CHENNAI: Whenever Wojciech Szczesny does something on a football field, that meme of a distressed-looking Ben Affleck smoking a cigarette does the rounds. There is a connection. It goes back to when Szczesny was the first choice at Arsenal.
The Polish international had made two big errors leading to a 0-2 defeat against Southampton on New Year's Day in 2015. After the match, he lit up in the showers only to be caught by the club for his indiscretion. He was fined and dropped. Soon, he was ushered out of the door, first to Roma and then to Juventus. Szczesny, who was signed by Arsenal as a teen, always had talent but sometimes he let himself down.
While he had his ups and downs at Arsenal -- ridiculous close-range reflex saves often went hand in hand with some iffy decision-making (expected because goalkeepers, unlike outfield players, tend to mature later) -- he always had a penchant for saving penalties. In fact, the second penalty he faced on English soil was a save. While he was on loan at Brentford in the 2009-10 season, he saved from Matt Harrold.
After coming back to Arsenal at the start of the next season, he was something of a penalty-saving machine. He saved five penalties for Arsenal, including four out of 17 penalties in the Premier League (five if you include Wayne Rooney hitting the dead-ball over the crossbar).
During the course of his time with the Londoners, he also developed his all-round game, winning the Golden Glove in the process (award given to goalkeeper with most number of clean sheets in a season) in the 2013-14 season. But that cigarette offense meant manager Arsene Wenger had reached the end of his tether with the promising custodian.
He saved a few more penalties but he has rewritten several penalty-saving records since his move to Juventus in 2018. He has conceded 23 times while facing a penalty but has prevented a goal 11 times. During the same time period, his penalty-saving record for Poland is even more remarkable. Two conceded, three saved, including the one he saved from Lionel Messi on Wednesday night.
A penalty has often been described as a lottery but recent studies have shown it's possible to have a specific preparation for them. Before taking a look at what Szczesny did to become so good at saving penalties, here are a few numbers that put his save percentages in some perspective and why he had a good chance to save the Messi penalty.
An Expected Goal (xG) from the spot is 0.78 (in layman's terms, the expectation of a goal to be scored from the spot is 78 out of 100 times). In other words, a goalkeeper either saves or sees the penalty go wide 22 times. Szczesny, though, defies these numbers. Since moving to Juventus, his corresponding numbers stand at 0.68 ie he saves or sees the penalty go wide 32 out of 100 times. While the sample size is smaller, the corresponding numbers for Poland stand at a penalty save or a miss 60 out of 100 times.
This is when you take Messi's own record from the spot into consideration. He's bang average from 12 yards. From the spot, he has scored 103 times but has missed 31 times for an xG of roughly 0.77 suggesting that he's not a bad penalty-taker but neither a very dependable penalty-taker.
He used to be above average but the misses have come after he changed his technique from a goalkeeper-dependent one to a goalkeeper-independent one. Ben Lyttleton, author of Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology Of The Perfect Penalty, posited this theory just when the misses started piling up.
"All of those misses have come since he changed his penalty strategy," he wrote. "Until late in the 2013-14 season, Messi used the goalkeeper-dependent method. This is when players wait for the goalkeeper to make the first move, and strike the ball in the opposite direction. Over time, it has been proven to be the most successful method... technically it is harder than the goalkeeper-independent method, which involves picking a spot regardless of where the goalkeeper may dive."
There are other theories.
One is that Messi, when under pressure, prefers to shoot to the goalkeeper's left as he did on Wednesday (against Saudi Arabia, he rolled the ball to the keeper's right). A few of his high-profile misses or saves have come when he has gone to the keeper's left. He went to the keeper's left in the Copa America final in 2016 only to blaze the ball over the bar. He went in the same direction in a Champions League semifinal against Petr Cech's Chelsea. The ball hit the crossbar. He also went to David Ospina's left against Columbia in the semifinal of last year's Copa America. He scored. But the point is it makes him vulnerable because there is an established pattern here.
Keepers around the world are increasingly aware of these patterns. One of the kings of reading these patterns is Szczesny.
"At Juve, we have found a method of analysing penalty takers and in the last two years, the penalties saved are more than those conceded," he said after his penalty save against Saudi Arabia a few days ago. "I would say the method works."
In Qatar, Szczesny hasn't just been saving penalties. He has literally kept Poland in the tournament. Per the xG model according to Opta, Poland ought to have conceded 6.3 goals. It means he's outperforming by 4.3 goals.
Considering Poland are a very defensive team by nature, Szczesny could well fancy his chances of engineering a takedown against holders France in the Round of 16.
If he does something in that match, expect to see that Affleck meme doing another round.