Mike Cooper, if you believe the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, is ready to come back. Nearly nine months have passed since his ACL was ruptured after a cynical Josh Windass challenge on an afternoon in Sheffield that was miserable in every way. Argyle’s return from the international break at the Hawthorns could also be Cooper’s return – but does he deserve to immediately replace Conor Hazard?
Hazard’s performances this season have been recognised beyond the South West of England. Michael O’Neill gave the Northern Irishman his fifth international cap against San Marino last Saturday. On the face of it, it’s easy to see why he did. I’d wager not many people knew that Northern Ireland’s usual no. 1 Bailey Peacock-Farrell was playing in Denmark, until a moment of slapstick and a resulting red card led to recent viral infamy. Hazard, meanwhile, has been playing regularly for a Championship side without kicking up much fuss.
Goals prevented is a stat that aims to measure a goalkeeper’s shot-stopping prowess. It is defined as the number of goals a goalkeeper would be expected to save, based on the shots they have faced, take away the number of goals they have actually conceded. A mark of zero denotes a goalkeeper who is a league-average shot-stopper – a positive goals prevented indicates an above-average stopper, while a negative number shows the goalkeeper is worse than average. This statistic aims to weight the traditional goals conceded or save percentage stats for the quality of shots faced by the goalkeeper.
Conor Hazard has a goals prevented of +1.4, meaning that Argyle would have conceded 1.4 more goals if a hypothetical league-average ‘keeper was in goal this season, rather than Hazard. Argyle have still conceded a lot of goals, the joint fifth-most in the league, but this stat suggests this is down to the defence’s inability to prevent shots on Hazard’s goal, rather than a fault with the goalkeeper himself. Southampton make for an instructive comparison. They have conceded two more goals than Argyle this season, but their ‘keeper Gavin Bazunu has a goals prevented rate of -5.3. If both Bazunu and Hazard were replaced with league-average players, Southampton would have conceded nearly five goals less than Argyle.
Does this really tell the whole story as regards to Hazard? It is a small sample size, of just eleven games. The Finnish league, in which he previously played for champions HJK, does not have the advanced coverage to calculate a stat like goals prevented. He won the Goalkeeper of the Year award in that division, along with the league title, but it is difficult to assess the standard of Finland’s league. Given Lee Erwin, a Scottish journeyman who counts anonymous spells at Ross County and Motherwell on his CV, was top scorer in Finland last season, it is certainly weaker than the Championship.
His propensity to palm the ball back into play has received criticism too. I believe criticism he received after Che Adams’s winner for Southampton is unfounded – he does well to get a hand to a powerful close-range header and it’s unfortunate it falls to Adams at the far post. Bristol City’s second, and Preston’s first, point to a more fundamental flaw. Both are low, powerful crosses that Hazard palms into a dangerous area, leading to a goal. His lanky, 6’6” frame appears slow to get down to both, failing to get a decisive touch on either.
Hazard’s distribution has been panned too. The nice thing about being in the Championship is that nerds like me have the stats to prove or disprove these assertions now. His pass completion percentage is a middle-of-the-pack 68.8%, but this statistic is largely a function of playing style. Rotherham’s Viktor Johansson, for example, has a pass completion percentage in the thirties, but given that he plays 89% of his passes long compared to 36% for Hazard, is it really fair to say Johansson’s distribution is worse when he is, presumably, under instruction from his manager to play it long.
Hazard completes 22.1% of his passes over 40 yards. Only Millwall’s Matija Sarkic is less efficient with his long passing. While this is revealing of his technique, it wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if he rarely passed it long. From a goal kick, i.e. when he’s under no pressure, Hazard passes it short 56% of the time, a proportion very similar to Middlesbrough’s Seny Dieng, Norwich’s Angus Gunn and Anthony Patterson of Sunderland. From open play however, Hazard has attempted a pass over 40 yards nearly twice as much as the aforementioned three. This reveals that Hazard lacks the composure that Dieng, Gunn and Patterson possess to consistently play the ball short, regularly resorting to aimless launches down the field. This is consistent with what I, and many others, have observed.
In other areas, Hazard is decidedly average in terms of Championship goalkeepers. He has stopped 11 crosses coming into his box and made 12 sweeping actions outside his penalty box, marks that don’t stand out either way among goalkeepers in this league (although the latter is certainly a product of how the manager asks his ‘keeper to play). The statistics paint a picture of a goalkeeper who may have been more successful if he was born a generation earlier. He’s a good shot stopper, but he struggles to adapt to a game where the men with the gloves are asked to do more with their feet.
So, how good is Mike Cooper? Of course, he’s never played in the Championship, but goals prevented has been calculated in League One since the 21/22 season. In that season, Cooper had +2.6 goals prevented – only Ipswich’s Christian Walton had a higher mark among first-choices. Last season, Cooper was again second, with +6.8 goals prevented. This was a strong personal improvement, but it was made even more impressive by the fact Cooper missed the last 17 games of the season with injury.
Goals prevented is an accumulative statistic, as opposed to a rate stat. It is not calculated as a function of playing time – the more games a goalkeeper plays, the more goals they can prevent. If Cooper never got injured, and continued to prevent goals at the same rate, he would have conceded 11 fewer goals than an average League One keeper. This would have surpassed Max Stryjek, Wycombe’s Polish goalkeeper who had a goals prevented of +9.6. Last season, in particular, was a display of superb shot-stopping from Cooper.
This cannot be directly compared with Hazard’s +1.4 goals prevented. This is because this statistic is league-dependent – ‘keepers are compared to an average ‘keeper in their league. An average Championship goalkeeper is a better stopper than an average goalkeeper in League One, therefore a level par zero performance in goals prevented in League One would be a negative goals prevented in the Championship. How can we, then, judge who the superior shot stopper is between Hazard and Cooper?
Luckily, we can draw comparisons with two young goalkeepers who recently played in League One, who have moved to the Championship and beyond. Gavin Bazunu and James Trafford, both on loan at League One clubs from Manchester City, made the move to the Premier League as a first-choice, with Southampton and Burnley respectively. Bazunu has since been relegated to the second tier, while Trafford has played a handful of games for Burnley this season.
Cooper outperformed Bazunu when the latter was at Portsmouth in the 21/22 season, with a +2.6 goals prevented compared to +1.5. However, given Bazunu’s record at Southampton, this seems not a particularly high bar to clear. Bazunu had a goals prevented of -16.6 in the Premier League last season, by far the worst of any goalkeeper. In this young season, Bazunu’s goals prevented is -5.3, again the worst mark in the division. Given Cooper was a significantly better shot stopper than Bazunu in 21/22 and improved personally in 22/23, this represents the floor of Cooper’s potential in a higher division.
James Trafford had a good season in League One last season, with a +6.4 goals prevented. He was quite clearly the third most capable stopper in the league last season, behind Max Stryjek and Mike Cooper. Trafford’s goals prevented in the Premier League this season is -0.8 – towards the bottom end of the league, but not out of his depth in terms of shot stopping. Cooper was better at preventing goals than Trafford last season – it seems clear from the stats that, after two outstanding seasons in League One, Cooper should be above average in League One.
There is an absence of data about the other aspects of Cooper’s game in League One – we are relying on the eye test to compare him with Hazard. Cooper has, in my view, shown more confidence in his distribution than Hazard, particularly with his throwing. Many of us remember Cooper’s assist with his hands for a goal against Sheffield Wednesday a couple of years ago. It’s difficult to envision Hazard doing similar. Cooper is also quick to sweep off his line and has vastly improved as a cross collector.
Conor Hazard is a capable Championship goalkeeper. He has performed admirably in Cooper’s absence and I would be more than happy to have him as Cooper’s deputy. However, he is no more than that, when Cooper is fit. There is no guarantee that Cooper will be the same player on his return from injury, but he deserves the chance to prove himself when he gets back. It’s not entirely fair on Hazard, but I’d be surprised if he didn’t know he’d be the usual number two when everyone’s fit.