Plymouth Argyle have made their fourth signing of the transfer window, and it’s the first to truly knock me for six.
Goalkeeper Conor Hazard has joined from Celtic on a three-year deal. The 25-year-old, capped four times by Northern Ireland, joins for a fee rumoured to be £150,000. If you told me at the start of the summer that Argyle would be spending a six-figure sum on a ‘keeper, I’d have declared you mad. But here we are, with Hazard joining Argyle’s burgeoning goalkeeping ranks with Michael Cooper, Callum Burton, and youngster Zak Baker.
Hazard’s signing has raised more questions than answers, and we’ll explore a few of them. Who is he? Is he good enough? And what does his arrival mean for the goalkeepers Argyle already have on the books?
Another taking the step up
Hazard has reminded me of another Argyle signing of Kaine Kesler-Hayden, at least in terms of his career to date. When we analysed the Villa loanee, we discovered he’d been making steady progress through the leagues in various loan spells. Hazard has enjoyed a similar rise.
He joined Celtic’s youth setup from Cliftonville back in 2014, and his first loan spell was at Falkirk four years later. Later loans came at Partick Thistle and Dundee, the latter cut short due to COVID. Then came the spell that’s been covered the most – a season-long loan at HJK Helsinki (or Helsingin Jalkapalloklubi for the hipsters) in Finland.
HJK won the title last season, and Hazard was named as the league’s best goalkeeper. In terms of honours, he could hardly have had a better campaign. And that’s not all; Hazard was also vital during the club’s run in Europe. HJK reached the group stage of the Europa League for the first time in eight years, and Hazard was key in getting them there.
Take the Champions League first qualifying round as an example. Hazard was present for both legs against Latvian side RFS, and was in goal for the eventual penalty shootout to help his team progress. And after dropping down to the Europa League following defeat to Viktoria Plzen, HJK took on Maribor. Hazard kept a clean sheet in both legs, making nine saves in the process. That included some brilliant reactions to keep out a sweetly hit drive from Jan Repas.
Mind you, it wasn’t all fun and games for Hazard in Finland. Ask ex-Argyle striker Jake Jervis, who managed to sneak one past him for SJK Seinajoki in a league encounter back in September. A rare mark against Hazard’s name admittedly, but doesn’t it warm the heart to see Jervis doing well?
Hazard played more games for HJK than he ever did for Celtic. In fact, he only made seven first team appearances across the nine years he spent on the Glasgow club’s books. Still, that was enough to make a name for himself. After a dramatic 3-3 draw in the 2020 Scottish Cup final, Hazard saved Hearts’ final two penalties in the shootout to win the cup for Celtic.
He’s fallen behind Joe Hart, Benjamin Siegrist and Scott Bain in the Parkhead pecking order, and you’d suggest he’s done enough to prove he’s a better standard than fourth choice for Celtic. Whether the Championship is his level remains to be seen. But he, along with a few of Argyle’s signings this summer, has done enough to earn the chance to step up.
We’re over 500 words into this piece now, so I’m happy to conclude we’ve got a captive audience. And I thank you for sticking around, because I’m about to drop a bomb. In this ‘New Signing Analysed’ series so far, I think we’ve at least made a decent go of scanning through each player’s numbers and drawing some conclusions. In including this piece within the series, I fear I may be guilty of catfishing.
I’ve never been to Finland, but have it on good authority that it’s a wonderful place. But do you know what it shouldn’t be known for? Football stats. Compared to what we’ve seen in England, as well as the Netherlands for Julio Pleguezuelo, the stats available for Finland’s Veikkausliiga are woefully limited. It means that the implications we can take from Hazard’s numbers pale in comparison to those we’ve been able to draw for Pleguezuelo, Kesler-Hayden and Lewis Gibson.
And that’s a real shame. Goalkeeping stats have been amongst my favourite to keep track of in recent months. Is that because they tend to show how truly outstanding Michael Cooper is? I plead the fifth.
So, how do we go about building a case for Hazard’s abilities? Well, there are a few basics we can already tick off. Standing at 6 ft 6, he clearly passes the ‘big lad’ test. And, as Steven Schumacher has alluded to in recent days, he already has sufficient pedigree having come through at a club of great prestige. Though, as a word of warning, those two facts also applied to Matt Macey, who was League Two standard at best during his time at Home Park.
I’ve done some digging and at least been able to unearth a few useful stats. And I promise you it wasn’t easy. Did you know “laukaukset maali kohti” is “shots on target” in Finnish? I know I didn’t. Anyway, that Google Translate-inspired knowledge has allowed me to calculate Hazard save percentage from his time at HJK to compare to Argyle’s ‘keepers last term.
|Save Success Rate
It’s a cautiously positive sign. Hazard made exactly the same number of saves as Cooper across that time period, and his save success rate (across a bigger sample size remember) is enough to edge out Burton. Granted, his numbers aren’t quite as impressive as Cooper’s, but a comparison to such a magnificent talent is always going to feel unfair.
But a simple save success measure doesn’t carry as much weight as it did in previous years. The advent of expected goals (xG) has allowed us to assess the quality of shots those ‘keepers face. With a simple percentage, it’s impossible to know whether a goalkeeper is genuinely talented, or they’ve been lucky to face some poor finishing. xG fixes that.
More specifically, for goalkeeper’s it’s best to use post-shot xG. Standard xG calculates how likely it is a player will score when presented with an opportunity. But if they fail to hit the target when presented with an open goal, you’d hardly want to credit the goalkeeper. And we should know that can happen – Argyle once signed Zak Rudden.
Conversely, post-shot xG measures how likely it is that a shot will go in once it is taken, rather than how likely it is a chance will result in a goal before the shot. It makes it so much easier to judge a goalkeeper by considering how many goals they concede compared to the number you’d expect the average ‘keeper to concede. Post-shot xG is also known as expected goals on target (xGOT), since it naturally only takes shots on target into account. A shot into the stands has a 0% chance of resulting in a goal, no matter how many times Macauley Gillesphey tries.
Alas, xGOT statistics for Hazard are minimal, so much so that I grappled over whether it was worth having them included. They are only available for the six games he played or HJK in the Europa League group stage. I’ve included them below, along with his ‘prevented rate’ (the number of goals they’d be expected to concede for every one they actually do). But remember to take them with a significant pinch of salt.
Even those numbers come with a caveat. One of the 13 goals Hazard shipped in the Europa League was an own goal, which officially counts for 0.00 xGOT. That distorts his prevented rate downwards (if we discounted the own goal, his rate usurps Burton’s at 0.95), and it creates the impression that the own goal was entirely his fault. Was it? I’ll let you be the judge.
The incredibly limited numbers we have paint the picture of a ‘keeper who is at least capable. His figures aren’t groundbreaking, but they’re not disastrous. There is, however, so much lacking. I’d love to tell you about his command of the penalty area, his passing success and his tendency to punch the ball. Much to my frustration, the stats just aren’t freely available.
Once he lines up for Argyle, we’re all going to have to find out together.
What does it mean?
This is the question that I, and I suspect you, have been grappling with over the last few days. Argyle have spent a fee, a not unsubstantial one a that, on a goalkeeper. Fine. In isolation, spending £150,000 on a backup goalkeeper in the Championship is unlikely to raise any eyebrows. But this is Argyle, who almost certainly have the smallest budget in the league. With all the roles in the team that need filling, a backup goalkeeper seems a bizarre place to spend such a sum.
That has led many to believe, pretty fairly I’d argue, that another goalkeeper must be heading out of the door. But who? We’ll cast our thoughts on Baker aside for now – I’ll concede I have no idea as to his potential, but thrusting in an 18-year-old during their first season back in the Championship was never going to be part of Argyle’s plan. We’re therefore left with three possibilities. Either Burton leaves, Cooper leaves, or both remain at the club alongside Hazard.
Of the three, I’d suggest that Burton leaving is the most likely, though by no means certain. You may recall that he was linked with a move away at the end of May, with Swansea City, Birmingham City and Reading all rumoured to be in the chase. Burton’s stock has never been higher, and Argyle’s desire to cash in on their current backup would paint the Hazard transfer in a much more sensible light.
That being said, we haven’t heard a jot on Burton’s potential departure since the end of May. I know Argyle’s progress in this window has been sluggish, but wouldn’t you expect to have heard a little more if Burton’s exit was imminent? With that in mind, we must consider that it may be Cooper rather than Burton on his way out at Home Park this summer.
I admit I’ve contradicted myself there slightly – we’ve heard even fewer whispers on Cooper’s movements this summer than we have for Burton’s. But there are reasons why Argyle may part with their prized academy graduate this summer. Bringing a player back from a serious injury is always a risk, and a big offer for a player currently still out with said injury is bound to be tempting. It may not happen immediately, and it may take a figure bordering on seven/eight figures, but now may well turn out to be the best time to cash in.
If that is the case, it’d go a long way to explaining why Argyle were so keen to splash six figures on a replacement. Now whether Hazard would be good enough to replace Cooper is another matter entirely. As I mentioned earlier, there simply aren’t enough stats around to make a firm judgment either way. But it goes without saying that the Northern Irishman would have huge shoes to fill.
Or maybe he won’t. Because we also need to contemplate the final possibility: that Burton and Cooper both stay at Argyle and we are left with three options between the sticks.
That’s far from an impossibility. Indeed, in the days since Hazard was announced, Schumacher and Neil Dewsnip have been claiming that he’s here to provide competition to Argyle’s current team of goalkeepers. We also heard today that the plan in the Championship was always to have “three experienced goalies” in the ranks. Mind you, I’m not sure how much we can read into those comments – the Argyle top brass were hardly going to come out and say Hazard was only signed because of an impending departure.
Before today, the only way I could see all three goalkeepers sticking around was if Cooper’s recovery was taking longer than first feared. If Argyle were expecting their best goalkeeper to miss a substantial period of their first season back in the second tier for 13 years, I’d completely understand the need to splash out on a replacement. But we learnt today that Cooper is pushing for a return in September, meaning he may miss just one more month of competitive action.
If that turns out to be the case, surely Argyle would have been satisfied to stick with Burton. He may not be Championship starter material, but for a month? I find it hard to believe that Argyle wouldn’t have trusted him, particularly after he bedded in last season. He played 18 games during the run in, and we can use the same xGOT data to show just how much he came on as he gained confidence.
|First 9 Games
|Last 9 Games
You’d imagine Hazard would be ahead of Burton in the pecking order, particularly with the money spent. Besides, if the whole point was just having another professional goalkeeper in the ranks, why not just sign one of the many free agents on the market? Or why not just keep Adam Parkes?
No, I just don’t buy it. Sorry. When you have the smallest budget in the league, you just don’t spend a significant fee to add a third goalkeeper to your ranks, do you? Maybe you do. Maybe that’s why I’m here writing amateur analytical pieces and not running a football club. But to my mind it just doesn’t make sense.
It’s something to keep an eye on in the coming weeks. All three possibilities we’ve outlined seem to be unlikely in their own way, but one of them will come to fruition. My money is on Burton being the one to leave, but that’s based on nothing but gut feeling.
Put your predictions in, and we’ll reopen this conversation a few months down the line.