Brighton set a new Premier League record – but can rotating goalkeepers really work?

Brighton set a new Premier League record – but can rotating goalkeepers really work?

29 March 2024 0 By Total Football News
Karen Bardsley column

Arsenal were meant to be the team who ripped up the rule book and rotated their goalkeepers this season, but it has ended up being Brighton who have kept on swapping who plays between the sticks.

Seagulls boss Roberto de Zerbi has broken a Premier League record by changing his keeper 17 times already in 2023-24, with Jason Steele playing 15 league games and Bart Verbruggen the other 13, and neither starting more than three times in a row in all competitions.

This is certainly a new idea – no top-flight team has done it before in the Premier League era, and when they have even come close it has been for different reasons. The most changes previously were down to injuries, form, or both.

It’s fascinating to see it happening, but I wanted to explore whether it has worked… and why Brighton are even doing it in the first place.

Manchester United goalkeepers Andy Goram and Raimond van der Gouw trade places during a game in the 2000-01 season
The previous record for most goalkeeper changes in a Premier League season was 14 by Manchester United in 2000-01, but Fabian Barthez played in 25 of their first 28 league games and the other rotations took place when he and regular understudy Raimond van der Gouw were injured in March, and teenager Paul Rachubka and veteran Scotland international Andy Goram were used as cover.
TeamSeasonGamesGK changesStarts per keeper
1. Brighton23-24281715: Jason Steele, 13: Bart Verbruggen
2. Man Utd00-01381430: Fabian Barthez, 5: Raimond van der Gouw, 2: Andy Goram, 1: Paul Rachubka
=3. Man Utd01-02381232: Fabian Barthez, 6: Roy Carroll
=3. Middlesbrough05-06381227: Mark Schwarzer, 9: Brad Jones, 2: Ross Turnbull
=3. Man Utd06-07381232: Edwin van der Sar, 6: Tomasz Kuszczak
=3. Portsmouth09-10381225: David James, 8: Asmir Begovic, 5: Jamie Ashdown

What’s the difference between Steele and Verbruggen?

At 33, Steele clearly has a lot more experience than Verbruggen, who is 21 and looks like he has a lot of raw talent that needs to nurtured, but performance-wise it’s interesting to see how there is such little difference between both goalkeepers.

I’ve watched a lot of clips of both of them in the past few weeks and a few similar themes emerged.

Brighton goalkeepers Bart Verbruggen (l) and Jason Steele (r) with Seagulls boss Roberto de Zerbi (centre)
Brighton have played 40 games in all competitions this season, with Steele (right) starting 21 of them. So far, Verbruggen (left) is yet to play more than two games in a row, but that will change if Roberto de Zerbi (centre) picks him against Liverpool on Sunday.

Verbruggen seems more economical with his general movement in the box, while Steele’s positioning in goal when facing shots is sometimes more questionable – for example when he takes his position off the defender, and also with his decision making, which might be why his save percentage is the worst in the Premier League this season.

The younger keeper is more self-assured in those situations, although every once in a while he does maybe get drawn too much towards his near post, which is a trait of Steele’s too.

Bart Verbruggen & Jason Steele in the Premier League this season

Neither of them is having a particularly great season in terms of shot-stopping, though, even if Verbruggen’s save percentage is significantly higher.

Verbruggen is underperforming by 3% in terms of the saves he is making compared to the ones he is expected to make, while Steele is -7% in the same metric, meaning they are both lowly ranked there.

14.9Expected goals on target conceded23.6
16Actual goals conceded*26
-1.08 (16th)Goals prevented-2.38 (18th)
-0.08 (16th)Expected goals prevented per 90-0.16 (18th)
*Excludes own goals

There is not much between them when it comes to using the ball either, as you can see from their respective pass-maps, but this is an area where they both excel.

Jason Steele pass map

Steele is probably viewed as the more accomplished passer – even his manager has alluded to that being the case – and he plays a marginally higher percentage of longer balls forward.

But Brighton don’t change the way they play when Verbruggen is in the team, and his feet are clearly one of his strengths too.

Bart Verbruggen pass map

In fact, Verbruggen has completed more passes per game (33.5) and with a higher success rate (90.8%), than any other Premier League keeper this season and, like Steele, he is in the top five for passes completed under pressure per game too.

Graphic showing goalkeepers with the most passes completed and the highest passing accuracy in the Premier League this season. Verbruggen is top of both categories
Steele ranks sixth for passes completed per 90 minutes (29.8) and fourth for pass accuracy (82%)

He definitely contributes to his team’s attacking output as well, even if – so far – their end product with him has not been as successful as when Steele plays.

While Steele’s distribution has led to the Seagulls scoring five Premier League goals this season, Brighton have actually created more chances per game building play from the back with Verbruggen in the team.

Ederson (2.4) at Manchester City and Alisson (2.0) for Liverpool are the only top-flight keepers involved in more shot-ending open play sequences per game than Verbruggen this season, among those with a minimum of 270 minutes played.

Premier LeagueSteeleVerbruggen
Minutes (season total)13501170
Open play sequences involvements31.734.5
Shot-ending open play sequences1.11.8
xG from shot-ending sequences0.190.12
Involvements ending in goal scored (season total)50

The rest of the Brighton team is being rotated too

It’s not just in goal where De Zerbi has made a lot of changes – he has changed the rest of his team more than anyone else too, with 108 changes in the Premier League alone so far.

With 10 league games to go, that is already 29 more changes than he made in the whole of last season and 28 more than anyone else in the top division this term – Nottingham Forest have made 80, while Liverpool are next highest with 78.

Brighton have had European football to contend with this season, of course, and some injuries too – but compare their situation to Aston Villa, who have made only 40 changes, despite also having midweek European matches.

The shirts of Brighton goalkeepers Bart Verbruggen, Jason Steele and Tom McGill in the dressing room at the Amex Stadium before their Europa League tie against Marseille in December
Another change to come? Brighton’s third-choice keeper, Canada-born former England Under-17 international Tom McGill, has been on the bench for all their Europa League ties this season when two goalkeeper substitutes were named, but the 24-year-old Seagulls academy graduate is yet to make the squad for a Premier League game in 2023-24 or make a single appearance for them in any competition

Stability in personnel is particularly important at the back – we saw this with Manchester City last season when I looked into Ederson’s form – and it made me wonder if having a regular presence behind them could have helped Brighton.

However, my feeling from watching a lot of clips of their defending is that they seem to have bigger problems than just who is in goal.

A lot of the goals they have conceded this season have come from poor defending and marking, regardless of who their goalkeeper is – but because that has been constantly changing, you are left thinking what is the point?

If there is a pattern, I am still trying to find it – which makes me think the real reason it is happening is for Verbruggen’s long-term benefit.

Which pathway is preferable for a young keeper?

Bart Verbruggen made his Netherlands debut in their 2-1 defeat to France in a Euro 2024 qualifier in October 2023
Verbruggen made his senior Netherlands debut in their 2-1 defeat by France in a Euro 2024 qualifier in October 2023, becoming the youngest Dutch keeper to start a game since Jan van Beveren in 1967

Adapting a new goalkeeper to the Premier League is frequently challenging – whether it’s a young player coming into the team, someone stepping up from a lower division in England, or a player moving here from a foreign league.

Two of those factors apply to Verbruggen, who joined from Belgian side Anderlecht in the summer and only turned 21 in August – he is the second youngest keeper in the Premier League behind Burnley’s James Trafford, and they are the only two currently under the age of 24.

Like Trafford, who was playing in League One for Bolton on loan from Manchester City last season, Verbruggen has rapidly changed levels too – he actually made another big step in the middle of last season, when he moved up from Anderlecht’s B team, so his progress has been very quick.

Neither he nor Trafford can be considered elite keepers yet – although Verbruggen made his senior debut for the Netherlands in October and now has four caps – but clearly the potential is there.

So, which pathway is the preferable one? Trafford is playing every week, but in a struggling team where there is no hiding place if he makes mistakes. Verbruggen is possibly being protected by coming in and out of the team, but is that slowing his progress?

Brighton goalkeeper Jason Steele catches the ball
Steele’s save percentage of 57.6% is the worst in the Premier League this season and down from 61.7% in 2022-23. His goals prevented (-1.33) and expected goals prevented per 90 minutes (-0.09) scores were also better last season.

While changing keepers hasn’t hindered Brighton, or at least not obviously, it hasn’t noticeably helped them either. For a player, in terms of individual development or even just form, it’s different. I always found playing a run of games helped me find my rhythm and made me feel more settled and confident during games.

Being in and out of the team has not made a massive difference to Steele’s form – his shot-saving stats are slightly down on last season, when he became first choice in the second half of the campaign and played 15 of their final 16 league games after Robert Sanchez fell out of favour, but would it make a positive difference to Verbruggen if he was given a longer run in the team?

It feels like it is time to find out, especially if the plan is actually for him to be number one more regularly next season.

What happens then will probably tell us whether this rotation has worked – and if it is an experiment that is worth repeating.

Karen Bardsley was speaking to BBC Sport’s Chris Bevan.

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