It's the most wonderful time of the year. No not Christmas, the time of year…
Steven Gerrard’s Ibrox revolution is now in full swing. No fewer than seven new faces have joined Rangers this summer as the Liverpool legend restructures the Gers squad. When the club announced the capture of Allan McGregor in May, however, a few eyebrows were raised. After all, Rangers already had Wes Foderingham in goal – a decent keeper who has, on the whole, provided good performances and was a rare beacon of consistency during the tumultuous 2017/18 campaign.
We’re now two months down the line and it now looks like Foderingham could be on his way out of Ibrox. McGregor, it appears, has moved up the pecking order with Gerrard happy to rely on Jak Alnwick as a deputy. For a player of Foderingham’s ability this seems a little harsh – ability-wise, there doesn’t seem to be much separating the 27-year-old and McGregor – and any gains to the playing squad would be marginal, and costly given the wage McGregor will be on. On the surface, it seems as if the costs outweigh the benefits.
Earlier this week the Scottish Sun reported that Rangers are now willing to listen to offers for Foderingham as the goalkeeper slides down the pecking order at Ibrox. The question is: is Gerrard justified in his decision to move on a player who has been a success over the last few seasons?
The position of goalkeeper is a particularly influential one on the pitch. We’ve previously discussed the theory that football is a weak-link game and that the most effective method of improving your squad is by replacing your worst player. The goalkeeper is the exception to this rule; as the last line of defence, having a high-performing goalkeeper can lead to a huge upturn in fortunes on the pitch. Narrow defeats become draws, end-to-end stalemates become wins. Thanks to the rarity of goals in football, compared to the frequency of scoring in other major sports, the ability to repeatedly and effectively deny them can be worth a dozen points a season. Without Jon McLaughlin between the sticks, Hearts would have finished in the bottom half last season. If Tomas Cerny wasn’t in goal for Partick Thistle, they would have been relegated by March. Any gains, no matter how marginal, have greater influence than any other position on the pitch.
Over the last campaign, there’s little to separate McGregor and Foderingham. McGregor concedes more goals on average, but also has a higher expected goals against (xGA) than Foderingham. The difference between a goalie’s goals conceded and xGA tells us a lot about their level of performance; a negative figure means that they’re conceding more than they ought to, while a positive number suggests they’re actually making better saves than they should reasonably be expected to. Both Foderingham and McGregor have a positive differential, with the gap almost identical. Foderingham denied 0.11 goals per 90 that he would have been expected to let in, but McGregor sneaks ahead by the finest of margins as he was worth 0.12 goals per 90 for Hull City last season.
As we can see, McGregor faced more shots than Foderingham so, unsurprisingly, had more saves to make too. Interestingly though, a much higher proportion of McGregor’s saves last year were reflex saves. Reflex saves accounted for 60.7% of McGregor’s saves last year and 47.4% of Foderingham’s attempts. This tells us about the different styles of the goalkeepers – McGregor is more of a natural shot-stopper and has the experience of a long career behind him. It’s probably this experience that caught Gerrard’s eye, and the reliability that goes hand-in-hand with it.
While Foderingham has his moments for Rangers, there’s no question that he is prone to struggling in big matches when the pressure is on. The chart below details Foderingham’s performances in fixtures against Celtic, Aberdeen and Hibs, as well as his solitary European outing. The result makes for grim reading for Foderingham.
On the 11 occasions Foderingham was selected for a big game his xGA was lower than his actual goals against, meaning that he’s underperformed. This is a massive problem for Rangers and presumably the reason McGregor’s been signed. In the games where Foderingham has had an off day, Rangers have dropped twelve points against their direct competition, been dumped out the Scottish Cup by their rivals and faced a humiliating European exit. These are the games that define a season and Foderingham consistently fails to do his part.
With a goalkeeper like Allan McGregor, Gerrard knows that he has a player who can handle the big occasion. The 36-year-old has played in the Champions League and started for Scotland in crunch internationals, and has a good record in these encounters. Foderingham puts in his best performances against inferior opposition where Rangers are expected to win anyway. From this perspective, it looks like Gerrard is right to move him on.
For Foderingham, the writing has been on the wall ever since McGregor signed back in May. The ex-Hull keeper’s exact salary is unknown but he can’t come cheaply and there’s no way the board would have sanctioned the transfer if McGregor wasn’t going to play. The two keepers offer much the same in terms of their average performance across an entire season but it’s McGregor’s ability to perform on the big occasion that’s seen him overtake Foderingham in Gerrard’s plans going forward. Foderingham should be remembered fondly by fans as a loyal servant to the club but if they truly want to progress, then change is needed. McGregor provides exactly that.