had nothing to do with who was playing in goal.

It’s clear that Argyle would have been in a relegation battle regardless of who lined up between the sticks more often. But that doesn’t mean they’d have been relegated if Letheren started more, right? Argyle went down on goal difference – even if the choice of goalkeeper wouldn’t have mattered in the grand scheme of things, Letheren would have been able to gain the side an extra point, right? Not necessarily. At all.

We’ll have to compare the two goalkeepers to get a better idea of whether one was significantly better than the other. Let’s consider the key attributes of shot stopping, dealing with crosses and communication. As far as shot stopping is concerned, I went into the season believing that neither Macey nor Letheren had the edge on the other in that department. Across the season, Letheren convinced me that he was a better shot stopper, but the difference was fairly minimal.

Letheren’s figure meant that he was very proficient in making a certain type of save. His low centre of gravity meant that when strikers were close to goal, he was able to get down quickly and react swiftly to the ball going either side of him. His ability to get down quickly did lead to him making some good saves, like this one against Sunderland from Will Grigg.

 

It should also be noted, however, that Macey was still able to make good saves. Being much taller, he found it more difficult to get down to snapshots, but his gangly figure helped him make key saves such as this one against Bristol Rovers, when the sides were level at 0-0 just before the break.

 

We should also note that Letheren himself wasn’t bulletproof when it came to shot stopping. At the start of the season, most of his appearances came in the Checkatrade Trophy, and he made this awful attempt at a save against Swindon.

 

So yes, Letheren did show he was a better shot stopper than Macey across the season, but not by much. Certainly not by enough to convince me he’d have made all the saves Macey made and more on top to keep Argyle up.

Where the difference is stark, however, is with regards to dealing with crosses. I regret to inform you that this is not at all in Letheren’s favour.

Letheren’s numbers in this department are damning, and it’s amazing that Argyle didn’t concede more goals from crosses when Letheren was in the team. The defence may have bailed him out on a few occasions, but it also owed much to poor finishing.

Walsall missed a sitter just before half time in their encounter with Argyle back in January, which would have seen them take the lead from a corner. And let’s not forget – Letheren’s inability to deal with crosses directly led to Argyle dropping points against Wycombe just a few days after the Walsall game.

 

Letheren’s inability to deal with crosses would almost certainly have meant opponents having more chances – from inside Argyle’s penalty area – to score goals. Across a season, that would make the goalkeeper significantly busier. Even if you believe that Letheren was a much better shot stopper than Macey, which would be a very debatable claim, the increased number of chances would have told eventually.

How about communication? This was perhaps the most difficult argument Letheren’s supporters made to disprove. They saw Letheren come into the team in late December, play with similar players in a similar system, and results improved. With the defence seemingly less shaky and conceding fewer goals, many concluded that Letheren simply had to be a better communicator and organiser of his defence than Macey.

The problem here, however, is that there is no credible evidence for this. Remember, correlation does not equal causation. Just because Letheren was in the team when form had an upturn, it doesn’t mean he was responsible through better communication. In fact, there is plenty to suggest that this upturn in form owed much more to good fortune.

Many people look at the run Argyle had in late December and January – 13 points out of a possible 18 – as a string to Letheren’s bow. However, Argyle rode their luck in many of these games, and that’s without even discussing the Wycombe game which saw Argyle lose to a goal where Letheren had to share a large portion of the blame. We’ve already discussed the Walsall game, but Argyle really ought to have lost against Coventry and Burton, who both missed golden opportunities to take the three points.

Had they finished their chances, Letheren’s points per game numbers wouldn’t have looked at all as handsome. Meanwhile, had more clinical opponents missed similar chances against Macey earlier in the season, his numbers would have looked significantly better. That’s where the crux of this argument lies – it was through a huge slice of good fortune that Letheren was part of a side that won four in a row back in January. The defence wasn’t better just for having him there, but opposition strikers suddenly seemed to become worse.

What can we conclude? Simply, that things would have been different had Letheren started more games. It would, however, be a very bold argument to say that change would have been for the better. Whilst his shot stopping may have been slightly better, Argyle would have lost any assurance when dealing with crosses. Add in the fact that claims about his communication are a fallacy based on good fortune, and it is at the very least arguable to say that the Greens would have been worse off had Letheren been in goal for the majority of the campaign.

Neither goalkeeper was terrific, and my argument isn’t that Macey was a great deal better than Letheren. Rather, I’m fairly confident that Argyle were doomed regardless of who had more minutes across the campaign. For that reason, I’m very happy that we will see a new pair of goalkeepers competing for the gloves next season.

Sam: Letheren’s shot stopping would have won us more points

I will start this piece by saying I have a lot of sympathy for Adam’s case that he’s put across in the previous section. Matt Macey was indeed unfairly made a scapegoat for the ills of Derek Adams and the wider team – there’s no denying that.

It is also true that Letheren was not as good as a keeper as some fans like to make out – there were some serious flaws in his game especially, surrounding high balls in the area (specifically. his inability to come for them successfully) and his distribution.

Those fans who say that there was clear night and day between Letheren and Macey are wrong. Letheren wasn’t quite as good as his biggest fans said, nor was Macey as bad as his biggest detractors implied. However, where I maintain my stance that we’d have survived with Letheren playing regularly is the fact of fine margins.

I’ve already agreed that Letheren was not significantly better than Macey: but I do think he was better. And frankly, in order to stay up, we didn’t need to be a lot better. We just needed to be a little bit better. We went down by a goal difference margin of just four goals. We only needed to have a goal difference 4 goals better for us to have clawed survival ahead of AFC Wimbledon.

Just four goals fewer conceded would have kept us up. Never mind if any of those goals were the difference between a loss and a draw, in which case we’d have survived on points. Letheren’s command of area and distribution may not have been great: a great many of his kicks ended up going out for throw-ins and of those that didn’t, not many reached the intended target.

One area where he did outshine Macey however was that of shot stopping. Macey did have the occasional great save in him; who can forget the crucial stops at Scunthorpe away or at home to Bristol Rovers?

However, there are a few too many examples of goals that went in that Macey could have done better for. There weren’t many absolute howlers, but both of Blackpool’s goals in that critical 2-2 draw, as well as the late Rovers equaliser the week before could have been saved. In addition, the goal difference was not helped by some of his late dives in the Accrington game that saw us pummelled 5-1.

The weaknesses of Letheren were more able to be amended by other players. Yes, his command of area was less good. There’s no denying that. But, and this is the crucial point, his weaknesses were more likely to be buttressed by the rest of the team’s strengths. Letheren didn’t make many catches but the heading ability of Edwards and Canavan largely bailed him out in this regard.

For a side who conceded so many goals over the season, a very small proportion of them were from free-kicks or corners; this was unlike previous seasons, when this tended to be a vice of Argyle’s. So, even if Macey would have been more suited to another team, Letheren was what Argyle needed and I see little evidence to suggest that his inferior command would have cost us more points than his superior stopping gained. Macey was the last line of defence and often let Argyle down.

Finally, and although this is not solid evidence in itself, it’s worth taking a look at the statistics when the two are in the team. Argyle gained 1.62 points per game whilst Letheren was in the side, an average that would have seen us come upper mid table over the season. With Macey, we averaged 0.85 points per game which would have seen us come rock bottom with a very low points total. Letheren conceded an average of 1.23 goals per game and Macey 1.78 per game.

Does this in itself prove Letheren would been a superior keeper over the season? No, correlation is not causation. Yet such a large disparity can’t be sniffed at and it’s worth wondering if there’s a hidden factor beyond what the player statistics show. To this end, I would point to the communication factor. Communication is much harder for an onlooker to judge than shot-stopping, command or distribution.

Luke McCormick is renowned as being one of the best keepers in Argyle’s history but he had some flaws in all three of those areas. What made him better than the sum of his parts was his supreme communication, always letting his defenders know what to do at any given time. Whilst I don’t bring myself to suggest Letheren is a top class articulator, you could audibly hear his contribution from the stands a lot more than you could Macey’s.

Indeed, during the infamous Accrington players, some of the defenders became visibly very angry with the Arsenal loanee on more than one occasion due to him not letting them know where opposing players were. This could explain why our percentages were so much better with Letheren in goal, even if the individual players analysis doesn’t.

To summarise, Macey was not as bad as many said and had quite a few areas where stats bore him out to be better than Letheren. But, as Letheren departs the greens for pastures new, I will maintain my argument that more game time from him would have seen Argyle currently preparing for a trip to Portman Road. We were so close to survival. He just had to be a little bit better than Macey. And a little bit better, is something that I think he was.

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