Alex McLeish was one of the worst things to happen to Aston Villa in recent memory. His negative style of play depressed fans and made everything seem terrible. But despite the numerous negatives, we do have to thank McLeish for at least one wonderful thing: Shay Given. In the wake of the departure of Brad Friedel last year, Villa's largest need in the summer transfer session was at keeper. When news started spreading in July that Given may be the Aston Villa target, we were less than blown away.
But after just a few preseason performances and some wonderful play early in the season, I think everyone was ready for Given to have their Shaybies. Kirsten even went so far as to take back her early cynical thoughts of the Irishman in a heartfelt apology. It really took one look and most every Villa fan was convinced that we had certainly not dropped in quality from Friedel and had maybe even gained some.
But it's easy to say that Given was great. What's more difficult is dissecting exactly why he was great. Is there anything we can point to other than visual evidence that gives us some clue as to exactly how good Given was?
Keeping: Some statistics
- Given kept 8 clean sheets in his Premier League appearances this season. That's good for 25% of the matches in which he played. 25% would make him the 14th-best keeper amongst those who started more than 10 matches in the EPL last year.
- Given allowed one goal for every 9.96 shots faced, enough to make him the 13th-best keeper in that statistic amongst EPL keepers who faced 200 or more shots.
By these numbers, it doesn't appear that Given was actually all that great. His 45 goals allowed put him almost exactly in the middle of the pack. At least on the surface, perhaps Given wasn't as good as we all thought.
But there is one sneaky number underlying this all. Of those 45 goals allowed, 20 were on set pieces. It can't possibly be reflected in the numbers, but we all saw enough of Aston Villa's set piece defending to know that most of those were the result of catastrophic failures from the defense, failures about which Given could do nothing. Making assumptions like this worries me, but given the lack of solid keeping statistics, I have to go with some observational insight. Given was not as mediocre as those numbers above make him look. He suffered from huge breakdowns in defense at a pace that must have been above-average.
Value: So the statistics don't really enlighten us all that much. On one hand he looks mediocre, but on the other our gut feeling is that he was good-to-great. But what about his economic value?
At £3.5 million, the transfer fee for Shay Given was not unsubstantial. It was not, however, massive. In retrospect, it actually looks as if the transfer for Shay Given was one of the best of last summer's market. For a pretty standard price - compare this to the rumored £4 million Villa paid for Alan Hutton (I will allow you a moment to bang your head on something) - we got a performance that arguably qualified Given as Aston Villa's best player last season (an argument that I actually might make). Had he merely performed at an average clip, I think VIlla would have had to have been happy with their purchase. Instead, he played at a level that easily made him one of the best players on the squad. All for a relatively low fee.
Gut Feeling: I came into this hoping to be able to objectify my subjective feelings that Shay Given was just amazing this season. I can't do that. Maybe he really was worse than I/we thought. Perhaps the feeling that he was great was a relative one: in a season like we just had, even mediocre seems amazing. But I can't believe that. Why? Well, here. Look and see.
That was Given's save against Newcastle in September. The shot was taken by Yohan Cabaye in the 87th minute of a 1-1 tie. By all means, that should have gone for not just a goal, but a stunning goal. One that would have almost certainly turned a draw into a defeat. No keeper could possibly be too upset if they let that in. But Given extended as far as he possibly could and pushed the ball away with a firm hand.
And it wasn't the only time in the season that he had such a breathtaking save (it just happened to be the only one of which I could find video). It seemed as if there were at least one of these per match. Villa were bad this season, but with a lesser keeper they would have been even worse. I'm not claiming that Given was superhuman, or that every goal was the fault of everyone but Shay. But a significant number were, and there are a lot more shots that would have normally been goals that went the way of Cabaye's.
I can't prove it, but I'm sticking with my gut instinct that Shay Given was one of the five best keepers in the EPL last season. And we've got him for four more years. With most players, I'd be worried to be excited for four more years of a 36-year-old. But keepers seem to have some ability to age gracefully. And that's great news. I am sure there are better keepers out there, but not at the price of Shay Given. He's proven to be a leader, and he's proven to be exceptionally talented in goal. It's nice to know that keeper is one position that Aston Villa don't have to worry about filling a starting role for. Shay's got that, and he's not giving it up any time soon.