Is there any explicit correlation between goalkeeper loyalty following promotion, and a successful first season in the Premier League?
Recruitment is a critical aspect of a well-functioning football club. Constructing a squad that meets the demands of the Premier League is a particularly difficult task for promoted clubs, who are often working on smaller budgets and carry the underdog label.
Goalkeeper recruitment is one of the most important aspects of a club’s strategy, and this is no different for newly-promoted sides. Where goal difference can be vital, those between the sticks are primed to have a high-value impact on whether a team survives the drop.
But, should teams keep faith with the goalkeeper that got them promoted? What do previous case studies suggest is the best goalkeeper recruitment strategy to survive in the Premier League? These are vital questions for clubs.
The outcomes of singing a new first choice goalkeeper are difficult to definitively assess, given the variables that work against newly promoted teams. However, where a relegation battle can come down to the finest of margins, the marginal gains that can be made by an experienced goalkeeper are statistically and theoretically vital.
To explore these dilemmas, we look at the last two seasons to see if there are any recurring patterns in the goalkeeper recruitment decision making of newly promoted clubs and analyse whether these were successful, or not.
This season, two out of the three promoted teams have changed their number one goalkeeper from last season. James Trafford has replaced Arijanet Muric for Burnley, who played 41 of the 46 games in their title-winning Championship season. At Luton Town, Thomas Kaminski has replaced Ethan Horvath. Horvath, who was on loan from Nottingham Forest, returned to Forest in the summer, with the Hatters declining to permanently sign the American shot stopper post-promotion.
Luton Town manager, Rob Edwards, explained the decision not to resign Horvath: “I love him to bits and thank him for everything he did for the football club, but we just felt, and I just felt in the end that I wanted to go in a different direction.”
Burnley and Luton spent £19 and £2.5 million respectively on their new number one goalkeepers, making this positional change a priority. Both clubs prioritised perceived quality over loyalty to previous goalkeepers. Past seasons suggests they weren't wrong in doing so.
The 2022/2023 season saw all three promoted teams stay up for the first time in five years. Goalkeeper loyalty was not evident from any of the three teams following their promotion. Championship title winners Fulham brought in experienced goalkeeper Bernd Leno to replace Marek Rodák just two games into the Premier League season.
Leno especially was invaluable to Fulham last season, putting in one of the best debut seasons seen at Craven Cottage for some time. The German finished third in the Goalkeeper xG Overall Goalkeeper Value (OGV) ranking last season in the Premier League, with a brilliant final value of +14.58. He finished only behind Alisson Becker, and Yashin Trophy winner Emi Martinez.
Meanwhile, Nottingham Forest sold and replaced Brice Samba with Dean Henderson and AFC Bournemouth replaced Mark Travers with Brazilian goalkeeper Neto, just one game into the season.
All three teams decided to change goalkeeper early, and they all survived the drop. Nottingham Forest’s goalkeeper recruitment created a department unrecognisable from their Championship season. An injury to Henderson in January led to the signing of European big-hitter Keylor Navas, who made a crucial contribution for the Reds as they survived with one game to spare. Goalkeeper xG data suggests Navas alone was technically a net negative (overall -2.38 OGV), but compared to the three relegated goalkeepers, he was far superior. Danny Ward scored -5.7, Ilan Meslier -6.9, and Gavin Bazunu -10.1 Wayne Hennessey also made three appearances for Forest.
The 2021/2022 season, however was an unsuccessful one for promoted clubs with Norwich City and Watford both relegated back to the Championship. Brentford were the outlier, finishing a respectable 13th. Continuity of goalkeepers throughout the promotion season was both Norwich and Watford’s strategy. Watford stuck with its goalkeeping duo of Ben Foster and Daniel Bachmann, who played 23 games each in the Championship and played all 38 games in the Premier League between them.
Norwich also stuck with Tim Krul, who played 29 out of the 38 games. Goalkeeper stability was an important part of the recruitment strategy for these two teams, yet Watford and Norwich had something else in common – they finished in the bottom two in the league, on 23 and 22 points, respectively.
Brentford also chose to stick, not twist. David Raya played 24 Premier League games for the Bees after being the mainstay in goal in the Championship. However, an injury to Raya early in the season meant there was a goalkeeping vacuum that Alvaro Fernandez and Jonas Lössl contested. Raya's presence was missed, but in those 24 games he did star in for Brentford, the Bees number one placed himself firmly in the world goalkeeping spotlight.
Come the end of the season, Brentford would dip back into the transfer market to bolster their second choice goalkeeping options, with Thomas Strakosha brought in to challenge for a number one spot that Raya retained until he joined Arsenal in the summer of 2023.
Having a number two goalkeeper who can step in with similar qualities to the number one is critical when newly promoted clubs are recruiting. When the gulf in quality between number one and number two begins to widen, clubs have been forced into short-term changes.
The best examples of this in recent years have been Wayne Hennessey at Nottingham Forest and Alvaro Fernandez at Brentford. Raya began Brentford’s first nine games after promotion in the 2021/2022 season, until a knee injury against Leicester City meant that loanee summer signing from Huesca, Fernandez, had to deputise as the number one.
Fernandez flattered to deceive and was dropped for third choice goalkeeper Jonas Lössl 12 games into his stint as the main goalkeeper. Brentford kept just one clean sheet under Fernandez. His inability to match Raya’s extensive passing range was cited as a major reason for the Bees’ defensive struggles.
As for Forest, Henderson impressed for the East Midlands club with penalty saves against West Ham, Liverpool, and Spurs. However, a thigh injury to the English goalkeeper in mid-January meant that the services of Hennessey had to be called upon.
An underwhelming couple of performances by the Welshman and concerns over the length of Henderson’s injury meant Forest turned to the services of PSG goalkeeper Navas with a deadline-day signing. Navas made 17 appearances for Forest, helping them secure a 16th place finish.
There are, of course, other factors that influence a promoted team’s survival in the Premier League. External factors such as the transfer budget, injuries, and a lack of firepower in certain areas have a direct influence on a club’s fortune.
Focusing on goalkeepers and looking at the last two seasons, change early in the season has correlated to success at a basic level. For promoted clubs, success equals the utopia of survival.
In the last two seasons, three of the four promoted clubs changed their number one goalkeeper from the Championship. As the Hennessey and Fernandez examples show, clubs were ruthless if the deputising number two goalkeeper didn’t perform to a similar level to the absent number one. Proactive, quality recruitment, above loyalty, have proven a successful formula for promoted clubs in the last two seasons.
Perhaps it is not a surprise that Burnley and Luton have already spent big from their respective budgets on a new goalkeeper. Youngster Trafford still has a way to go to solidify his status as an upgrade on Muric, but Kaminski has shown signs of Premier League promise in his outings for the Bedfordshire club so far.